I might as well start here: I wouldn’t have met my wife had Andy Landers not given her a graduate assistantship. My reaction to his unexpected retirement on Monday isn’t going to be very impartial. So it’s been with much of the reaction I’ve seen this week – everyone has a story, a connection, or a personal memory.
As we reflect on Landers’ career, the relationships rise to the top. He has such a magnetic and ebullient personality that it’s impossible to start with anything other than the relationships. When you’re reading things like this from the media that covered the team, let alone the players he coached, you begin to get a sense of the presence that Landers developed in his 36 years in Athens.
For me, though, the relationships came later. The Red & Black writes that “Andy Landers will be remembered by his legacy as a leader and a man, not as just a coach. That’s true, and it’s the kind of sentiment you naturally turn to in these eulogistic pieces, but the “just a coach” part was what got me to follow the program.
He could coach. That seems silly to write about a guy pushing 900 wins, but it’s easy to get caught up in the caricature of Landers as the folksy cow farmer with the scowl on the court and the wry sense of humor off the court. He built his empire of over 850 wins, 20 Sweet Sixteens, 11 Elite Eights, five Final Fours, and two national title games by developing, teaching, and demanding that his teams play an uncomprimising style of basketball. His well-known tirades weren’t random outbursts; they were the consequences of falling short of the expectations of Georgia basketball. Landers knew when his players were capable of more, and almost always they were.
Basketball is what drew me to follow the team, and an appreciation of the game played and coached at a high level earned my respect long before I met the coach. I was hooked during the SEC Tournament run in 1993 when longshot Georgia knocked off highly-ranked Tennessee and Alabama on consecutive days to reach the finals. I was fortunate to be there during the march to the Final Four in 1995. I’ve seen the heartbreak in 2004 and 2013 when teams worthy of the Final Four came up just a possession short. Before you even get to know about the man on the sideline, this was a fun brand of basketball to watch and be around. For a basketball fan at Georgia looking for a taste of success, the men’s program was a perpetual tease. Landers delivered.
Two things stand out to me about Landers’ teams at their best: guard play and relentless pressure defense. I don’t mean to short the great forwards and posts to come through the program: Harris and McClain of course, Henderson, Thomas, Robinson, Humphrey, and others I could spend the rest of this post listing. But special guards became the hallmark of the program. It starts with Edwards. Roundtree and Holland were outstanding in the mid-90s. They were followed by the amazing backcourt of Nolan and the Miller twins. Sherill Baker was one of the best defenders you’ll ever see. Even towards the end, Houts and James developed into the backbones of their teams.
These guards and athletic forwards were essential not only for their scoring and floor leadership but also for executing Georgia’s press defense. The press went hand-in-hand with a tight man-to-man approach. Georgia’s bread-and-butter press was the 2-2-1 described here. As Landers noted, the press was an effective counter that made Georgia a difficult opponent. “Because most teams do not press, we do. By pressing, we upset offensive tempo, create excellent scoring opportunities, and win on off-nights.”
That formula worked for most of Landers’ career. With his best teams it was devastating, and his other teams could gain an advantage that helped them “win on off-nights” and pull some memorable upsets. So what’s changed? First, Landers’ observation that “most teams do not press” isn’t the case anymore. Enough teams run variants of press defenses either in their halfcourt defense or as a full-court press that it’s not an exotic experience to see pressure. Presses can be and are still effective even when you prepare for them, but it’s something teams face more often than not now in games and in their own practices.
The second change has to do with the roster. For several years Georgia has lacked the depth and the talent to run their preferred press, often falling back into a 2-3 zone in the halfcourt. Landers’ attention to defensive fundamentals has made Georgia a capable defensive team even in the leanest years. The difference has been the team’s ability to “create excellent scoring opportunities” as Landers described in his rationale for running the press. A team playing even an active 2-3 zone isn’t going to create the same turnovers and transition chances that you’ll get from full-court pressure. When your team thrives on those transition points, and especially when you struggle to generate points from your own halfcourt offense, getting away from the press is going to affect wins and losses.
