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Post In defense of Dennis Felton

Monday February 13, 2006

Other than your family, think about the thing(s) in life about which you are most passionate. It might be a career, golf, Civil War diningware, but for most of us it’s the Dawgs – specifically Georgia football. Have you ever tried to explain to a non-believer what the High Holy Feast Day of National Signing Day is all about? Do you stare blankly when asked why you are rushing to set up tailgate at 7:45 AM for a 7:45 PM kickoff? Are you frustrated when the casual Georgia fans in your office don’t know who the third-string linebackers are? When you start talking about the Dawgs, do you notice how others smile uncomfortably while backing away slooooowly, taking care not to make any sudden motions?

Welcome to Dennis Felton’s world. The man lives basketball. NCAA limits on practice time were made for Felton – sleep gets in the way of time that could be spent improving the program. Preseason military-style training is a nice warmup for practice. Basketball consumes Felton to a flaw, and that flaw comes to the surface every now and then.

It’s an obsession, and that’s not necessarily a bad trait for a coach. You certainly prefer that over a guy just punching the clock. And let’s be honest – Georgia basketball needs its coach to be obsessive and driven about the job. Anyone else would have been discouraged and on anti-depressants within a week of taking the position.

But that same drive and passion for the game leads to impatience. Indifference and apathy are foreign concepts. You don’t get that a fan base that keeps getting let down after every limited morsel of basketball success doesn’t jump on board at your first signs of progress and promise. You can’t process why you have to beg people to come see SEC basketball when you’ve worked your whole life to get to this opportunity. If successful at Georgia, Felton will have been responsible for not only a good basketball team but also a cultural shift.

I’ve been right there with the “just stick a cork in it and coach” camp, but I still have to recognize (and appreciate) missionary zeal when I see it. His job isn’t just to coach the team. You don’t get the passionate coach willing to invest four years in resurrecting a dismal program without the rest of the package. Someone not far away from developing a competitive team wants the fan support and administrative support to be right there alongside his effort, and getting those are often left up to him.

Felton can’t be inflexible in this effort though. His success has been too fleeting to really sway this fickle fan base. GSB picked up on and developed an observation of mine last week that Felton can’t afford to jump too quickly through the baby steps that will build fan support. Some of his strongest supporters, and I include myself in that group, have been more than willing to be patient as he rebuilds the program. By getting ahead of himself, he runs the risk of people demanding results much sooner than they can reasonably be delivered. The team is certainly improved this year, and anyone can see the progress made and the roadmap for more improvement ahead. It’s obvious. But we’re not there yet, and casual would-be converts aren’t going to put the emotional investment behind the program to stick with it through the losses.

It’s a cop-out for us to suggest that Felton cool it and recognize that the football-crazy fan base won’t ever embrace basketball. That’s just not true. Stegeman was rocking during the Jarvis Hayes era and even into Felton’s first year when the “guy in the red shirt” entered Bulldog lore. But as GSB points out today, Felton doesn’t seem to appreciate that Georgia’s basketball fan base is once-bitten, twice shy and has been for decades. Time after time, the rug has been pulled out. Those fans might be willing at some point to come back for more abuse, but the best thing Felton can do now is to get this team into the postseason – even the NIT – and do well. The fans will notice and be ready for the next steps.

(And as I said earlier, it could be worse. You could build and sustain a program consistently ranked among the nation’s best, fully understand and be able to communicate with the Georgia fan base, have a Hall of Fame resume, and still have to rely on Tennessee fans to sell out your games. Welcome to Andy Landers’ world.)

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