UGA Basketball has been a punchline for years, why?
It was not always like this, Georgia Basketball did command respect and enjoyed a steady run of success for greater than a decade. Hugh Durham delivered multiple NCAA Tournament berths and even a visit to the Final Four, which is largely forgotten by those that do not follow the program that support Georgia and those that do not support UGA. Many ascribe to the historically incorrect belief that Georgia has zero Basketball tradition and has always been a mediocre program.
Contrary to popular belief, Georgia Basketball shares little in common with Florida Basketball and its resurgence would also have little in common with Florida Basketball. Historically, Georgia Basketball had been far ahead of Florida as a Basketball program prior to Lon Kruger and only during the Billy Donovan era had Florida far surpassed Georgia. Florida Basketball was insignificant prior to 1986, but three straight NCAA Tournament appearances in the late 1980s do not compare to Hugh Durham’s accomplishments throughout the 1980s. Georgia was better and more consistent at Basketball first.
Florida Basketball from 1976-77 to 1996-97: 321-310 (.509 winning percentage)
Georgia Basketball from 1976-77 to 1996-97: 363-269 (.574 winning percentage)
Up until 1997, Georgia was the more accomplished program and was clearly set up to become dominant. Georgia was to become Kentucky’s biggest basketball rival in the Southeastern Conference, which is a big deal. Tennessee, LSU, Arkansas and Alabama had previously held that mantle, but Georgia was poised to do it next. The emergence of the New South made up of transplants from New York and Chicago, improved facilities after hosting Olympic events and a successful succession of coaching from a legendary coach to an up-and-comer that did not know the definition of failure in his coaching career provides a justified rationale to this claim.
However, first consider where Georgia was as an Athletic Program in 1997:
- Georgia Football was 5-6 under Jim Donnan and were not bowl eligible in 3 of the previous 4 seasons!
- Jim Donnan had just completed his first season after the disastrous act of nepotism by Vince Dooley.
- Georgia Women’s Basketball had just made the NCAA Tournament Finals and then made it to the Elite 8.
- Georgia Women’s Gymnastics made the Super Six and won the SEC in 1996 and followed it up in 1997.
- Georgia had removed the hedges at Sanford Stadium during the previous summer for the Olympics.
- Jim Donnan’s salary in March 1997: $350,000
- Tubby Smith’s salary in March 1997: $605,000
This sort of a situation would be considered unacceptable at UGA today, but in March 1997, Tubby Smith had a program on the rise that was set to do great things.
Then Kentucky came calling after the Boston Basketball Club made the mistake of trying to bring Rick Pitino’s pressing style to an NBA that had strict defensive styling rules. The idea of another program making an effort to nab a coach within the same conference is a rather gutsy thing to do. However, that is exactly what Kentucky did to an ascending rival that they face twice a season and Vince Dooley did not put up a fight to keep him seeing the situation as hopeless.
The quotes from Dooley were rather defeatist and depressing:
“I do know that they would like to have him in Kentucky.”
“I felt from the very beginning when he came to Georgia that there was no other job he would leave here for except Kentucky.”
“I see no reason to drag it out any length of time.”
“It’s one of the truly great coaching jobs.”
“We have to be hopeful on one hand, but realistic on the other.”
Would Dooley have let Mark Richt go in 2003 after winning the Sugar Bowl, if Alabama wanted to throw a lot of money and patience his way? Would he have let Richt go in 2004 when the Nebraska job opened up? Dooley fought tooth and nail to keep Jim Donnan after a ten win season when UNC offered him $850,000 per year.
Dooley waved the white flag of defeat that was common on the football field against Florida and Tennessee during that decade. Dooley and Smith both left student-athletes high and dry here. Dooley did not show the commitment needed to keep the program headed in the right direction and it is possible that he really was not committed to building a Men’s Basketball powerhouse. It is one thing to be out-bid in a game effort against a rival program, it is another to surrender when receiving the call.
The words of Center Jon Nordin were perhaps the most depressing of all because rather than seeing the progress toward building an elite program conceded to another SEC program, the team diminished their own efforts and gave up hope. Georgia’s players did not value the process because they knew there was a lack of commitment. Nobody goes out of their way to make it seem like their own school or team is inferior.
