ATLANTA -- When Georgia coach Kirby Smart hoisted the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy back on January 10, that moment served as a coronation 41 years in the making. It was validation that Smart's program was more than a cute little story that plays second fiddle to Alabama in the SEC. It was a statement that the Bulldogs are a budding dynasty.
There was an enormous amount of weight on their backs from the moment they left Lucas Oil Stadium, however. The Bulldogs now had a target to carry on their back -- at least that was the impression to those on the outside looking in. For the players and coaches, the target was still in front of them. That message was delivered with authority by Smart and the rest of the coaching staff.
"I think coach Smart started off at the beginning of the season and said we will always be the hunters," said safety Christopher Smith. "We will never be hunted. We just took on that mentality as a team."
Smart drawing that target in front of the Bulldogs instead of behind them turned him nto a modern-day Picaso.
"We got a different team, very different team this year than last year," he said. "So I don't get caught up in one year to the next. Wipe the slate clean and try to redraw the art piece, and you start all over each year with what you got. This year's team was very different than last year's."
It's clear that this Georgia team hit the reset button on the way back to Athens from Indianapolis nearly one year ago.
"The expectations don't change. We've embraced that. Those standards that are created are created through the players who play here. We have had really good leadership that has been created over the last six or seven years, and they have created a standard for the younger players to emulate. That's going on now. I talk every day to our guys that, if you're a freshman or sophomore, find the guy who works hardest and does it the right way, and emulate him. Success will continue. There's no entitlement."
That message further resonated with the players and coaches in late April when 15 Bulldogs -- including five first-rounders on the defensive side of the ball alone -- were selected in the NFL Draft. That put the onus on players like defensive lineman Jalen Carter, running back Kenny McIntosh and linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson to make sure that target stays in front of them instead of behind.
"I always give it back to last year's linebackers, Channing [Tindall], Quay [Walker], and Nakobe [Dean]," said Dumas-Johnson. "Smael Mondon Jr. and I pay attention towards them. They're giving us nuggets on things. They're giving us advice. And actually just us being an open ear and listening, taking that in, not being stubborn and thinking we know it all."
Winning a national championship isn't the ultimate goal. It's sustaining that level of success. Not many coaches get that opportunity, and many who do fail miserably, like Gene Chizik after Auburn's magical 2010 run and Ed Orgeron after LSU's thorough domination en route to the 2019 title. Others, like Nick Saban at Alabama and Urban Meyer at Florida, have much more success.
Smart saw Saban's process during his time as defensive coordinator at Alabama. However, he isn't interested in reprinting that masterpiece.
"Honestly, it's too hard. I don't have a book of notes or you just have experiences from your coaching career," Smart said. "In 20-something years coaching, you just try to do the best job you can. There's no, like, this magic potion. Let me go to the book where you have a team go twice. There is no book for it. You just manage each and every team and each and every season as best you can."
Smart often uses the phrase "pressure is a privilege." The Bulldogs earned the privilege of playing in their second straight College Football Playoff with the opportunity to prove that they are the dynasty in the new era of college football.