Is It Ever Thus? UNC’s Redemption
The NCAA basketball tournament has been completed, concluded in a heavyweight clash between upstart Gonzaga (with only 1 loss all season) and perennial contender North Carolina (seeking redemption for its loss in the championship game to Villanova last year). Redemption and UNC triumphed 71-65 in a game that was not pretty but was full of heart by both teams. Since UGA has relatively little history of accomplishment in basketball, I have always cheered UNC as a kind of fallback position. The Tar Heels have always seemed well coached (how could it not under Dean Smith and Roy Williams), with great players who are fundamentally sound, play at a fast pace, score a lot of points and have a great history of achievement in hoops. The Tar Heels are without question one of the blue bloods of college basketball, and they have the reputation for doing things the right way.
Yet, the last couple of years have been difficult for me and others who cheer for the Tar Heels, in light of the allegations of academic fraud against the UNC athletic department. This publication has written of the academic fraud scandal itself in the past here and, perhaps most notably, here. Another take in the Sporting News is that, even if academic fraud occurred, any penalty should not be inflicted against the current players, who were not party to the fraud. But isn’t that nearly always the case? By the time the NCAA investigates and reaches a decision, the at-fault parties are no longer around to take the punishment in most situations. Players have finished their eligibility, or coaches have moved on. Any punishment must be against the institution that committed the wrongdoing, and that punishment will invariably include measures that affect current players or even future players.
The scale of the academic fraud alleged against UNC is difficult to fathom – over 18 years, over 3,100 students in what were, essentially, fake classes. The aftermath of this scandal could tarnish, not just the institution and players, but the coaches who benefited from players being kept academically eligible – legendary coaches like Smith and Williams – who took advantage of the system, knowingly or not. I understand the pushback from graduates and fans of the UNC program, as no one would want their university tainted by a scandal like this. We at UGA have more than a passing familiarity with scandal, considering the Jan Kemp saga or the infamous Tony Cole/Jim Harrick debacle. I have heard many arguments that would exonerate the UNC basketball program from these current allegations, should they be proven. But there is no question that, if these allegations are true, the basketball program benefited, intentionally or not. As such, there must be a reckoning.
So, it is difficult to watch UNC play for and win another championship without giving at least some thought to this situation.
Why Not UGA?
What is just as difficult, for fans of UGA, is to watch South Carolina win a national championship in women’s basketball and reach the Final Four on the men’s side. Why South Carolina and not UGA? Why have the Gamecocks attained these heights in hoops, when the Bulldogs cannot? The short answer – leadership, commitment, timing and luck….
South Carolina had no history of success in Women’s Basketball and they decided to change that. In May 2008, the leadership of the South Carolina Athletic Department identified Dawn Staley as their next coach. Staley had accomplished extraordinary things, both as a student-athlete at Virginia and as a head coach at Temple. In her first coaching position, Staley helped Temple reach the postseason 7 times in her 8 seasons on the bench, including 6 NCAA Tournament appearances. The Owls posted 20 or more wins in a season 6 times, collected the first Atlantic 10 Tournament title in school history in Staley’s second season (2002) and captured the program’s first national ranking. The Owls became just the second team in A-10 history to collect 3 straight conference tournament titles, winning the event in 2004, 2005 and 2006, as well. With a 172-80 record, Staley, a Philadelphia native, left Temple as the winningest coach in its Women’s Basketball history and was the fastest to reach 100 victories. En route to a .683 winning percentage, Staley earned WBCA Region 1 Coach of the Year honors in 2005, was twice named A-10 Coach of the Year (2004, 2005), and guided the team to a share of the regular-season A-10 title in 2007-08. Quite a resume, but that would not eclipse six Olympic Gold Medals.
Dawn Staley and South Carolina now have a National Championship.
Former South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman went out, identified and paid for a winner to come to Columbia and lead a program that had never accomplished anything in women’s basketball. Hyman had the vision that success could happen in Columbia. Hyman hired Gary Patterson as head coach at TCU, and he brought Steve Spurrier to the Soda City as well. Not every decision Hyman made worked out – he hired Darrin Horn, who did not succeed, as men’s basketball coach at South Carolina. Hyman left the University of South Carolina – Columbia (USC) in 2012 for the Athletic Director position with Texas A&M, but abruptly resigned in January 5, 2016, only to resurface in March at Auburn as Chief Operations Officer on an interim basis. He now works as a consultant for Ventura Partners, an executive search firm.
USC’s commitment to building a basketball program did not end with hiring Dawn Staley. Soon after, they hired a proven men’s basketball coach from a Big 12 program by bringing in Frank Martin. Frank Martin had a rumored falling out with former Kansas State University Athletic Director, John Currie. USC showed a commitment to its program by seeking him out in the midst of the speculated tension and getting him to Columbia when the opportunity arose. They could have gone cheaper with a lesser name, but chose not to do so. It was a fortuitous occasion for the University of South Carolina.
However, this is not about Martin, Staley or Hyman; it is about setting higher expectations, taking calculated risks that could result in substantial rewards, identifying proven winners, and doing whatever it takes to foster Championship-oriented cultures. Hyman did that at USC with Dawn Staley and it happened again with Frank Martin.
Can we say the same about Greg McGarity in Athens? The results have certainly not borne it out thus far in his tenure (Seven Year anniversary in September). Now, Joni Taylor may end up being a great hire as Head Coach of the Georgia Women’s Basketball Team; she has certainly recruited well and has some decent wins to her credit. It remains to be seen whether Taylor can achieve at a high level for the women’s program and the bar has been set by Dawn Staley. Even at the very least, Vic Schaefer, who in his fifth season at Mississippi State ended Connecticut’s three year long undefeated streak (111 games) and reached the NCAA Championship Game this past season.
As for Men’s Basketball, UGA has had 8 years of Mark Fox. His lack of results have been listed ad nauseum here and in other places. McGarity refuses to take a risk and does not have nor set high expectations. He’s not a motivational Chief Executive who puts his talent into positions to succeed, he’s content with the status quo. He’s the Chief Executive that in times of falling revenue chooses to manipulate the financials by cutting expenditures, doing what it takes to prop up the profit margin and impressing a handful of individuals while getting roundly criticized for letting things go stagnant.
It is possible that Greg McGarity knows he would not be able to choose a worthy coach to lead the men’s basketball program and would rather wait it out until his much anticipated retirement. If so, then he needs to be put to pasture because he is no longer acting in the best interest of the University of Georgia community and the fans.
The Georgia Way is not and should be a commitment to mediocrity.