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Inside Georgia's, Kirby Smart's road to the CFP title with the Bulldogs' brand-new DFO

A former University of Tennessee football manager, Neyland Raper admirably filled the role

HOUSTON -- He heard it was a good game.

At least, from what colleagues and friends told him – and from the cheers that thundered through Hard Rock Stadium, host site of the 2021 Capital One Orange Bowl.

But Neyland Raper, thrust into the role of the University of Georgia’s director of football operations just days before the Bulldogs battled Michigan in the College Football Playoff, scarcely saw any plays of Georgia’s eventual 34-11 pasting of the Wolverines.

“I barely saw any of the Orange Bowl, because I was in the locker room studying the College Football Playoff schedule for the next week,” Raper said in delivering the keynote address at the National Football Operations Organization meetings earlier this month in Houston.

Named for University of Tennessee legend General Robert R. Neyland, and having grown up some 85 miles south of the venue in Cleveland, Tennessee, Raper had broken into college athletics as an Tennessee Volunteers equipment manager “under three legends, Roger Frazier, Max Parrott and Hawk (Allen Sitzler),” before first joining Georgia’s staff in 2017 as an operations intern.

Four years later, after a brief stint in Colorado with Mel Tucker and a return to Athens, Georgia, Raper found himself in late-December in the most challenging cycle of his professional life – ascending, at that time, temporarily, to the top DFO spot after Josh Lee’s resignation and also helping the Bulldogs navigate a number of staff changes, including the impending exit of defensive coordinator Dan Lanning to take over Oregon’s program.

“Coach Smart is very, very intense, but he’s unbelievable as a head coach because he is so dadgum smart,” said Raper, as multiple members of Georgia’s operations squad nodded their heads in assent. “He’s always ahead of us, and as operations, we are trying to be ahead of the game.

“He wants to spend time on the front end to get time back at the end, and I learned that the hard way throughout the transition.”

Still Raper shed insight into the process for the Bulldogs – who last had appeared in the CFP in 2017 and had not encountered the COVID-era dynamics that officials had built into the past two iterations.

That’s when Raper encountered his first real test with Smart. Days before last Christmas, CFP officials declared – with heightened concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic’s resurgence – that participating teams could report to the bowl sites later than initially planned.

“On December 22nd, I’m leaving our facility to get into my car and go see my family for Christmas, and I’m getting a call from Danielle (Bartelstein) at the CFP,” Raper, who praised the impact of current East Carolina DFO Jake Kirkendall, said. “and she said they had changed policies to allow teams to show up whenever they would like to the semifinals.

“She tells me we can show up whenever, player events were switched to optional. We had a few Covid cases at that time, and it was coming back kind of in your face, real, straight back to 2020 for us. Coach Smart, our situation was somewhat unique, we had a lot of players from Miami, and we were worried (about Covid exposure). Coach Smart did not necessarily want to go to Miami early.”

Raper cleared his schedule – and kept a phone charger at hand.

“For six consecutive hours, Coach Smart, the president of our university (Dr. Jere Morehead) – who I had had no conversations with before that day – and our AD (Josh Brooks), our CFO, deputy AD and I were on the phone,” Raper said. “We called pretty much every airline in America (because changing flights was a logistical problem).”

As Smart pondered his team’s options, he charged Raper with a rather daunting task.

“I want an itinerary for December 27-28-29-30-31, all the different days if we went down those days,” Smart told Raper. “I was trying to find buses, planes anything to get us down there on those different days.”

Neyland Raper, discussing the logistics and behind-the-scenes obstacles of Georgia's CFP title run

Neyland Raper, discussing the logistics and behind-the-scenes obstacles of Georgia's CFP title run

Georgia’s time in Miami for the Orange Bowl helped set the stage for Raper to confront the logistical demands a week later for the CFP Championship in Indianapolis – a late-night dash for a mini-refrigerator to place in a staff member’s room, a hidden office in the bowels of the team hotel so that Raper could focus on the tasks at hand, clandestine private jets for Bulldogs’ players who had cleared COVID protocols; flights subsequently outed when a player showed his own arrival on Instagram.

Yet as the Bulldogs eventually pulled away from archnemesis Alabama to win Georgia’s first football title in more than four decades, Raper already had a pair of logistical problems that he couldn’t share with Smart.

For one, a championship parade had to be planned – and Raper, even with barely three weeks in the lead chair, knew far better than to broach such a subject with the head coach.

Secondly, Georgia’s return charter flights home were on the verge of being bumped. Who, in the Deep South where football reigns supreme and where Georgia’s title triumph was bringing together generations of family and friends, could bump the Bulldogs off the runway?

“President Biden and Vice President Harris were going to land the exact same time we were going to land after the national championship game in Atlanta,” said Raper, profuse in the praise of Georgia’s support staff and the entire operations team. “In the locker room after the game, we’re going over everything and we’re also going over a flow-chart over the departing staff and targeting new hires.

“Coach Smart was already looking ahead and getting back to work.”

The Bulldogs hosted their championship celebration the following Saturday, and they had the packed event – more than 80,000 fans piled between the hedges of Sanford Stadium – coincide with a junior day recruiting event for the football program.

Smart, after all, had worried about squeezing enough time out of each day during CFP preparations to also maintain pace with their rivals across the country not tasked with such nuisances.

It all worked out. The national title. Everyone home safe. No COVID outbreaks. No one left behind – not on scholarship, anyway.

And, ultimately, the full-time role of DFO for Raper.

“There’s a lot more to life than football, and I’m fulfilled because I’m a follower of Christ and God’s not going to ask me in heaven how many games we won,” Raper said. “I’m a friend, a son, and a follower of Jesus.

“I learned during that time how amazing our head coach is, how he has a great feel for our team and that he’s a great CEO. I’m very thankful and blessed, but I don’t wanna give him too much credit because he would make fun of me for doing it.”