“The opinion among the guys is that’s the kind of job you don’t turn down.”
“He’s done some great things at Georgia, but that’s a pretty tempting offer.”
Vince Dooley lost out to Kentucky by $395,000 and an actual will to win. Tubby would become the Head Basketball Coach at Kentucky and he would bring a National Championship to Lexington in 1998. Tubby would continue to have very good years at Kentucky reaching three Elite Eights and two Sweet 16s until the program started to show some cracks in the facade in his final two years and he was replaced by Billy Gillispie.
Meanwhile in Athens, Dooley decided to try to maintain continuity by hiring Tubby Smith’s top assistant, Ron Jirsa. Dooley wanted an easy transition, but he was handing the keys over to the untested Jirsa. Jirsa’s first game as a Head Coach would be against North Carolina State at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Wolfpack took down the Dawgs 47-45 and it was a bad omen for a program that had just won 24 games the previous season.
Dooley did not have to choose Jirsa much like the way he did not have to choose Ray Goff to succeed him. Dooley took a bit of a risk bringing on Tubby Smith from Tulsa, he was breaking major ground at UGA by hiring a Black Head Coach and it was the first major hire he had made. With the scent of major success from Tubby Smith, he played it conservative just like his playcalling on the football field and it was from a mindset that was very anachronistic.
The question one would ask is, “If Jirsa was such a great assistant in those two years at Georgia, why didn’t Tubby Smith try to do what it took to bring him along to Lexington?” Typically, when a Head Coach leaves one program willingly for another school up the so-called food chain, the Head Coach brings along their assistants so that he would not have to break new coaches into the system and get the process started at the new school immediately.
What did Tubby Smith know about Jirsa that Dooley did not? If Tubby is the master and Jirsa is more of a protege, wouldn’t facing the master twice put Georgia at a disadvantage in at least two games a season?
Dooley could have made an external hire with ease. Georgia was a very good job in 1997, in fact, it was a better Basketball job than Football job at the time. C. Jemal Horton of Knight-Ridder Newspapers wrote an article chronicling this decision and the decision was actually rather startling when examining from a 2015 perspective of college sports. In Horton’s article that ran on May 28, 1997 in the Catoosa County News, Horton brings up that Vince Dooley sought counsel from Dick Vitale as to determining who would replace the legendary Hugh Durham. Vitale suggested Tubby Smith, Dooley sought out Tubby Smith and hired him. It is a disturbing fact because it showed how little Vince Dooley knew about College Basketball that he would seek out a TV personality to make the hire for him. Luckily for Dooley, the hire actually did work, but it was unfortunately for only two years.
Dooley’s next hire could have been Dave Odom, who had just brought Wake Forest to another NCAA Tournament with future NBA Hall of Famer, Tim Duncan, on his team. Dooley could have also hired P.J. Carlesimo, who had placed Seton Hall into the 1989 NCAA Championship Game and coached the Portland Trail Blazers at the time. Dooley could have tried to lure the late Skip Prosser to leave Xavier, but he did not and Prosser did eventually leave in 2001 to go to Wake Forest. (Prosser was actually one of the finalists in 1999 for the job to replace Jirsa and probably would have been the best hire in 1997 had Dooley known his stuff better.)
Dooley chose Jirsa because he did not rock the boat. Dooley did not realize that he started the process of sinking the boat that would capsize his tenure as Athletic Director. This decision was made in the Spring of 1997 before the next assassin of the Georgia Basketball program would arrive in Athens, the next President of the University of Georgia, Michael F. Adams. Adams’ inauguration was on June 11, 1997 and with former President Knapp being a lame duck, the decision to hire Jirsa was strictly Dooley’s. Jirsa would make $350,000 a year and Donnan would command $650,000 a year.
Ron Jirsa had an unfortunate two years at Georgia making it to two NITs, back when making the NIT was a much easier accomplishment for a power program. Jirsa’s team only reached 20 wins by virtue of going on a run in the NIT and winning the 3rd place consolation game. Before the NIT, Georgia was 16-14 including the SEC Tournament.
