HOOVER, Ala. -- It's all about gaining trust, said new University of Georgia football coach Kirby Smart.
Acutely aware that he replaced Mark Richt, a coach beloved by his players, Smart said on Tuesday at SEC Media Days that coming into Athens as the new sheriff in town and making wholesale changes wouldn't have much affect if he and his staff didn't win the hearts and minds of the team.
That's especially true, Smart hinted, because he brings a different personality to the program, with more intensity than the laid-back Richt.
"I think in order to push kids and coach kids the way we want to coach them, we've got to have their trust," Smart said at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. "It takes quality time. It takes being truly invested in them as a person to earn that trust and our staff has made that a top priority ... so we can have their trust and make great demands on them to be great student-athletes at the University of Georgia."Richt was fired in December of 2015 before the Bulldogs played in the Taxslayer Bowl in Jacksonville -- which they won 24-17 over Penn State to finish 10-3 under interim coach Bryan McClendon. Technically it was the 10th season in 15 in which the 'Dogs finished with 10 or more victories under Richt, but he won only two SEC titles (the last in 2005).
Smart was the obvious replacement. A former Georgia player (he was a first-team All-SEC defensive back in 1998) he won two national awards as an assistant coach at Alabama, where he coached Nick Saban's defense on four national championship teams.
Smart worked for Richt for one season, in 2005, and said he was sensitive to the issue was how he would be received by Georgia players. He also revealed that he and Richt have communicated since Richt moved on to the University of Miami.
"I respect coach Richt and respect the man he is and respect what it stands for," Smart said. "I don't think it's a competition between coach Richt and I to win over this team. I think you earn that by the way you behave and the way you perform. Every kid I've been around ... they want their coaches to make them better as men and as players."
The Bulldogs had what Smart called a "productive spring," which was punctuated by a spring game that set the league attendance record of more than 93,000 fans at Sanford Stadium.
The players he brought to media days say it was an early indication they have bought in to Smart's regime and his way of doing things.
"I think he's going to do a great job," said senior center Brandon Kublanow. "He's an amazing coach and he's done an amazing job so far during the transition. I'm really excited to play for him."
Smart said one point in his favor was that he built relationships with a number of the current Georgia players while he was recruiting them for Alabama. Memories are long, on both sides.
"A lot of these players I knew through recruiting," he said. "I've actually been in a lot of their homes."
Junior safety Dominick Sanders was one of those players.
"He's an awesome guy," he said.
Smart has serious challenges to face in the preseason:
-- While graduate senior Grayson Lambert returns at quarterback, he's facing an expected challenge from five-star freshman Greg Eason. Smart told the media that if he knew who the starter would be, "I promise you, I'd tell you."
-- Georgia has two 1,000-yard running backs on the roster but both are questionable. Nick Chubb, who ran for 1,547 yards as a freshman in 2014, is rehabbing hard from a devastating knee injury suffered last season against Tennessee but will still have some limitations when practice begins in August. Sony Michel, who ran for 1,161 yards in replacing Chubb, broke his arm in a freak ATV accident on July 3 and his availability is unknown.
-- The Bulldogs have only two returning starters from their front seven, tackle Trenton Thompson and linebacker Tim Kimbrough. Smart's comment: "I think we all know the SEC is a line of scrimmage league."
Toss Georgia's schedule into that mix -- the 'Dogs open the season against North Carolina in Atlanta and their SEC West opponents are Ole Miss on the road and Auburn at home.
But, as is usually the case before the opening kickoff, optimism is high.
"I think our fans expect a lot and you could see that from our spring game," said junior tight end Jeb Blazevich. "I think the fans are ready, we're ready, so I think they should expect a lot and that is the culture we want around here."
This article was written by Garry Smits from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.