A Q&A with Kirby Smart
For the first time since late March, Georgia football coach Kirby Smart met with reporters Thursday morning-this time via Zoom.
There was obviously a lot to discuss.
With last Friday’s decision by the SEC to allow players back for voluntary workouts starting June 8, the program is already hard at work, not only preparing for the players arrival, but readying for the changes that everyone must face.
Below, read what Smart had to say:
Smart: "I know you guys probably think we have this wealth of information and we know the exact plan but this is not that kind of way. We just got a little new information Friday, as you all know, and today’s basically moving into the weekend on Thursday, and we’re still getting information by the minute. Everything changes a lot with recommendations and suggestions. We’re very fortunate to have Ron Courson as our athletic trainer who is very experienced. He’s headed up several committees, he’s been on a lot of Zoom calls gathering information, and he’s kind of my crutch when it comes to where we are in this process of getting back. The biggest decision and the ultimate decision maker for us is the well-being of our student athletes. That’s going to be the case, even with this voluntary return June 8."
How to players feel about coming back in terms of protocols?
Smart: “The first thing we talk about is knowledge is power and there are no dumb questions. Obviously, leading up to the announcement Friday, we’ve been in communications with our players. We had Zoom meetings with them positionally, football wise with the eight hours we get each week so a lot of that time is spent not necessarily Xs and Os, it’s spent on information, it’s spent on communication. We’ve got a leadership group that we’ve stayed in contact with, we’ve visited with. We’ve provided those guys information and each position coach provide to his position group information, so we’re anticipating everybody coming back on a voluntary basis.
"We haven’t had anybody tell us that’s not the case, at least not yet, but that’s certainly up to each individual player. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we get back. We have to do a complete medical workup, a physical of every kid before they’re able to come back and work out. There’s a lot of steps that happen before June 8 that we’re all going through now. But our guys are excited. There’s obviously some apprehension and questions but they’ve got those same questions whether they are in Huntsville, in Macon or Columbus about going out to work out. They know that our facility is one of the safest and we’ve certainly got the ability to care for that facility better than a lot of places they can go to back home.”
With limited amount of time, will you limit how much you are able to install?
Smart: "I think the experience is probably magnified in seizing this setting more so than ever before because experience is so important when you don’t get practice. We’ve obviously been short in terms of spring practice, in terms of meetings, in terms of summer conditioning, we’re already being shortened. A lot of those things have shortened us and we’ll have to be wise in the decisions we do. We’ve got to be smart. That’s not different than any other year. You can have too much offense or too much defense and too much special teams and other times you may not have enough.
"Our job as coaches is try to determine what that volume is. So, for us to say we’re only going to put 50 percent, we’re only going to put 70 percent in, we’re going to put 90 percent in, I can’t say that. That’s not where we are because we don’t even know the threshold or some of the capacity for some of our players. "We didn’t get to go through spring ball with necessarily some of the positions, especially on offense to see what they can and can’t do. We’ll find out what the NCAA and SEC is going to allow us to do leading up to the season because right now we don’t know that. The more they give us time-wise, the more we will be able to do. The less they give us, the less we will be able to do. That’s not something we’ve decided right now. I’m excited about the experience coming back on defense because I do think we have a lot of experience there where we don’t have as much offensively.”
What is your opinion on whether or not there will be fans in the stands?
Smart: “You said it best, I’m not going to voice and opinion one way or the other because it really boils down to one things – what the experts, the infectious disease people, scientists, what they come up with that is safe because ultimately that decision is going to boil down to what makes them feel safe. A lot of it has to do with a choice and decision of each and every fan and the well-being of our fans, as well as the players and our staff.
"That’s one of those decisions where I’m referring to the experts on. What I’ve found is, everything we think is going to happen can change based on what goes on from now until then. Our players coming back, are there going to be any spikes, is anything going to happen in July. We’ll know a lot more about the season – as far as people in the stands which I know you’re asking about for September – when that comes. "I think you’ve still got to realize it’s still three months away. With it being three months away, it’s hard to make a decision. Three months ago, from right now we were just finding out what was going on. So, we’ve got three months, and I’m very optimistic that we will have fans in the stands, but to what extent, I have no clue and don’t’ expect to.”