Jirsa’s Record Against UGA Rivals:
- Florida: 1-3
- Auburn: 0-2
- Georgia Tech: 1-1
- South Carolina: 1-3
- Tennessee: 1-3
- Kentucky: 0-4
Jirsa was ousted from Athens on March 12, 1999 and then Dooley had to decide who the next Georgia Basketball coach would be. President Adams decided to intervene since Dooley had made such a bad decision making the inexperienced Ron Jirsa the Head Coach of a major College Basketball program. President Adams was the Vice President of University Affairs at Pepperdine University and befriended their Head Basketball Coach, Jim Harrick. Harrick became the Head Coach at UCLA and won a National Championship in 1995. Bringing a former National Championship coach would seem like no-brainer decision for the Georgia Basketball program and President Adams believed that Harrick was the right guy for the job. Dooley described Adams as “hands-on, controlling and egotistical” in his approach toward athletics and this likely carried over into other matters involving the University of Georgia.
Dooley was far more savvy for this third hire, but Adams was a bit more insistent than his predecessor when it came to the hire. Adams recounted the hiring process as follows:
“I said to Coach Dooley, ‘Would you like for me to get Jim Harrick in the pool.”
“He said, ‘Yes. I think the better the pool, the better.’ We interviewed three finalists. Coach Dooley made a recommendation to me for whatever reasons. I think, and still think, that he and Coach Harrick got along very well.”
“I think the AD was involved in the hiring, he played the lead role in hiring Jim Harrick, not once but twice; I think that I can document all that.”
Dooley’s reply on the matter:
“Ultimately on decisions on the head basketball coach and the football coach, I make the decision only from the standpoint of that was my recommendation to the president.”
In fact, Dooley said that he preferred then Delaware Head Coach Mike Brey, who is now the Head Coach at Notre Dame. Based on Adams’ second quote above, it is clear that Adams overruled Dooley here. Dooley set himself up for this sort of a situation after making a hire on the recommendation of a TV personality and not doing whatever it took to keep Tubby Smith in Athens. He buried himself further in terms of decision making by giving the reins to Ron Jirsa. Dooley clearly learned his lesson by this point as far as hiring a Basketball Coach and the necessary commitment that needed to be made to the Men’s Basketball Program, but it was too late. Adams could not trust Dooley based on his past decisions and made the final decision, which led to the press conference introducing Jim Harrick as the Head Coach of the University of Georgia Basketball team. Harrick would make $550,000 per year, Jim Donnan would command $650,000 per year at the time of the signing.
The dispute over Harrick was one of major significance because Harrick had committed NCAA violations at UCLA by holding a recruiting dinner, paying for it and then lying to school investigators about the matter. When Harrick was at Rhode Island, he got his Rams to the Elite Eight and a subsequent First Round exit in the NCAA Tournament, but off the court things were far uglier. Harrick was accused of sexual harassment by a secretary and was accused of changing players’ grades, having term papers written for them and providing improper benefits such as cars, meals, lodging and money that were funneled through URI boosters.
What could possibly go wrong?
The team played well on the court with a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances and a jam-packed Harrick’s Hounds Student Section. Georgia Basketball was back and then it all came crashing down toward the end of the 2002-03 Season. A vengeful Tony Cole was ready to get his revenge and he did so by starting the chain of events that would destroy Georgia Basketball for an entire decade.
To borrow from a previous article:
“Tony Cole, a backup Point Guard that played only one season at the University of Georgia (2001-02) that received $300 from Jim Harrick Jr. (his son and assistant coach). Harrick Jr. wired $300 to Tony Cole in care of Eva David as evidenced by a Western Union receipt. Harrick Jr. also provided Tony Cole with access to his credit card so that Cole could purchase a television from Circuit City.”
“[Tony] Cole had a troubled tenure at Georgia, as he and Steve Thomas both were indicted on April 4, 2002 for their involvement in a rape and sexual assault at Tony Cole’s McWhorter Hall dormitory on January 14, 2002. Cole faced aggravated assault charges while Steve Thomas faced rape and aggravated assault charges. On September 3, 2002, charges were dropped against Tony Cole and Steve Thomas. Tony Cole was dismissed in September 2002 for rules violations, but Steve Thomas would remain at Georgia until being dismissed in September 2003 by Dennis Felton.”
