On a 355-acre tract of land outside of Greenville, South Carolina, the Georgia Bulldogs found themselves. Well, not all of them.
The idea of an annual two-day leadership retreat at Mill Pine included a core group of about 30 players. The concept was developed 2 ½ years ago, springing from the minds of Georgia sports psychologist Drew Brannon and coach Kirby Smart.
Mill Pine isn’t a resort, hotel or getaway. It advertises itself as a place where people participate in “personal and professional development sessions” so they can “reengage with their purpose.”
Basically, the opposite of your basic wall-to-wall football Saturday at Sanford Stadium.
“What we’re doing at Georgia, I’m not sure anyone else is,” said Brannon, a 42-year-old former college basketball player at Presbyterian College who did his doctorate training at Georgia.
His Greenville-based company, Amplos, is the Latin word for “grow.” He and his partners specialize in performance psychology. Among their clients are not only corporations but Oregon and Clemson.
That doesn’t make Amplos special in college football’s anything-to-gain-an-edge hyper competition, which continues off the field. In fact, if every team doesn’t employ a sports psychologist, they should.
Still, the approach that Georgia has taken entering the 2023 season is unique. It almost must be.
You might have noticed the Bulldogs are chasing history. They are attempting to become the first team in the wire service era (since 1936) to win three consecutive national championships.
Georgia coaches and players can’t get away from that fact, so they have confronted it head on.
“The threat for us is complacency,” Smart said at last month’s SEC Media Days. “The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it’s a threat. It’s the first step toward stomping it out.
“So, we look for two things when we look for people to join our organization. I’m not talking about players. I’m talking about anybody in our organization. Do they love football, and do they embrace being part of something bigger than themselves? Are they selfless?”
Smart and Brannon found the answers to those questions halfway across the globe. All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, is considered one of the most successful teams in history having won three World Cups while dominating international competition. Their 77% lifetime winning mark claims to be the highest of any professional sports team in the world.
Their approach in the tiny South Pacific country of 5 million is based on humility: better people make better All Blacks.
Smart became hooked on their inspirational phrases. “Sweeping the sheds” means leaving something better than you found it. Every Dawg at the SEC Media Days mentioned the mantra, “Better never rests.”
And what has become the Georgia staple for keeping that humility? “Eat off the floor.”
That graphic enough for you?
All of it has integrated from the Southern Hemisphere to Mill Pine to the Georgia locker room. Brannon and Smart had the idea to mesh the philosophy of an international rugby power into the minds of some damn, fine Dawgs. It started in January 2021, a few weeks after the Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati following the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. That came a few months before the program embarked on a journey to back-to-back national titles.
“I think they drilled that into our minds into the offseason,” All-America tight end Brock Bowers said.
More than drilled. The All Blacks’ selfless dedication was reflected in a series of offseason “skull sessions” that had a weekly theme at Georgia. Is there a direct connection from Mill Pine to the All Blacks to football Saturdays? Let’s just say the approach hasn’t hurt.
“Part of my job is to frame and shape the directions we go,” Brannon said. “Kirby and I work really closely together. We felt like doing a dive into the All Blacks was a good move. … Most of the players have probably never seen rugby, but when you start showing the physicality of the sport, the speed of the sport that resonates with them.”
And if you want a comparison to those Sanford football Saturdays, take a look at the All Blacks’ traditional haka dance.
The results have been frightening. Georgia is 33-1 in its last 34 games. Its 29 wins over the last two seasons tied the major college record. Smart is 73-10 since 2017. Georgia’s 65 points against TCU in the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship were the most in the title game era (since 1998). The 58-point margin of victory was the most in any bowl game ever.
As is custom, Brannon spoke with the team before the game.
“The gist of it was, ‘Leave no doubt,'” Brannon said. “And we didn’t.”
Georgia has quickly developed into one of the most dominant dynasties in the sport’s history using any comparison you want.
“That’s the first time I’ve come across somebody calling it a ‘dynasty,'” defensive back Kwami Lassiter said.
Lassiter needs to wander off the grounds of Mill Pine more often. There’s a big, bright beautiful world out there that would disagree.
“We build to sustain, not be a one-hit wonder,” said superstar defensive lineman Jalen Carter, now in the NFL.
How about a three-hit wonder? Because that’s what this season is all about — and everyone is watching. Georgia’s 17-game winning streak leads the nation. Since 1936, eight teams have pursued a three-peat a total of 13 times. In this century, only two schools have gone back-to-back: USC in 2003-04 and Alabama in 2011-12. Smart was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator on those Bama teams.
History has stacked the odds. It always seems like there’s something weird that ultimately stands in the way of a three-peat. Nebraska won three titles in four years but was denied a shot at three straight after being upset in the first Big 12 Championship Game by Texas in 1996. USC was 19 seconds away from three straight before Texas’ Vince Young ran for the game-winning score in the 2006 BCS Championship Game.
Alabama was surprised by the Kick Six in 2013 at Auburn.
Something always goes wrong: injuries, flukes, turnovers.
Perhaps except this year because Georgia’s 2023 schedule has more than cooperated. Its biggest obstacles are a trip to Auburn in late September and a test at Tennessee on Nov. 18. Georgia might be able to lose one or even both and still make the playoff. Just don’t ask the Dawgs to say that out loud.
“What drives us this season is intrinsic motivation,” Smart said. “We’re not going to be controlled by outside narratives. … The intrinsic motivation comes from within and what we do. This team is still defining itself. We don’t know where that goes.”
It goes to the precipice because that’s where Georgia football stands at the moment. It is more than equipped for a three-peat. Carter is gone, as is Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback Stetson Bennett. Seven defensive players combined have been selected in the first round of the NFL Draft over the past two offseasons.
In an era when the transfer portal is the great equalizer, Georgia has become the ultimate development program. Six of the 11 defensive players on the preseason All-SEC first team were Dawgs. The program’s foundation is firmer than the red clay soil of Georgia.
The Dawgs are already a 13/4 favorite to win their third straight national championship.
“The challenge is the same thing it is in all of the world, the society we live in — entitlement,” Smart said. “So, the minute that you think you’re entitled to winning games and you don’t have to work hard … you think you just inherit success.”
Chipping away at that entitlement started at Mill Pine. It might end with the Dawgs being all-time.