We dug into the talent issue back in 2009, and many of the same points still apply. Georgia isn’t recruiting at the level it once did, and that’s limited what Landers has been able to do using the strategies that led to so much success. When he said that the past few seasons have been about “trying to figure out what we had to do to win a four-seed in the SEC,” it’s a by-product of recruiting. Elite talent has gradually given way to above-average talent that’s been good enough to make the NCAA Tournament and compete for a top-four SEC finish. It hasn’t been good enough to compete for titles at the national or even conference level, and that was the vision Landers had for the program. “We weren’t doing what we built this thing to do, and that responsibility is mine,” he admitted. I give him tremendous credit for that admission. Many people with the accomplishments and accolades that he’s earned have enough of an ego and enough sycophants around them that the situation can be rationalized. As Landers put it, he tried to spin the situation as human nature leads us to do, but it wouldn’t spin.
Though the ultimate responsibility does lie with Landers, it’s worth peeling back a few layers. We’ve used the 2003 departure of assistant and recruiting coordinator Michael Shafer as a dividing line. Georgia hasn’t appeared in a Final Four or won an SEC title since. That has less to do with Shafer than it does with the management of the program. Georgia has had difficulty finding and then retaining assistants who can perform at the level you’d expect of a national contender. It’s affected both recruiting and player development. Georgia’s current staff has been together about three years now, and that’s long enough to just start gaining traction after so much ground had been lost.
(A related thought: When you look at successful programs, a great head coach is often supported by at least one long-term assistant who’s as highly regarded among assistants as the head coach is among his or her peers. Every staff has turnover, but how many top programs have that one key experienced associate coach? Chris Dailey at UConn. Holly Warlick at Tennessee under Summitt. Nikki McCray-Penson at South Carolina. Amy Tucker at Stanford. Vic Schaefer at Texas A&M during their national title run. Carol Owens at Notre Dame. Bob Starkey at LSU. Georgia simply hasn’t had anyone in that league. As Georgia’s assistants have struggled with inexperience and a lack of continuity, Landers had to be much more hands on, and even the best coach can’t do it without a strong staff.)
To use Landers’ phrase, it shows how “spoiled” we’ve become to dissect a perennial NCAA Tournament program like this. But it was his vision and legacy that the program would have higher standards, and no one recognized the state of the program better than the man who built it. He didn’t need the athletic director or any of us to tell him that things had slipped from the expectations he had set. He just reached a point where he didn’t see a way back under his leadership.
It’s going to be tough going for Landers’ successor. There’s the whole following a legend thing, but there are more concrete concerns first. While the program won’t be starting from rock-bottom, any new coach will have to deal with the inertia of a very established culture. He or she won’t have to start from scratch teaching the expectations of winning or hard work, but there are bound to be conflicts against the inertia of a 30+ year way of doing things. Georgia has a capable group of rising seniors, and getting buy-in from that leadership from the start will go a long way for the sake of continuity.
Recruiting will be what makes or breaks the new coach, and he or she can have immediate success by improving Georgia’s in-state recruiting. The number of top prospects leaving the state is too long to list, and with powerful programs nearby at Tennessee and South Carolina, it will be a big but necessary job making Athens a destination for Georgia’s best. For the right coach, the Georgia position has much to offer: a talent-rich home state, a high-profile and competitive conference, an established and supportive fan base, outstanding facilities and resources, and the deep pockets of a successful SEC program. The tools are in place for a capable coach to attract (or keep home) the kind of talent it will take to reestablish Georgia as an SEC contender.
Those deep pockets will be put to as much of a test with this hire as they were during the football offseason. This isn’t the athletic department of 1994 when it took the threat of a lawsuit to properly pay its women’s coaches, but Landers still wasn’t on the cutting edge of compensation. Attracting a quality head coach and assembling the type of staff we described above will likely cost more than it did to retain the outgoing Hall of Fame coach. The wallet opened up for the football program after the 2014 season, and it will be interesting to see how aggressive the offer is to find Landers’ successor. South Carolina famously caused a stir when they offered Dawn Staley $650,000 in 2008, but that risk has paid off with a top 5 program.
I have no idea in which direction Georgia will or should go. There’s the sentimental instinct to look for someone with ties to Landers. Do you look outside the program for a fresh approach? Do you look for another young coach out of relative obscurity with the possibility of another decades-long run, or do you look for the security of an established veteran? When Andy Landers has been the only coach the program has known, there just isn’t a precedent to follow.
It’s been a sad few days reflecting on this inevitable transition. With any change though there’s the excitement and optimism that a new direction is the answer. Lady Dogs fans can look to the legacy of Andy Landers to know what’s possible at Georgia, but that same legacy will set some high expectations for the next coach. With a solid returning roster, some key pieces working back from injury, and some talented incoming freshmen, the opportunity is there for an immediate impact.