“Tony Cole was motivated by revenge as he believed that Jim Harrick Sr. did not support him when he faced aggravated assault charges and then was dismissed in the wake of the charges being dropped. Cole was motivated to bring down Harrick, but he ultimately brought down the Georgia Basketball program, created a major rift within the University of Georgia Administration and sowed the seeds of discontent and dissent among UGA alumni. Tony Cole, out of revenge, let Jeremy Schaap and other media members know about how Jim Harrick Jr. provided him with the improper benefits and the academic fraud that took place in PEDS 3912.”
“All 31 students received an A in the [PEDS 3912] class and both Dooley and Adams acknowledged the fraud concerning that particular class. No other classes were found to have this problem and policies were immediately put in place to ensure that college coaches were not permitted to teach courses to their own players at the University of Georgia. Jim Harrick Jr. was suspended on February 28, 2003 and then fired five days later. The Georgia Basketball program was removed from all postseason tournaments in 2003. Jim Harrick himself was suspended with pay on March 10, 2003 and then on March 27, 2003 resigned.”
As one can see, Michael Adams’ decision making was even worse than Dooley, but he had unchecked power. In the wake of the scandal, Georgia was placed on probation for four years, but this was just the beginning of the punishment. Adams threw Dooley and the entire Basketball program under the bus as it made him look bad. Adams was looking to use the University of Georgia as a stepping stone for something greater such as becoming the President of the NCAA. Adams saw the Basketball Program as wayward and sought to go out of his way to show the NCAA and his peers in academia that he can run the cleanest program, even if it came at the expense of the results.
Dooley interviewed with finalists Tim Floyd and Dana Altman for the job, but Western Kentucky’s Dennis Felton won the job after Adams had interviewed with all three. Felton coached on a good-faith agreement in the 2003-2004 season and his contract ended up being worth $700,000 per year. Mark Richt coming off an SEC Championship and a Sugar Bowl win was bringing home $1,500,000 per year. Notice that the difference in pay for Basketball Coaches and Football Coaches had completely reversed in six years.
Welcome to the Scorched Earth era of Georgia Basketball.
Under probation, Georgia was limited in scholarships and official visits. It also meant that President Adams and Vince Dooley’s replacement, Damon Evans, were watching every move of the Georgia Basketball program. Adams had to show everyone how good and compliant his Georgia Basketball program was. Dennis Felton was a disciplinarian that had a rigid set of rules and followed every rule in the book. He was the perfect hire for Michael Adams’ so-called path to redemption, but not the right hire for UGA. Felton made the UGA Mat Drills look rather mamby-pamby as he put his players through preseason Boot Camp, literal Military Boot Camp.
Ever wonder why the Code of Conduct standards for Georgia Basketball were so oddly specific and rigid? Thank Dennis Felton, Damon Evans and Michael Adams for inspiring these rules. Mark Fox’s most notable addition to the rules was regarding hair. Dennis Felton was known for not allowing players to have facial hair below the lip.
The 2003-04 Season was a transition year with a small number of recruits coming in to play for Felton and four key Seniors, including current Georgia Assistant Jonas Hayes. There were some odd signs that trouble was afoot for the Georgia program, most notably Dennis Felton’s presence at the Ramsey Student Center scouting talent at random pickup games. Felton did not organize the games, he was just watching to find a diamond in the rough. All Georgia needed was an assistant that drank out of a flask during games and one would swear that this was scripted by someone in Hollywood. This particular season was not a complete disaster as it included two regular seasons over Kentucky, a win over Tennessee, a Double Overtime win over NCAA Tournament Runner Up Georgia Tech and an infamous court storming after a win over Florida that birthed the SEC court and field storming rules that fans have been familiarized.
