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Florida-Georgia: World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail party becomes the Nick Saban Coaching Tree Bowl

GAINESVILLE — When Nick Saban put Alabama's coaching staff together in 2008, his coordinators knew almost nothing about each other.

Newly promoted defensive coordinator Kirby Smart knew just-hired offensive guru Jim McElwain had worked at Louis­ville and assumed he had ties to Bobby Petrino. McElwain knew even less about his counterpart but learned everything he needed to when Smart was among the first people to greet him in Tuscaloosa.

"Which tells you what kind of guy he is," McElwain said.

Eight and a half years later, the two will meet Saturday under different circumstances, when McElwain leads No. 14 Florida against Smart's Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville. Aside from enormous SEC East implications for the Gators and bragging rights in one of the league's most storied rivalries, both coaches have a personal stake.

"When you work together like that in an environment like that, you get to know each other pretty well," McElwain said. "You know, our wives know each other. I mean … it becomes a family."

The friendship might not be as tight as others that the Gators are used to. Will Muschamp and Jimbo Fisher famously owned a Panama City house together when Muschamp was at UF.

But four years, 48 wins and two national championships together forge strong relationships that transcend meeting rooms and recruiting visits.

"Sometimes you can just be working buddies or whatever, but I think they truly like each other," said Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph, who worked with both at Alabama in 2011, "and I think they respected each other for what each one brings to the table."

The respect continues, even on opposite sides of EverBank Field.

Smart said he has always admired the way McElwain prepared for games. His offenses were diverse at 'Bama and remained that way at Colorado State and UF, creating problems for opposing coaches.

McElwain also goes about his business differently than Smart. Both can be fiery, but McElwain's personality is more colorful.

"He's very different," Smart said. 'He's a funny guy, dry sense of humor, very family oriented. A great man to be around. I always thought he does a great job offensively, and the players, when I was around him, really liked him a lot and played hard for him."

McElwain raves about the way Smart put together plans for the Tide's elite defenses, which ranked in the top seven in scoring during their four years together. McElwain said he quickly realized Smart would become a head coach eventually and admired the patience his friend showed in waiting for a shot at taking over his alma mater.

"It's a place obviously near and dear to him, being a native there, obviously played there, all of the things that go into it," McElwain said. "And long and well deserved."

Though some of Saban's proteges have become big successes (Fisher at FSU, Mark Dantonio at Michigan State), Florida and Georgia know his coaching tree has produced some deadwood, too. Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley was 0-6 against the Gators and Bulldogs. Muschamp went 1-3 at Florida against UGA before getting fired in 2014.

Smart said he knows his relationship and history with McElwain become irrelevant at kickoff. But as Saturday's game approaches, he said the perspective of facing a friend and former colleague adds more drama to the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

"I know it's important to him," Smart said. "It's important to me. Now we're just against each other."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com.

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