ATHENS, Ga. — During the previous two seasons under Georgia coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs won 24 games, one SEC championship, the Rose Bowl, and came within a whisker of winning one national championship and playing for another.
The Bulldogs still haven’t won a national title in 39 years, but it sure feels as if they’re closer than they’ve been since freshman tailback Herschel Walker led them to the 1980 championship and had them in contention for two more.
After two near misses under Smart, Georgia’s motto this past offseason was “Do More.”
“We’re just trying to get over the hump,” Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm said. “Trying to do more.”
In many ways, the motto might as well be “Spend More,” because Georgia’s administration seems determined to leave no stone unturned in the program’s quest to end its long and frustrating national title drought.
“As Kirby has mentioned a number of times, the difference in a lot of these games is a matter of inches,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “With his goal of doing more, we’re trying to make up whatever that little difference could be.”
Long regarded as one of the biggest underachievers in college football because of their geographical location, fertile recruiting area and deep pocketbook, the Bulldogs now seem fully committed to doing everything they can to reach the sport’s upper echelon and remain there.
The Bulldogs are ranked No. 3 heading into Saturday night’s game against No. 7 Notre Dame at Sanford Stadium. Georgia’s 20-19 road victory against the Fighting Irish in 2017 helped propel the Bulldogs to an SEC title and a spot in the College Football Playoff. It also gave Smart a stamp of approval after a so-so 8-5 record in his first season as a head coach in 2016.
“I think what it did, with so many people there and everybody watching, it did jump-start our program,” McGarity said. “It provided us an opportunity to play an opponent that was a national brand on the road for the first time ever, and I think it injected a level of excitement and believability that we could compete on a national level and hopefully in a consistent way.”
Soon after that victory, Georgia donors opened up their wallets.
From $174 million in facility upgrades, to spending more money on recruiting than any other FBS program, to paying Smart and his assistant coaches more than $13 million per season, the Georgia athletic department is making the financial investment many believed it needed to compete with Alabama in the SEC and with other traditional powers nationally.
“I think the investment that you’re starting to see right now is really an effort to catch up,” said former Bulldogs quarterback Eric Zeier, who now works as an analyst on the school’s radio network. “I think it will begin to normalize as we get caught up. Was it needed for the University of Georgia to get up on the elite stage? I don’t think there’s any question it was.”
In only three seasons, Smart, a former Georgia defensive back and longtime Alabama defensive coordinator, has transformed the program into his vision of what it should be. In most cases, the administration has given him everything he needs to do it.
“I talk about commitment to excellence and commitment to building a strong program, and [the administration] has committed to that,” Smart said. “When you’re talking about taking a job at the caliber of Georgia, there’s not a lot of negotiating power. It’s a great job, and I wanted the job. They talked about a commitment to excellence, and that’s what I want and that’s what they’ve done.”
Georgia’s financial investment is already paying off. In Smart’s second season, in 2017, the Bulldogs won their first SEC title in a dozen years and reached the College Football Playoff National Championship, where they lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime. Last season, they won their second straight SEC East title and lost to the Crimson Tide 35-28 in the SEC title game.
Smart inherited a solid program from former coach Mark Richt, whose teams averaged nearly 10 wins per season during his 15-year tenure from 2001-15. Now, the challenge for Smart is doing what Richt’s teams couldn’t do — getting past the final hurdle.
“I thought we would be competing for SEC championships by now,” Smart said. “Maybe the second year was faster than expected, but we had some good players on that team. We had some good players that stayed. The bottom line is, if you compete for SEC championships, you’re competing for national championships.”
With the way Georgia is spending and investing, it seems fully committed to competing for both:
According to a recent USA Today Network study, the Bulldogs spent about $1.5 million more than any other public university in a Power 5 conference on recruiting during fiscal years 2016 to 2018. The report stated the Bulldogs spent more than $7 million during the three-year period, which was well ahead of the next closest schools, Alabama (about $5.6 million) and Tennessee (about $5 million).
Georgia’s recruiting expenditures have more than quadrupled over the past five years, from about $581,531 under Richt in 2013 to about $2.63 million in 2018, according to the report.
The expenses included recruits’ transportation, lodging and meals during official visits and coaches’ transportation and other travel costs for evaluations and in-home visits.
McGarity told ESPN the figures are a bit inflated because the Georgia Athletic Association currently doesn’t have its own jet for coaches’ transportation and is instead using charter services, which might have increased the costs.
Regardless, the Bulldogs have attempted to expand their recruiting footprint under Smart, signing players from seven states other than Georgia in 2018 and from nine in ’19. The Bulldogs already have prospects from four other states and the District of Columbia committed for 2020.
“There’s really not a value you can place on recruiting nor that you can budget,” McGarity said. “You’re just trying to make the best prediction that you can on previous years. You might be recruiting in-state more than you were out of state in certain years. A lot of it depends on where the visits and evaluations take place. You’re really just dependent on the location of the young people you’re trying to recruit.”
In 2016, after Smart was hired to replace Richt in December 2015, the Bulldogs’ class was ranked No. 7 nationally and No. 4 in the SEC by ESPN. Georgia’s class was No. 3 nationally (No. 2 in the SEC) in 2017, No. 1 nationally in ’18 and No. 2 nationally (No. 2 in the SEC) in ’19.
