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January 23, 2012
Smart, the key piece on defense, returns
Mark Barron won't be back with the University of Alabama football team's defense next season.
Neither will Courtney Upshaw.
The same goes for Dont'a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Those standouts will be trying to make their way in the National Football League, but the Crimson Tide will return the most crucial component from a unit that led the nation in total defense, scoring defense, pass defense and run defense.
Kirby Smart will be back. At least for one more season.
After that, who knows? Alabama's defensive coordinator had his name linked to head coaching searches at Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Southern Miss before the Bowl Championship Series national title game, and his stock can only have gone up after UA's shutout victory over LSU in New Orleans.
At age 36, having already been honored with the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach two seasons ago, and with two national championship rings adorning his fingers, Smart is a coach on the rise. His next stop, it seems certain, will be as a head coach.
"If the right opportunity presents itself," Smart said a couple of days before the BCS National Championship Game, "I'm all over it."
If head coach Nick Saban is the architect of Alabama's defense, Smart is the contractor. And Saban doesn't trust just anyone to turn his blueprints into reality.
"To me, Kirby's got all the right stuff," Saban said on the eve of the Crimson Tide's championship victory. "He's very bright. He's been with us for a long time, so he really understands the system that we play. Not only understands how to teach it, he understands how to implement it, which I think is even more critical, especially on game day."
Smart, a Georgia graduate, latched on with Saban in 2004 when he was hired as defensive backs coach at LSU. He left to coach running backs at his alma mater for one season before Saban hired him again, this time to coach safeties with the Miami Dolphins of the NFL.
When Saban came to Alabama in 2007, Smart joined him, again coaching the secondary. He was promoted to defensive coordinator a year later.
If some consider Saban to be a taskmaster, Smart considers himself fortunate to have learned under a coach who demands accountability.
"To me, that's probably the greatest feature I've learned or will take with me when I become a head coach is you have to be demanding," Smart said. "You have to be able to confront people if they're not doing their job or not doing it the way you want it.
"It's hard sometimes. Just like asking these players to be leaders to go in front of their peers and challenge a guy, that's tough. And these guys have done it. Coach Saban does it and it flows down into our organization. He's been a great asset to me, and I'll take a lot of things with me if I ever get the opportunity."
Smart knows how to communicate with players, and how to motivate them.
"He can be pretty vocal and loud-talking at times," Barron said. "He does a lot of talking in the locker room to get us going before the game.
"I've been with Kirby for a long time now - he was my position coach, he switched and he's over coaching linebackers now, but when I came in he was my position coach - and we have a great relationship. I feel like he's a very smart guy. Whenever he decides to go out and take that next step, I feel like he'll do a great job with it."
That step has to be the right one, Smart insists. He's not looking for just any head coaching job.
"I think you can become spoiled at Alabama," Smart said. "It's a great place. They do a great job with their support structure. ... It's a complete team effort, and that's what you've got to have in college football."
Smart believes his career path has prepared him for a future as a head coach.
"I've started to look at things from a different perspective," Smart said. "I used to look at things from the secondary, then from coordinator. Now it's like what would I do if I was a head coach.
"So I've become a better what-would-I-do-if-this-was-my-situation, because you've got to look at that. If you look at it through tunnel vision then you'll never grow as a coach, so I think that's helped me."
Saban was sure he was making the right move when he elevated Smart to the defensive coordinator position four seasons ago. Two national titles later, the results speak for themselves.
"It would be very difficult for me (at the time) to really give a reason why Kirby shouldn't have been the coordinator and what his weakness has been since he's been the coordinator," Saban said, "because he's done a marvelous job for us, a fantastic job, in terms of how he's developed the togetherness - and if you look at the body of work, there's been quite a bit of success there as well."
Smart is one of the nation's highest-paid assistant coaches with an $850,000 salary, and he got a major bump in pay after Alabama's 2009 national championship run. He clearly longs to make the move to the head coaching ranks. He just as clearly isn't in any hurry to force the issue.
"I'm completely happy at the University of Alabama being the defensive coordinator," Smart said. "It's the greatest non-head coach job in the country, and it's a great place to be. Great players here, great support system.
"But yeah, certainly think I'm ready."
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.