Since 1995 - Insightful commentary on the Georgia Bulldogs

Post Ultimately a failure of recruiting

Thursday January 29, 2009

The Dennis Felton era at Georgia is over. It began under a cloud and never really emerged. There were fits and starts but ultimately setbacks that eroded what progress had been made. A program that wanted to return its focus to the court couldn’t avoid damaging off-court incidents that cost it some of its best players. Fair or not, Felton was behind the 8-ball from the beginning, and his program never gained enough positive traction to bootstrap itself up from the pit in which it started.

In the short-term, the most important thing will be keeping much of the current team and recruiting class in place. This isn’t 2003 – there is no scandal from which to run away. Any releases this time, if requested, should be evaluated much more closely than during the "let ’em all go" period following the last coaching change. The collapse and loss of an entire recruiting class put Dennis Felton in an even tougher spot when he took over, and this is no time for history to repeat itself. The new coach will have enough challenges out of the gate, and keeping the core of the team intact should be a priority. The news that Pete Hermann will be taking over as an interim coach is a good sign. Hermann is respected and is the best person to keep the team from disintigrating.

A college head coach wears many hats, but the job boils down to this: get good players and put them in a position to succeed on the court. Much of the analysis of the Felton years will focus on the latter (win totals, lethargic offense, etc.), but what did him in was the inability to attract and retain enough quality players to field a consistently competitive team.

It was a two-fold problem. First was getting the players to begin with. The stigma around the program in 2003 didn’t help, and it begat a cycle where no one wanted to play for a bad team, so the team remained bad. There were a handful of recruiting successes. The first was Sundiata Gaines, a point guard from New York. Felton landed a handful of the top players from talent-rich Gwinnett County. Channing Toney, Louis Williams, Mike Mercer, and Billy Humphrey were all quality signings. The Dawgs even pulled in a top JUCO forward, Takais Brown.

It’s there that we come to the second part of the problem – retention. If you look over the list of Felton’s better signings, few lasted four years in the program. Louis Williams of course went right to the NBA as expected. Toney transferred, and Mercer, Humphrey, and Brown were all dismissed from the team. Georgia was actually making progress two seasons ago, but the knee injury to Mercer started a freefall that saw the 2007 season end just short of the NCAA Tournament, the dismissal of three key contributors within a year, and put Georgia in its current situation of almost no backcourt production. In this sixth season under Felton, only four players made it through four years with the program (Gaines, Bliss, Newman, and Stukes).

Is Dennis Felton a good coach? We might not be able to answer that. I don’t think anyone can argue that he had a complete team with which to work except for maybe a brief period in 2006-2007. But that of course is as much a part of the job as anything else. He was, by my own observation, an intelligent man with a good grasp for the game. That didn’t matter as long as the personnel remained incomplete.

To be fair and clear, this is not a new problem that began with Felton. Even Georgia’s more successful coaches faced recruiting problems. Tubby Smith did well with a solid senior class in his first season, but there is no question that his second team overachieved. Good coaching? Sure. Good recruiting? Not so much.

Even Jim Harrick couldn’t turn the tide. In fact, the situation Felton inherited was exacerbated by Harrick’s own recruiting problems. Between the 2000 class that gave us Rashad Wright and Chris Daniels and Felton’s first class in 2003 that included Levi Stukes and Steve Newman, Georgia did not add a single four-year player in 2001 or 2002 that stuck with the team. The Hayes twins were the only significant additions during those lean years. The result was that after the departure of the 2004 senior class, Felton was left to rebuild a program with only his rising sophomores.

When top-rated Atlanta center Derrick Favors chose Georgia Tech over Georgia recently, his reasoning was an indictment not only of Dennis Felton but also of Georgia basketball history.

"Just the history, how many guys Georgia Tech put in the NBA and how many guys Georgia put in the NBA."

Ouch. It’s that simple. Over the lifetime of a current high school senior, how many Bulldogs have made any kind of impact in the NBA? Maybe three: Shandon Anderson, Jumaine Jones, and Jarvis Hayes. Anderson and Jones aren’t in the league anymore, and Hayes is an 8 PPG guy. Georgia’s most celebrated players since Hayes are tough point guards Wright and Gaines – solid and admirable college players but not exactly pied pipers for NBA-quality talent. That legacy didn’t start with Felton, but it certainly didn’t improve with him either.

The situation at Georgia is and always has seemed ideal for success. You’re smack in one of the most talent-rich basketball regions in the nation. You have an athletic department with deep pockets that has shown its commitment to basketball with one of the best facilities in the nation. You have a large fan base that has shown it will support a winner and can turn Stegeman Coliseum into a vibrant home for college hoops. Thanks to a strong overall program, you have instant brand recognition. Even though the SEC is down this year, you still play in a major conference with plenty of TV exposure. Yet for all of these advantages, Georgia basketball has never been a consistent winner, and it starts with recruiting.

Job #1 for the next Georgia coach will be to do what no recent Bulldog coach, not even Smith or Harrick, was able to do: stop the flow of Georgia talent out of the state. Get that done, and all of the pieces are in place for a successful program.

On a personal note…

I can only speak for myself, but I found Dennis Felton to be an engaging and passionate man who had the highest goals and expectations for Georgia basketball. He jumped into a dire situation with great enthusiasm. Even with the wheels coming off he handled himself with professionalism and class. Though it didn’t work out, he ran his program openly and above-board. He’ll be just fine.

Comments are closed.