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ATLANTA - The Georgia Bulldogs were only 3 minutes, 29 seconds into their Rose Bowl matchup with Oklahoma when the Sooners scored on a 13-yard Baker Mayfield pass. Next thing Mary Beth Smart knows, Andrew is crying.
Andrew, 5, is the youngest child of Mary Beth Smart and her husband, Georgia coach Kirby Smart. He’s towheaded like the Smarts’ older children, twins Julia and Weston. There are two things Andrew loves more than just about anything: his daddy and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Mary Beth and the children are, of course, at all of Georgia’s games. There have been a lot of them this year, 14 in all, and each one of them more significant than the last. None will be more meaningful than the one the Bulldogs about to play Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for the national championship against Alabama.
All still young, the Smart children are starting to understand the gravity, even little Andrew. So, when he saw the Sooners zip down the field and score without much resistance, he was concerned, as was Bulldog Nation, of course.
“I was like, ‘It’s all right, dude. There’s three minutes off the clock. We’re fine,’” Mary Beth said, chuckling.
And they were fine. It just took 67 minutes, two overtimes and a lot of drama in between to be fine.
“The kids are starting to realize what a really big deal it is, not only for Kirby and for the team, but for Dawg Nation,” Mary Beth said. “They’re starting to get it, what a big deal this is.”
This is the side of college football we don’t see: the coaches’ wives and the mothers and the children who live and die with each play. There is a lot of glory involved in the game, and coaches these days certainly are richly rewarded for their time and effort. But there’s also a lot of stress, and it’s felt by the whole family. It’s a high-stakes sport that keeps these men away from home more than not and leaves the majority of child-rearing to the moms.
This is why Mary Beth has such an affinity for Terry Saban. Nick Saban’s wife of 46 years was the one who taught Mary Beth how to navigate this world and flourish in it.
The focus ahead of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game has been on the relationship between Alabama coach Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, who worked at Saban’s side for 11 seasons before finally landing a head coaching job of his own. It’s teacher versus student, mentor versus protégé in the biggest game of the year.
But it goes deeper than that. Saban touched on that in a news conference Sunday when he mentioned how Terry was there for the birth of all of the Smart children.
More importantly, Mary Beth said, “Miss Terry” was there after the children arrived, first with Julia and Weston in early 2008.
“She was such a big help for me when I had the twins,” Mary Beth said. “She’d literally show up at my house unannounced and just say, ‘Go take a nap.’ She’d bring a friend with her and they would put the babies asleep, play with them, feed them. It was like the best present anybody ever gave me, because I was just in pure survival mode.
“It’s hard to explain how much she supported all the assistant coaches’ wives. There was no doubt that Miss Terry had our backs. She was awesome.”
Now the first lady of Georgia football, Mary Beth has tried to model herself after Miss Terry. She is very deliberate about building close relationships with the wives of all the coaches. When they’re on the road with the Bulldogs, she assists in arranging babysitters and organizes dinners and outings. When they’re at home, she tries to check in to see that everyone has all the help they need.
That’s an especially important job since Kirby Smart is a driven workaholic like Saban and expects his assistants to be the same way.
“There’s a lot of things that happen now that I’m sort of in her shoes where I think to myself, ‘What would Miss Terry do?’ Mary Beth said. “She was so sweet to us, and we all respected her for everything she did.”
But like her husband, Mary Beth also finds herself on another sideline these days. And while there will always be an affection and bond with the Sabans and Alabama, make no mistake about it, Mary Beth wants the Bulldogs to win in the worst way.
“Being Alabama, it does make it a little more emotional,” Mary Beth said. “It’s not just the Sabans; we’ve got a lot of friends on that staff. There are four or five coaches still there that were there with us for eight or nine years, plus all the athletic department people. All three of my kids were born there. There are a lot of important times in our lives that happened there. But, in a way, I do think it will make it sweeter that it’s them. I mean, you should have to beat Alabama to win the national championship. You know? If we beat them, we earned it.”
Mary Beth is quite the competitor herself. A former Georgia basketball player who is in the Lady Bulldogs’ record book for her 3-point shooting skills, she plays tennis to get the competitive juices flowing and runs to stay fit.
But during football season, it’s all about the Bulldogs and what happens on that field each Saturday. Or in the case of the College Football Playoff, each Monday.
And Mary Beth, she gets into the games.
“I don’t think I’m quite as animated as he is,” she said of her frenetic husband. “But I’m tight. Yeah, real tight.”
The Smarts’ children sense that, and they’ve sensed how the excitement has built throughout this season. And now it’s at an all-time high.
This all has happened pretty fast for Mary Beth, too. She always knew Kirby would coach his own team. She hoped that it might be Georgia one day, though she was resigned that it probably wouldn’t be.
But then it was, and Kirby has taken a team that was 8-5 in 2016 to one that sits at 13-1 and on the cusp of a national championship. Now only one more remains, and not only is it against the most meaningful people in the Smarts’ lives, but also against a program that has dominated college football like no other in the last decade.
“It’s a big deal,” Mary Beth said. “Just because we’ve done it four times before (trips to championship games), we do not take this for granted. And it certainly means more now. I can assure you. There’s nobody who wants Georgia to win it more than Kirby and me and our family. It’s a big deal.”
That’s evident by the scene in downtown Atlanta this weekend. People are everywhere. Record prices are being paid for tickets to get into Mercedes-Benz Stadium. There are free concerts in Centennial Olympic Park. There’s even a Georgia “Power G” on the 20-story SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel on Luckie Street.
This town has Dawg Fever, and the Smarts desperately want to deliver a national championship.
For that reason, there has been little to no interaction between the Smarts and the Sabans. The men have had to see each other at various functions in advance of the game, but Mary Beth and Terry have made a point to avoid each other.
“I’m under the radar right now,” Mary Beth said. “We’re kind of radio silent. Like I said, it’s a big deal. It means a lot to all of us.”
Little Andrew as well.