At some point on Kirby Smart’s walk back to the locker room after Georgia’s 65-7 dismantling of TCU in the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship game, he lifted three fingers to the sky.
The gesture didn’t make live television – the Bulldogs’ head coach was smart enough to do it off camera – but it was meant to send a message to the Bulldog fans in attendance – the Dawgs aren’t done.
Before the 2021 season, Georgia fans asked themselves when the 41-year drought would end. Two years – and two CFP National Championships – later, those who wear red and black ask a tougher question: Could they possibly capture another?
In college football history, it’s only happened once. Fourteen teams have won back-to-back titles in the poll era, but only Minnesota has tallied the ultra-rare threepeat, capturing the 1934, 1935 and 1936 titles.
A 7 percent success rate begs the question – what makes a third in a row so hard to win? Smart’s answer during the 2023 SEC Media Days came down to one word.
“Everybody here has talked about is the emphasis on three-peat, is the emphasis on what are you going to do next, how are you going to top that, how do you top an undefeated season,” Kirby Smart said. “The threat for us is complacency. The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it’s a threat.”
It’s one thing to acknowledge it, but it’s another to combat it. It would make sense for a program that has gone 29-1 over the last two seasons to be complacent, to get caught up in the trophies, accolades and media hits before a fall from grace. At the end of the day, Smart argued the anecdote comes down to the people.
“We want to find people who love football and embrace a selfless role,” Kirby Smart said. “Those two qualities, loving football and embracing being selfless, are not dependent on outcomes. They’re not dependent on win or loss, ‘did I get a sack, did I touch the ball.’ That’s not what we’re looking for, guys that are dependent on outcomes.
“We want guys that think independent of outcomes. So when you see complacency take over it’s when a team’s enthusiasm and ego start worrying about outcomes.”
Junior defensive back Kamari Lassiter epitomized that way of thinking when he answered reporters’ questions at SEC Media Days.
“We don’t really focus on that,” Lassiter said on a third title and undefeated season. “We just try to focus on, you know, every day we come in, we try to get better at something, whether it’s trying to get stronger, faster, more conditioned. We just try and keep the main thing the main thing. We try and focus on the task at hand, and that’s just trying to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.”
A history lesson
The Minnesota three-peat of the 1930s is brought up across college football circles today, but what allowed them to go back-to-back-to-back?
In short: Bernie Bierman.
The former Minnesota head coach didn’t make the College Football Hall of Fame for nothing.
In his 16-year career with the Golden Gophers, he went 93-35-6, capturing six Big Ten titles and five total national championships. Five of his teams finished with undefeated seasons, and he coached nine consensus All-Americans from 1934 to 1941.
What makes Bierman special was his commitment to everyday individual growth.
Fellow College Football Hall of Famer Dick Wildung, who played under Bierman for four seasons, summed up Bierman’s legacy as a coach:
Bernie’s teams won because they were better coached and better disciplined than other teams. I don’t think we had any more ability than a lot of other teams.
Unfortunately, few first-person accounts are available from his time, but the ones that are portray Bierman as infamous for tough practices. Harold Van Every, a former Green Bay Packer, noted that Bierman was a tougher coach than Packer-great Curly Lambeau. As hard as Bierman worked his players, 1940 season captain Bob Bjorklund’s thought Bierman’s efforts paid off:
We cursed him on the practice field and loved him on Saturday afternoon.
It wasn’t just the physicality of his team – whose average player weighed around 200 pounds – that stood out, but his coaching, too. In a time of ultra-conservative football with special emphasis on field position, the wing-formation-running Bierman was practicing kickoff returns.
Georgia might attract a few more 4- and 5- stars than Bierman did, but there are a few parallels between the Minnesota coach and Kirby Smart. They are both men who grew up in the states their schools represented, players that lettered for their university teams – in the case of Bierman, seven letters in three varsity sports – and coaches who later joined the ranks of those schools.
And they both understood the importance of getting better every day. Kirby Smart has this mentality ingrained into his players – partially through mantras like keep chopping, keep the main thing the main thing, attack the day, and others – which was on display from Brock Bowers’ time on the SEC Media Day podium.
“Obviously we always want to be on the hunt and never be hunted,” the junior tight end said. “Also, like I said, better never rests. Just got to keep getting better every day because if we are not getting better, we’re getting worse.”
Will it happen?
With only three weeks before kickoff, those cameras that missed Smart’s message as he strolled to SoFi Stadium’s tunnel will turn their gaze to Athens and the Bulldogs, waiting to see if Georgia slips up or writes itself into NCAA history. But if the preseason favorite actually captured the title, it wouldn’t be harped on for too long by Smart and his staff.
“It would be a lot of hard work that had been acknowledged,” Kirby Smart said. “I think we’re a long way from that, so to make that assumption or that theory relevant, we would have to get to that point in time. But I can assure you if we get to that point, I’m going to be worrying about the next day’s work more than I am the achievement.”
As far as those 13 other teams who have tried for that achievement, several found little help from the polls. The 1946 Army squad went an undefeated 9-0-1, but missed out because of polling – Notre Dame’s team posted a 8-0-1 record and was voted number one (worth noting an undefeated Georgia team that same year finished third and tallied 23 first place votes). Michigan State had a shot in 1966, but suffered a similar fate, falling behind an Irish team with the same record in the polls.
More recent opportunities for a three-peat came in seasons with some fireworks. USC’s chance in 2005 was dashed by a loss to Texas in the BCS Title Game at the Rose Bowl. That chance for three in a row is now overshadowed by NCAA sanctions and the vacating of the season’s wins. Alabama’s shot in 2013 came off the heels of an offseason incident that led to a four-player dismissal. The Tide dropped two games, including the “Kick Six” thriller against Auburn, with no chance of repeating.
Reporters and talking-heads have questioned the new team, the upcoming season and the opportunity that lies ahead of it. With a shot at history and another title, Lassiter says a mentality that strives for everyday growth without looking at the finish line is the key to achieving it.
“I would say some of the things that we should look out for is just trying to keep the right mindset,” Lassiter said at SEC Media Days. “I think that as long as we keep the right mindset and just continue to stay connected and lean on each other, we can be as great as we want to be.”