Kirby Smart led the Georgia Bulldogs to a national championship last season in part because of the ridiculous amount of elite talent on UGA’s roster.
But that ridiculous amount of talent last season wasn’t the only reason the Bulldogs won their first championship since 1980.
Smart felt like something was missing after the 2020 season. Georgia used a sports psychologist to conduct surveys with the hope of figuring out what was missing.
The surveys showed that Georgia’s players didn’t feel connected with their teammates. Not everyone was invested. As a result, Smart determined that the team need to meet more often for non-football reasons.
That survey turned up some responses Smart said he wasn’t aware of. Players were concerned about a lack of investment within the team. They felt that too many players were shopping around thinking about the NFL. They thought the team lacked togetherness coming out of a long COVID year.
The solution turned out to be simple: The team would meet more often.
While a little nervous about it, Smart decided to scrap one of the team’s position meeting slots once a week. Instead, for 25 minutes different groups of Georgia players would gather for what Smart described as a skull session. They’d watch videos of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James talking about success. They’d see Giannis Antetokounmpo discuss hard work.
These meetings provided a platform for Georgia’s players to discuss relevant issues within a team’s culture in a safer, more inclusive space.
“We got so much bang for the buck out of those breakout sessions,” Smart said. “Kids were talking who don’t usually talk. They were opening up. … We asked our team ahead of the national championship game, and they said the difference in our team versus every other one we had at Georgia is we feel connected. We’re bonded.”
The new approach clearly worked for Georgia. The Bulldogs looked like the best team in the nation for most of the year last season.
While elite talent was the key ingredient, the connection between the players is what allowed that talent to operate at the highest level possible.
The Tennessee Vols are already following Georgia’s lead
Smart’s approach is something the Tennessee Vols are already doing under Josh Heupel.
When Heupel was hired to replace Jeremy Pruitt in early 2021, he spoke at length about the importance of the brotherhood inside Tennessee’s locker room. Heupel stressed that he felt like the team’s connection with each other would be vital to the Vols’ success.
“There’s got to be a sense of belonging, a sense of brotherhood that has to reside in that locker room,” said Heupel at his introductory press conference. “To do that, you’ve got to spend time with each other and you have to do things outside of the game.”
“That’s one of the things that we try to pride ourselves on inside of our program here at Tennessee as we move forward, is that sense of connection, and that allows you to go chase greatness outside of the game. When you are connected you have a chance to love, when you have love you’re able to sacrifice for your teammates and this game is all about sacrifice.”
Coach Heupel: "We want to be innovative, but we want to have fun."— David Schiele WTSP (@Deacon_Schiele) July 20, 2021
This team played dodgeball and kickball after workouts/practices. They also had a crawfish broil. Sounds like fun to me.
For Heupel, it’s not just the connection between players that he views as important — it’s the connection between everyone in the building.
“It’s the way that we communicate inside of our building,” said Heupel last year at SEC Media Days. “Every interaction that we have with players, with staff, with janitors, it doesn’t matter who it is, creating and harnessing energy inside of our building. I think that’s a really important thing that we’ve tried to build with our VFLs too is harnessing that energy and creating positive momentum that surrounds our program where our kids feel that every single day.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that Tennessee is going to win a national championship under Heupel. No one has a clue at this point. But he’s using the same roadmap as Smart and the Bulldogs. It worked out pretty well for Georgia, so why can’t it work for the Vols?
Featured image via Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports