- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Kirby Smart has coached two national-championship defenses at Alabama.
But there will always be a special place in his heart for the one he’s coaching right now and the one he will lead onto the Sun Life Stadium field Monday night in the Discover BCS National Championship.
“I’ll tell you, this group has probably been one of my most favorite to coach since I’ve been at Alabama,” said Smart, who's in his fifth season as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. “They didn’t have bad expectations, but a lot of the media, you guys, had bad expectations for this group.
“I never was worried about their competitive character. Sure, we lost some good players ... four or five [NFL] draft picks, whatever it was, we lost off that team. But we had a lot of good players behind those guys, and this group, to me, had a little chip on their shoulder and felt slighted that people didn’t think they’d be good.”
The actual number of draft picks Alabama lost off last season’s national championship defense was six, and there were more than a few people wondering whether Smart would be able to retool this group into the kind of unit that could get the Crimson Tide back onto this stage.
Well, here they are.
“All we heard about was who we didn’t have on defense, and Coach Smart reminded us more than once what everybody was saying about us,” senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “All that mattered was that he believed in us, and we believed in each other.
“We weren’t going to be that defense that didn’t live up to the standard here at Alabama.”
Whatever happens Monday night against Notre Dame, this won’t go down as Alabama’s most talented defense, nor will it be remembered as the Crimson Tide’s most dominant defense.
But Smart loves the way this group fights, the edge it plays with and its penchant for coming up with stops in key situations.
The Crimson Tide lead the country in total defense, allowing 246 yards per game. They also lead the country in limiting plays that have gained 10 or more yards (105), and one of the reasons they do is because they don’t miss many tackles. They’ve allowed 54.7 rushing yards after contact per game this season, the second-lowest average in the country.
“We haven’t played great all the time, but we’ve played with great competitive character,” Smart said. “I mean, they have competed hard. We’ve been behind at LSU. We’ve been behind against Georgia. We lost to Texas A&M, but we were behind in that game and fought back.
“So every time these defensive guys have been challenged, they’ve responded.”
The best news for Alabama fans is that Smart is still running the Crimson Tide defense.
For several years, he’s been one of the hottest commodities in college football among assistant coaches, and he interviewed for the Auburn head-coaching job last month. There have been other head-coaching opportunities Smart has passed on.
He absolutely wants to be a head coach, but he’s also in a position that allows him to be picky.
“I have the best non-head-coaching job in the country, period,” said 37-year-old Smart, who earns $950,000 per year.
It’s why he doesn’t worry about where’s he’s going to be in three years or even 10 years.
“If you win, that takes care of itself,” Smart said, “and I’m not in such a hurry to run off and do anything. If I was 47, I might feel differently. But the most important thing to me right now is winning championships and developing young men into better players and better people.”
And although previous head-coaching experience is always a plus when you’re up for a job, Smart said there’s no substitute for the time he has spent under head coach Nick Saban.
“To me, personally, my development to become a head coach will be much better working for Coach Saban than necessarily going somewhere else because you learn every day that you’re in there,” said Smart, who was named the AFCA Assistant Coach of the Year this season.
“The experience that I’ve been able to gain through being with [Saban] is, ‘Hey, this is how you run a major program. This is the way you do it, and this is the way you question every part of your organization, therefore making it better.’”
Smart's time will come to run his own program, probably sooner rather than later.
Right now, he's too busy winning championships to worry about when the right job will come along.
1dMax Olson and Jake Trotter