Smart backs UGA culture after fatal crash, arrests

ATHENS, Ga. — Despite having two players arrested in the past two weeks for street-racing offenses, including Jalen Carter‘s booking Wednesday in connection with a Jan. 15 crash that killed a Georgia football player and a recruiting staff member, coach Kirby Smart insists his program does not have a culture problem.

“Absolutely not. I would say we’re far from it,” Smart told ESPN on Friday. “When you talk to people outside our program that come into it, they talk about what a great culture we do have — and we do an incredible job. Because I’ve got a lot of outside entities that come into our program and pour into these young men.

“Do we have perfect young men and women and players? Not necessarily. But I promise you this, that’s the intent: for us to grow these guys and get them better. And I feel really good about the culture within our program.”

Smart, in his first interview since offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy were killed, said he and his staff have worked hard to educate their players about the dangers of speeding and racing.

Carter, the former Bulldogs defensive tackle who is a potential No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft, was arrested Wednesday on misdemeanor charges of reckless driving and racing. He was released on bond after briefly being jailed. Linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson, a Butkus Award finalist in 2022, was arrested last week on the same charges.

Police officers said they observed Dumas-Johnson’s vehicle traveling at high speeds before fleeing the scene Jan. 10, the day after Georgia defeated TCU to win its second straight national title.

Then on Jan. 15, only hours after Georgia celebrated with a parade and ceremony at Sanford Stadium, Athens-Clarke County Police alleged that Carter was racing a Ford Expedition driven by LeCroy on a street near campus. Police said the Expedition left the road around 2:45 a.m. and struck two power poles and several trees.

Willock, an offensive lineman from New Jersey, was ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene. He was sitting behind LeCroy and wasn’t wearing a seat belt. LeCroy was transported to a hospital by ambulance and died as a result of her injuries.

Former Georgia player Warren McClendon and another female staffer, Tory Bowles, were injured but survived.

Police said the Expedition was going 104 mph when it crashed. A toxicology report indicated LeCroy’s blood alcohol concentration was .197, about 2½ times the legal limit in Georgia.

Smart said he was sleeping at home when his wife, Mary Beth, awoke him with the devastating news. He had several missed calls on his cellphone.

“Heartache,” Smart said, when asked what he remembered about that night. “Got a call at 3 or so in the morning. Went immediately to the emergency room. Probably one of the toughest moments I’ve ever experienced as a coach and a leader to see the pain in the faces of the players who had joined up at the emergency room that morning. [Athletics director] Josh Brooks was there. You know, [I] still remember the ER doctor telling me the news, and just one of the most painful experiences of my life.”

Smart said many players are still struggling emotionally from the tragedy.

“Inside our building, we’ve got 130 football players that are hurting and have been dealing with pain. And we’ve emotionally supported those guys’ mental health,” Smart said. “We had several players that struggled to come back after the parade that have really dealt with this. It’s been a tough, trying time for our family, our in-house family, both staff and players. And we continue to support both the Willock and Chandler families.”

Smart’s last interaction with Willock, 20, came at the end of the parade and celebration.

“I can remember he was walking out with a big smile on his face leaving the stadium,” Smart said. “I just got through speaking up on the podium, and we dapped each other up [and] gave each other knuckles like we did from time to time. He just had an infectious smile. One of the most gentle, best people in terms of character. You know, he picked my 10-year-old son up and carried him off the field on the night of the championship.”

Smart said he didn’t remember seeing LeCroy, 24, at the celebration.

The Expedition that LeCroy was driving had been leased by the athletics department for recruiting. Asked if it was LeCroy’s job to get players home that night, Smart responded: “Absolutely not. Absolutely not.” He added there were no policy changes needed as a result of the crash.

Smart said he was unaware that Carter had been cited in September for driving 89 mph in a 45 mph zone. The Athens-Clarke County Police officer pleaded with Carter to slow down — and to tell his teammates to do the same.

“Y’all need to slow down, dude,” the officer said, continuing, “Your break is you’re not going to jail. Because that would make all kinds of news, right?”

Smart said his program brought in officers from the UGA Police Department and Athens-Clarke County Police last summer to educate players about the dangers of street racing. Smart said Bryant Gantt, the program’s director of player support operations, suggested it after watching news clips of street racing in Atlanta.

If Georgia’s players didn’t listen to the warning then, Smart is hoping they will learn from the tragedy on Jan. 15.

“I mean, there [are] laws in place for these things, to prevent it for a reason,” Smart said. “And we want to educate our players in every way, every part of our organization. We’re constantly looking for a better way in whatever that is, health and safety included. I talked about drugs and alcohol, talked about gambling, talked about racing in cars and high speeds. You have to educate your players and you have to make sure they understand the risks and dangers of that, and that’s something that we’ve tried to do.”