ATLANTA - Nick Saban started slowly and then picked up steam in his comments about Kirby Smart during the national championship teleconference on Tuesday.
At first, when he was asked why he initially hired Smart as an assistant coach, he said it was because “he was a secondary guy and we needed a secondary guy.”
But eventually he got around to praising his longtime assistant, and when he did, it was profuse.
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“I was very impressed with him from day one,” Saban said on a teleconference call on Tuesday. “He’s very bright and he learned quickly. I would hire him anytime, anywhere on any staff based on his body of work he did. The nine or 10 years he was with us he did a fantastic job.”
Now Saban will have to match wits with Smart as the mentor and protege face off in the College Football Playoff championship game Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Saban’s No. 4-seeded Crimson Tide defeated No. 1 Clemson 24-6 on New Year’s Day in the Sugar Bowl. Smart’s No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs beat No. 2 Oklahoma 54-48 in double-overtime in the Rose Bowl.
Saban was asked if he had anticipated Smart might have such a level of success so quickly at Georgia.
“Well, Georgia had a pretty good nucleus of players there; I think they had won 10 games the year he took over,” Saban said. “Now he has done a fantastic job of bringing those players along, getting those players to play with discipline and play together. They play hard, very relentless. I think this last game was sort of a reflection on the attitude he’s been able to instill to overcome adversity.”
The Bulldogs came from behind twice in the game before finally forcing overtime. In the second overtime period, Georgia got a blocked field goal from Lorenzo Carter to set up a game-winning touchdown run by senior Sony Michel.
“To come back in a game like they did against Oklahoma, they’re playing extremely well,” Saban said. “I think that is a reflection on [Smart’s] ability and his leadership to get everybody to buy in to do things the way he wanted them to. They certainly are playing on a high level.”
Saban said he hired Smart when he did on the recommendation of assistants Derek Dooley and Will Muschamp. Smart started as defensive backs coach but quickly moved up to defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.
Saban said he remains very fond of Smart and has stayed good friends with Smart and his wife, Mary Beth. Saban and Smart spent nine years with them in Tuscaloosa.
That said, he still wants to badly beat him, and vice versa.
“You don’t have to dislike somebody to compete against them,” said Saban, who has yet to lose to one of his former assistants who became head coaches. “I’m happy to see them do well wherever they go. But when we play each other, we do everything we can to try to beat them. But it’s not personal.”
Saban said beating Georgia will be very difficult.
“I don’t think there’s any question Georgia may be the best team in the country as far as the way they’re playing,” Saban said. “They have a lot of good players and they’re all playing at a very high level. I think that’s a compliment to the coach and the staff.”