When Kirby Smart first began what would become a long relationship coaching with and against Nick Saban in the Southeastern Conference at LSU in 2004, Smart immediately was drawn to a Saban skill he considers remarkable to this day.
"His ability to compartmentalize and work at the task at hand was always incredible to me," Smart said on a coaches' teleconference call with media as he prepares to face Saban in the SEC Championship Game this Saturday in Atlanta, where Smart's No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs will face Saban's No. 8 Alabama Crimson Tide. "It's something that I try to do. I don't know that I do it as well as he does when it comes to being able to focus on the task at hand and not get distracted on the little things."
Smart is doing plenty well enough on all things, apparently.
The Bulldogs are the two-time defending national champions and can become the first team to pull off a college football three-peat since Minnesota did it in the pre-World War II era. They've won an SEC record 29 games in a row, going 12-0 thus far this season.
Alabama comes into the SEC Championship with a 11-1 record and healthy respect for what Georgia has been doing. Saban had an inkling Smart would one day be a successful head coach not long after hiring him to coach defensive backs at LSU.
But this? No one could have predicted this. Not Saban. Not even Smart.
Asked if he ever could have envisioned back then that both he and Saban would one day be considered two of the most successful and iconic head coaches in the SEC's rich and storied football history, Smart replied: "No, I couldn't have thought of that then because, I mean, I had never been a full-time Division I coach. I'm talking about an assistant coach then. I never would have fathomed that I would have come this far during those days when I first got hired at LSU."
Saban came to see what might become possible the longer he coached with Smart.
"When I first hired him, he was really, really young," Saban said. "He was a position coach and did a great job as a position coach. We elevated him to be the (defensive) coordinator.
"I kind of knew that he had great leadership qualities. That's why we made him coordinator. When he was coordinator, he did a great job of managing that side of the ball. I knew he'd be an outstanding head coach someday."
Saban obviously knows talent, both when it comes to players and coaches. Now 72 years old, Saban has won seven national championships. Four of his six that came at Alabama were earned with Smart as his defensive coordinator and top recruiter. They were reunited in Tuscaloosa after first coaching together at LSU. Smart was hired there one year after Saban scored his first and what turned out to be his only national title in Baton Rouge in 2003, and that was followed by a brief stint together in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins.
It is not lost on Saban how Smart has assaulted the SEC record books since becoming head coach at Georgia in 2016. "Phenomenal" is the word Saban uses the most when asked to describe it.
"It's phenomenal what he's been able to accomplish at Georgia," Saban said. "I mean, to win as many games in a row, win a couple (national) championships, have another chance to do it again a third time? I mean, that's phenomenal.
"It's phenomenal to win however many games they've won in a row. We won 19 games in a row here twice. I know how hard that was. It's hard to sustain.
"So he's done a phenomenal job of recruiting and developing players in the program. I think the results bear that out."
In addition to winning the last two national championships, Smart also has won two SEC titles. But one box he has yet to check is beating Saban and Alabama in a SEC Championship battle.
Then again, he said he's not much into checking boxes.
"It's not an extra motivating factor for me," Smart said. "I'm not looking for checkmarks or checking boxes or certain tick marks to try to get on your belt. That's not what I got in this for.
"For me it's for giving our kids a chance to do something special and represent this university. That's what we want to go do. We want to go play our best."
They did that in 2021 when Georgia beat Alabama in the national championship game after losing to the Tide in the SEC Championship.
"Well, they beat us in a national championship game the last time we played, so I don't know that one game is more important than the other," Saban said. "Seriously, whoever plays best in this game will have the best chance to win. I have a lot of respect for Kirby. We don't jostle about winning and losing, dog each other about it. I think I have respect for what he's been able to accomplish.
"He did a great job for us when he was here. I just appreciate him a lot for the kind of person he is, the kind of coach he is, the kind of job he's done."
So they don't talk trash whenever they socialize outside of game days, which they do occasionally. The respect Saban mentions repeatedly clearly is mutual, as Smart is quick to point out.
"I can't say enough about the tremendous respect I have for him, the job he's done, how long he's done it," Smart said of Saban. "People don't really understand how hard it is to be consistently really good, consistently great. He's accomplished that at the highest level. Our conference is certainly really tough and hard."
Both Smart and Saban know all of that more now than they could have possibly imagined when they first got together at LSU back in 2004.
"That seems like ages ago," Smart admitted.