The 2004-05 Season was a miserable and sad season that was viewed by many as comical entertainment. Georgia played ultra-physical with opponents to overcome a talent and depth deficit. Georgia’s style was slopball and walk-ons were the star attractions outside of Levi Stukes and Sundiata Gaines. Dennis Felton was not having a good time with the recruiting, but he did build a very interesting nucleus that would be a part of a miraculous event. Felton hired Mike Jones to help with bringing in local talent because he was having a tough time with it and having to sell a program that just went 8-20 playing his style of hoops was not easy. The recruiting clamps were removed to an extent to bring in a heralded 2005 Class, which ultimately was not as advertised. However, components of the 2005 team did help considerably in later seasons. It should be noted that Adams and Evans were happy that the program was not embroiled in any scandals that could make them look bad, they were even more pleased that the scholarship reductions from the NCAA were completely lifted as their efforts to show humility before the almighty NCAA worked.
The 2005-06 team had a ballhog (Mike Mercer) and a divisive team member (Younes Idrissi) that completely destroyed the team’s chemistry and also caused the team to underachieve. The team was divided and Terrance Woodbury was injured and stuck in the middle. The fights at Ramsey between frontcourt and backcourt players during pickup games and the backcourt players not ever eating nor congregating with the frontcourt players made for a weird 1974 Oakland Athletics sort of a dynamic. Idrissi would exit the program after the season was over and the healing began quickly, although it was hastened by the tragic loss of Kevin Brophy.
2006-07 was a season that provided a false sense of optimism as UGA had finally made it to a postseason including wins over Kentucky and LSU. Injuries marred the season, but the risks that Felton had taken brought shame upon the program in the offseason. Takais Brown was dismissed from the program (he would later in life face murder charges and was found not guilty of them), an incident involving a pocket knife in Billy Humphrey’s on campus apartment, Mike Mercer disrupting the team and being dismissed and then Humphrey’s alcohol-related arrest made matters worse. Georgia Basketball was imploding from April 2007 through February 2008.
Damon Evans did not need Michael Adams’ approval to fire Dennis Felton in 2008, but Evans made the odd choice to let Felton finish the season and coach a last place team in the SEC Tournament. Evans assumed that the team that would lose at some point in the tournament and the season would end. As everyone knows, Georgia found a way to win it all despite the tornado, having to win three games in 30 hours and only playing eight guys while doing so. Dennis Felton’s finest weekend came in the course of tragedy and a completely bizarre scenario. Evans’ inability to pull the trigger set forth one of the greatest moments in the history of UGA Athletics, but it also delayed the inevitable because Evans could not fire Felton after that bizarre situation.
Fast forward through Billy Humphrey’s DUI and dismissal and through a dreadful season that ended for Dennis Felton in Gainesville, Florida in the middle of the season taking a cue of acceptability from Mark Gottfried’s forced resignation from Alabama two days prior to the firing. The big question was who would Adams choose to replace Felton because Evans was certainly not making the decision. Adams was embarrassed again by the end of the Felton era not because of NCAA improprieties, but because of a team that was achieving terribly in the classroom and was making negative headlines. Adams’ ego needed to be satisfied, but he wanted someone that would operate clean, bring in players that would not embarrass the program and improve the academics. Adams was like Stanley Moon in the movie Bedazzled, he wished for something and it would come true, but never the way he envisioned it.
Let’s clear some air about Mike Anderson. Many believe Anderson was offered the job by Georgia, which is something that was repeated often by many commentators and fans. It is actually an urban legend! Anderson’s agent even said that Georgia did not offer the job to Anderson and no formal interview was said to even take place. Georgia is known to have interviewed Frank Haith for the vacancy and Clemson denied that Oliver Purnell interviewed with Georgia to escape furloughs (Purnell eventually did leave Clemson to go to DePaul, he actually tried to leave Clemson for Georgia in 2003 as well.). Mark Fox was the choice that impressed Adams and Evans. Could Michael Adams and Mike Anderson really coexist?
Adams clamped down on Fox from the beginning through Evans and Fox was encouraged by many insiders to bring in someone with local AAU ties, but decided not to do so. A close eye was kept on the team to ensure that Adams would not be embarrassed again. Fox did not listen to the warnings regarding his “outsider” staff and was only able to win with Dennis Felton’s recruits in 2010-11. He struggled with his own recruits in 2011-12 and 2012-13. The recruiting classes that Fox had put together were comparatively weak. Fox was able to bring in 5 Star and future NBA starter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, into the fold in 2011 because his close hometown friend, Kenarious Gates, of the Georgia Football team was there. Fox’s staff struggled to bring in quality players and took the opposite risks that Felton would have taken. Fox brought in guys that were under-recruited and in some cases less talented, but were going to be solid citizens and students. The most notable diamond in the rough was Nemanja Djurisic, who was actually much better than the recruiting experts ever imagined.