How will players be brought back? All at once? In stages?
Smart: "Well, they're all coming back on their own, you know what I mean? So, it's not like they're going to be brought back in stages. We haven't identified an exact number of players that will come back because, again, that's voluntary, but as far as what we will do with our protocol, Ron (Courson) was on a committee that made a lot of decisions. They had infectious disease personnel. They had a representative from every university, doctors, trainers, staff, everybody is involved in that decision.
"When you say, 'how are we going to bring them back?' We're going to bring them back prior to June 8 so that they can get a medical workup. They've gotta have an extensive physical. They've got to have COVID tests. They've got to have a lot of things done prior to June 8, so they've got to get back prior to June 8. So, you say, 'how will they be brought back?' They'll come back on their own. We'll have workout groups that are spaced out per the protocol that Ron and the committee came up with. They'll come in and do a really light workout initially because we want to bring them back slowly.
“They'll work out in smaller groups than traditionally before. There will be 20 or so guys to a group and of the 20 that come in, it'll be sub-divided into groups of seven. So, you're looking at a seven-person rotation in a 12,000 square foot weight room and they'll be spaced out. There's a lot of protocol that goes into it and I don't have the time to go into detail. Every session they have, they'll be a cleaning crew that comes in and cleans where we are, from the indoor to the weight room. There will only be one door in, one door out, won't be using the locker room.
"There's a lot of different things that people don't understand have to go into this and I think that our players even are getting educated that it's not going to be the normal, 'well, I'll walk in and I go to my locker and I get my stuff and I work out and I shower.' It's going to be completely different and a lot of that is controlled by our state because we're adhering to the policies of our state in terms of workout protocol, showers, and locker room usage."
What looks different for coaches this week? Access to office? How are lives different?
"I guess when you reference this week, you mean as in what's going on today and what has been going on this week. So, we'll be in, we were in this week, we'll be in next week but we're in on a little bit of a shortened version, less time in the office. Also alternating how many guys are in the office, offense, defense separated so there's a lot protocol there that's instituted by our university from a safety standpoint. They've also got cleaning crews after and before we're in here that come in and protect that. So we have a shortened window and then each side of the ball kind of has a window that they're available to come in.
"We've got a small number and then we'll phase that as next week we'll be able to get a few more and the following week that the players come back, we'll be able to get a few more. So that's the important thing and the safety of the coaches because, as you know and this is a documented case, it's the vulnerable population and the older and people with immune-compromised situations, and a lot of times that can be our coaching staff, support staff, different people who work in the program that we really have to be the most careful for because they're the most at-risk."
How difficult has recruiting been?
Smart: "First off, it's extremely different. The recruiting world has probably changed as much as anything because you're just not capable of going to high schools. You mentioned May was a very active month for all of college football coaches, not just us. We would be going out, watching spring practices. We would be going school to school. I wouldn't be able to because I don't get to go out in May, so that didn't really change for me but it changed for a lot of our coaches.
"We've done what you guys know to be the case. There's no magic potion. There's nobody doing something magically that everybody else isn't doing. We're jumping on zoom. We're communicating with parents, coaches, recruits. We're doing everything virtually and that's the really the best we can do. "They keep extending the period that you can't come on campus, the recruiting, the ability to come to our campus, they just extended that again so it's looking like that's not going to happen through the end of July. So, it's going to be a very different May, June, July period and that's unique. Who manages that the best will be important.
"A lot of this, to me, is who had the best relationships going into this because at the end of the day, you can only develop so much of a relationship through a phone, through a text, through a virtual activity. We've tried to be creative in the way we use that. I'm certainly not going to divulge everything we've done because I don't think that's open for everybody to do and I think that we're all competing in the SEC to try and make ourselves different.