“The more success you have, the easier it is to recruit,” Smart said. “Recruits like success. Success, to me, is playing in national championship games, winning SEC championships and having draft picks. If you’re having kids drafted and you’re winning football games on big stages, then that kind of success recruits itself. At the end of the day, the kids want to see themselves in the limelight of the people before them.”
Recruits also like shiny new locker rooms, weight rooms and indoor practice facilities, and Georgia’s athletic facilities have undergone a massive $174 million facelift over the past three years.
Earlier this month, Georgia announced an expansion of Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, which holds much of the football program’s office and locker room space. The new 165,000-square-foot facility will include a bigger weight room, locker room, offices and sports medicine facility. The price tag is $80 million.
The latest project comes on the heels of last year’s $63 million renovation of the west end zone of Sanford Stadium, which added a new locker room, recruiting lounge and seating, and an enlarged scoreboard. In 2017, Georgia completed construction of a new $30.2 million, 102,000-square-foot multi-use indoor practice facility, which was in the planning stages under Richt.
“I think facility-wise they were behind and we’re catching up rapidly,” Smart said.
McGarity said the UGA athletics department was able to pay for the indoor facility and stadium renovation entirely with private donations. He’s hoping to do the same with the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall expansion; his department has already raised about $31 million in donations for the project.
According to McGarity, Georgia has also raised about $121 million through its Magill Society, which includes donors who have pledged at least $25,000 over a five-year period. He said there have been 1,050 new such donors added in the past year.
“That’s allowed us to basically pay for these facilities through our donations,” McGarity said. “We haven’t had to take on any long-term debt. Fortunately, we haven’t had to raise ticket prices or donation [requirements to buy tickets] to pay for these facilities. Right now, the model we have is allowing us to keep ticket prices as low as we can. That’s been a key thing for these projects to move as quickly as they can. The donors have responded overwhelmingly to support what Kirby wants to do.”
After Georgia reached the CFP National Championship, it became the third FBS program to reach the $6 million mark in annual compensation for assistant coaches. Two years ago, only Alabama and Ohio State were paying their coaches more.
After Georgia lost both of its coordinators from a year ago — defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was named Colorado’s coach and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney took the same job at Tennessee — Smart reshuffled his coaching staff. The Bulldogs’ 10 on-field coaches will make a combined $6.045 million this year.
The Bulldogs don’t have an assistant making more than $1 million; Alabama pays offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian about $1.55 million and defensive coordinator Pete Golding about $1.1 million. But Georgia’s coaches are still among the best compensated in the FBS. New offensive coordinator James Coley makes $950,000 annually, and co-defensive coordinator Dan Lanning earns $750,000. Five of Georgia’s returning assistants from last season received raises of $100,000 or more.
Smart also agreed to a seven-year, $49 million extension in May 2018.
“So many times the head coach has a vision, and a head coach has a list of things that are important to him,” McGarity said. “That’s what was so important, being able to articulate and ask Kirby, ‘What do you need? What do you need to get the job done?’ And then it’s our job to make that vision a reality and provide him with the things he needs to compete at this level.”
Of course, if Georgia is going to do more, it’s going to have to get past the Mount Rushmore-sized obstacle standing in its way — Alabama. The Crimson Tide have won five of the past 10 national titles (and lost in two of their most recent three appearances to Clemson) under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide haven’t stopped recruiting — they signed the No. 1 class in the country in February — or spending. Last year, Alabama announced a $600 million campaign to upgrade its basketball and football facilities.
“If you asked me before the  national championship game, I would have thought they were well ahead of us,” Smart said. “But after the game, I really didn’t feel that way. Even last year, it seemed to me that we were not as far off. Our kids understand that, physically, we can play with them and we’re not going to get overpowered. We maybe don’t have the mindset we need to close the game and win it. There’s no intimidation factor; it’s more execution factor than anything else.”
In the past two meetings against Alabama, Georgia was tied or held the lead for nearly 119 of 120 minutes in regulation. Somehow, the Bulldogs lost both times. Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a touchdown pass in overtime in the 2017 CFP National Championship, and the Bulldogs blew a two-touchdown lead in the SEC championship game last season.
“The outcome of the game is so determined by execution in the crunch,” Smart said. “In the key moments, they’ve out-executed us. As far as skill level and personnel, you’ve got to feel good about everybody you go up against. When we line up, we feel good about our team.”
Georgia has to win the SEC East to earn a rematch with Alabama, and there’s not much margin for error; if the Bulldogs are going to get back to the College Football Playoff, the road back starts with Saturday night’s game against Notre Dame.
“You’re not ever going to get over the hump until you beat Alabama,” Smart said. “Everybody’s focus is about them, but we really don’t talk about them. They’re not on our schedule. We don’t play them. They’ve got their problems. We’ve got our problems. It’s really about us. I don’t look at Bama and say, ‘Oh, we’ve got to get through Bama.’ If I’m worried about them, we’re going to get our ass beat by somebody else.”