Fox could not continue with subpar recruiting classes, but he was able to make some traction by getting commitments from Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann. Fox needed a bigger break if he was going to stay in Athens, keeping Damon Evans happy was as simple as avoiding embarrassment like the past two coaches at Georgia. However, with Greg McGarity, Fox needed his team to perform and avoid embarrassment. Fox needed to catch a major break because from a holistic standpoint, his third and fourth seasons at Georgia did not justify keeping him on board. The very end of the 2012-13 Season was a sign of things to come, but without Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, it was not exactly viewed as sustainable.
Fox had three losing seasons out of four at UGA, but he caught a major break and he made a very subtle move to put Jonas Hayes on the staff as an Operations Coordinator three weeks after Adams announced that he would step down as President of UGA on May 3, 2012. Hayes is well connected in the Atlanta High School and Georgia AAU scene, he also happens to be a former Georgia Letterman. Fox was setting up the staff to include more insiders and compete in a recruiting territory that was previously avoided – his own.
Kwanza Johnson conveniently left the UGA program in May 2013 and Jonas Hayes assumed the role of Assistant Coach for the Georgia Bulldogs in June 2013 with Michael Adams on his way out. Mark Fox was about to be able to bring in the recruits that he had always wanted to bring into the program without any meddling. In the 2013-14 Season, Georgia won 20 games with a roster that consisted of student-athletes that Fox brought into the program. He was able to replace Stacey Palmore with another AAU connected Assistant Coach, Yasir Rosemond, in the offseason preceding the 2014-15 season. Coincidence? Fox had his second straight 20 win season and took an injury plagued team to the NCAA Tournament. Bridges that were previously burned were rebuilt with a different purpose.
Without Adams, Fox has been able to bring in better talent, run a clean ship, improve academic performance and win. On May 2, 2012, a dark cloud that had been hanging over Stegeman Coliseum began the process of being lifted. Present J. Reid Parker Director of Athletics, Greg McGarity, has shown his commitment to Mark Fox and he gave him a raise and an extension for his efforts.
The damage that Dooley and Adams had wrought with their poor decisions and Adams’ ego-driven policies: 254-246 (.508 winning percentage) Counts the vacated wins.
Compare that to Florida during the same period. 402-149 (.7295 winning percentage)
Think of it this way, without counting the era of Vince Dooley’s infamous decision and Adams’ decisions and meddling… Georgia has had four straight 20 win seasons. Georgia is back on pace to go where it was supposed to go after 1996-97.
The lessons of sixteen years of misery, inconsistency, self-flagellation, shame, embarrassment, incompetence, antipathy and egomaniacal decision making that defined Georgia Basketball remain.
For once, everyone is on the same page and has the same goal for the Georgia Basketball Program. The only ones left that need to be sold are the local media and fans. Mark Fox has the opportunity to have his cake and eat it too.
Well, that last part of the previous paragraph can be best described as wishful thinking. It is terribly unfortunate that the University of Georgia Athletic Association, a plurality (at least) of Silver Circle boosters and the majority of the general fan base approves of extending this trend. Georgia Athletics has gone all-in on Football at the expense of other sports and it is becoming obvious. The saddest part is that they cannot even get the Football part right.
Football is the opiate of the masses in Georgia and they (along with those that have the power) are unwilling to diversify their sports portfolio. Basketball recruits know that they do not matter in the State of Georgia and also know they do not matter to the University of Georgia. Why go to a place that does not care about your contributions?
@jasonrmcintyre why would he have gone if they did? They are bad basketball schools and football 1st. He said he wanted a bball 1st school.
— Zach Ahonen (@zahonen) March 25, 2017
Don’t believe the tweet? Kamar Baldwin made it clear that with familiarity bred discontent with the Indianapolis Star.
There is much to be re-evaluated in Athens. It takes a lot of courage to even want to have this conversation though.