"I can tell you this, it has probably created a bigger burden on our recruits and if I was a recruit or a recruit's parent, I would be more concerned with that volume of virtual usage and phone usage and it has probably led, and evidence shows that it has led, to more kids committing. Because you can make the case that they're committing because they can't go anywhere. I would make the case that they're committing because they're sick and tired of being barraged by phone calls and virtual activities. So, will we see more kids come December or November either de-commit or go back and start visiting? I don't know because I don't know when we're going to be able to bring kids to campus and all of that will come out probably at the end of July when we know more about what kids are going to be able to do in recruiting."
Have you been able to visit with parents and family?
Smart: “Yeah, that’s been one of the toughest things about this event. Once again, it becomes virtually. We all can admit we’re probably sicker of this virtual staring at squares and people up on screens. That’s been tough because I haven’t been able to visit with my Mom and Dad for safety purposes. They’re both in a vulnerable population. I’m probably no different than a lot of people my age that have their parents still and are fortunate enough to have them and be able to spend time with them but they haven’t been able to get close to their grand kids and see them.
"I want to do what their comfortable with and what makes them safe. That’s been an experience. It’s been new for all of us and tough. Everyone has to make their own choices and decisions and that’s been one of the experiences that is frustrating certainly."
Regarding the financial impact of not having football. Does any pressure that comes with everyone including UGA needs football?
Smart: "Is there pressure on head coaches to follow protocols but make sure games? “It’s a fine line between what is your motivation? I certainly think fiscally and financially it’s going to benefit if there is a football season, but that has nothing to do with the decision that goes into it medically. A lot of people have said, well the SEC has had to come out really strong and come back with comeback dates and return dates and return to sport. They’ve got to have this protocols that allows to play football.
"Every decision that is made on the SEC level, I can assure you is made by infectious disease people, based on information that’s the safety and well-being of our student athletes. The case was given to us that different people have different perceptions of testing. And you can’t really test your way out of this and the accuracy of the tests are probably the biggest, scariest thing. Especially the antibody test and the COVID test, that they’re not any insurance that all of them are correct. Basing everything just on tests and getting kids back or pressure to get things back financially doesn’t do anything good.
“The worst thing we can do as coaches or administrators is to feel like we have to do this in order to survive financially and make a decision that is costly to some, even one student-athlete. I know from a Georgia perspective, every decision we’re making on the return to sport is the safety and health and well-being. There won’t be pressure to work out, to go do this extra. Kids got to voluntarily do it. If a guy doesn’t feel comfortable or if a guy has a fever or a guy feels sick, we don’t want him to come in. We don’t want him to put himself in jeopardy and we’ve got to convey that.
“We also as fans, as Dawg Nation have a responsibility to make good decisions, to social distance. I think people, the more this thing has gone, the more they’ve begun to relax and say, well this won’t affect me. The last thing we need right now if people want to have a football season or any athletic season is to have another flare-up. The biggest thing we can do is to take care of that by making good decisions, being aware. We’re going to educate our players because I promise you there are some of our players that feel like they’re not vulnerable because of what they’ve heard, because they think they have superpowers. We’re going to educate our guys to be safe, make good decisions and we’re going to have education sessions even when they get back to give us the best opportunity to have a season. But that will be based on the scientists, not on financial people.”
On what would tell players who may be uncomfortable to return for workouts?
Smart: “The first thing is I defer to a medical staff. We’ve got one of the best medical staffs in the country in Ron Courson and Dr. Reifstek. We’ve had multiple meetings with those guys. They’ve met with the parents of our players and been able to talk to them and educate them. There is no pressure because at the end of the day, when you ask these players to a man, every one of them will tell you they’re working out. If they’re working out at home, could you argue that that home environment, wherever that is they’re working out, local high schools, local gym that’s opened back up, a back yard, anywhere they’re working out, that that environment is more safe than one that is professionally cleaned, monitored and taken care of from our staff.
