Kirby Smart’s first season at Georgia has not been one to soothe the braying masses. But, then, first seasons do not routinely soothe.
In the interest of dabbing a little ointment on the open sore of a loss to Vandy, consider that there are some other very famous college coaches whose first step out of the gate was a halting one.
Apparently, it can take more than a couple of months to transplant a new heart into a program. More than a spring and a half-season of practice time to deliver the complex message of a culture change. And at least one full recruiting cycle to redesign a roster.
Bobby Bowden went 5-6 in 1976, his first season at Florida State. That actually was a vast improvement, as the Seminoles were 4-29 the previous three seasons. His predecessor, Darrell Mudra, was known mostly for coaching from on high, in the press box, during the game and for not backing up that eccentricity with enough electricity.
Not saying that Smart is going to be a transformative character in the mold of Bowden. For one thing, he has not adopted the same type of problem child. Every situation is different. And for another, Smart is several dadgummits shy of being as homespun as FSU’s patriarch.
The case for modest first-year expectation most often cited is of Smart’s previous employer – Nick Saban – who was 7-6 when he took over at Alabama in 2007, infamously losing to a hyphen, Louisiana-Monroe.
Joe Paterno’s end at Penn State was an awful mess. His beginning was only slightly less so. He went 5-5 in 1966. Playing three top five teams that season – Michigan State, UCLA, Georgia Tech – the Nittany Lions lost those by a combined 112-19.
The sainted Bear Bryant’s first team at Alabama (1958) was known for quick-kicking, playing defense and going 5-4-1. His famed Junction Boys, the survivors of a tortuous preseason camp who made up Bryant’s first team at Texas A&M, went 1-9.
Here’s some other first-year records of some fellows you may have heard of, at the places where they became most famous. Smart would gladly trade with a good number of them:
Tom Osborne, Nebraska, 1973: 9-2-1.
Steve Spurrier, Florida, 1990: 9-2. South Carolina, 2005: 7-5.
Darrell Royal, Texas, 1957: 6-4-1.
Vince Dooley, Georgia, 1964: 7-3-1.
Mark Richt, Georgia, 2001: 8-4.
Bud Wilkinson, Oklahoma, 1947: 7-2-1.
Of course, bad head coaches also have ignoble beginnings. That’s the point. There is just no way to know at this pupa stage.