"As a parent, I would certainly feel much better about my son or daughter being able to go in that environment where it’s been professionally cleaned and taken care of outside of where they’re working out currently. We found that to be the case for most of the kids we talked too. They’re much more comfortable saying well if I’m going to work out then I’m going to do it there. And if I’m not comfortable working out at all because I don’t feel safe, that’s my decision, that’s my choice, that’s something I get to make on an individual basis for each and every kid. That pressure wouldn’t be put on any kid to return if they’re not comfortable with that. We bring their parents or guardian into that decision as well.”
What’s the plan should someone test positive?
Smart: “Yeah, so we’ve got a protocol set up through Ron and his staff. Medically they’ve explained that with the parents and the players. As they return, each guy will have the option of going back home if they test positive, if they want to do that. And we have a quarantine policy that we’re able to put guys into should they test positive. And we’ve also got the ability if it happens during workout period, that we’ll have contact tracing, that guys that have worked out together those groups will stay the same, and we’ll be aware of those guys.
"So, Ron and his staff have got a lot of things in place. But we’re not really looking far out into what’s going to happen in the season or what’s going to happen in preseason camp. We’re looking at June and the immediate issues there. And we’ve got some guys who are getting screened as part of the protocol before they ever come back. Every kid’s going to have a talk and a conversation with our medical staff based on where they’re coming from, how they feel, have they felt sick recently. As well as the Covid test when they return.”
What questions are you still waiting on answers for?
Smart: “Well I could go on for an hour on that. But I mean I can’t answer those and I also understand why we can’t answer those. Because everything is constantly changing. I don’t know how much you guys CDC, but their guidelines have changed within the last two to three weeks. And they update those guidelines all the time. So, we’re constantly monitoring that, and that may change something. Two weeks ago, it was thought that when we return everybody would take an antibody test. Now it’s thought that the antibody test is really unreliable, and there’s not as much accuracy in it. So that’s changed.
"That’s just one of the subtle things. But as far as questions I have, I understand that you can’t control things that you can’t control. So, I’m at peace with that. If you had told me two or three months ago it probably would’ve been a greater level of frustration. Whereas now I understand that. Change is almost inevitable in the environment we’re in and we’ve just got to do a good job of managing that.
"The first question that would come in my mind is what’s going to happen in July. And I don’t know that yet, because those decisions haven’t been made. A lot of July may be dictated by how June goes, and what happens in June. So that’s kind of the next step for me is how will July apply, will we get ability to do maybe more walk-throughs, will we get some required activity. Because remember what’s going on now is not required activity. Will we get some of that? That’s probably the biggest thing for us, other than the health and safety of our players.”
Where are the players going to be living this summer?
Smart: “A lot of that is still determined in regards to we’re working through that process with the university housing department and different people. But we have a lot of people, over 50 percent of our team, lives off campus. Meaning they live in their apartments or their designated lease area. That will remain the same. As far as the rest of it we’re still working through it.”
Have you learned anything about your team as far as “attacking workouts” or handling this adversity?
Smart: “Yeah, I think every kid to a tee has done a tremendous job. The first level of commitment in handling adversity is our team GPA, to be over 3.0 for the first time ever as a football team, it’s incredible for those to come back and finish strong. Before we went on spring break, we didn’t know this was coming and we had the highest markers of the semester that we’ve ever had. We were on our way to our best semester ever, and we had made an overall concerted effort to improve that area.
"Our goal was to go over 3.0 GPA. Well, we go on our spring break, we’re hitting our marks to do that. And then we finished it with all the news and all the transition to going online with that. That was an incredible semester. That was the first adversity they came over. “Then as far as workouts, a lot of our guys, you guys have known, have posted workouts. And there’s been a lot of workouts you haven’t seen that they’ve sent to each other among position groups. That’s the first sign that there’s a level of commitment that you need to be successful. And I’m looking forward to getting those guys back so they can do it here.”