Dean Legge/Dawg Post

UGA Basketball: Reality as I See It Today

ATHENS - The last time a UGA coach lost to Alabama at home by 20-something points he was fired at the end of the year. He was one of the most successful coaches in school history.

Needless to say this Alabama isn’t that Alabama, and Mark Fox isn't Mark Richt. But as a result of Wednesday night’s blowout loss, criticism will be thrust in Fox’s direction by everyone not on his public relations staff over the next few weeks. Now UGA will probably have to win the SEC Tournament in Nashville in order to earn its way in the NCAAs.

Still, Georgia’s problem isn’t exclusively its head coach (more on that later). 

UGA shouldn’t lose the way it did on Wednesday night in almost any sport. UGA was at home as a significant favorite (five points). Its head coach was thrown out in the first half. The end result was a double-digit beating that pretty well ends any real hope of earning an at-large NCAA bid. 

That’s not what should happen at a place like Georgia. If there was any air left in Stegeman Coliseum before the game, it was gone after the carnage was complete. This was, in fact, the worst loss of Fox’s tenure in Athens (last season’s 79-45 loss to A&M was worse on the scoreboard, but this loss feels much worse).

That means we’ve hit a critical moment moving forward for Fox and his basketball program. And because we’ve hit that point I feel like I need to make sure folks have a better or true understanding of what the landscape is surrounding Georgia basketball, college basketball and the culture of large organizations themselves. 

Frankly there’s a lot of misinformation or a lack of understanding about what is real and what isn’t in this situation. 

First, Georgia can be a winner at basketball. I don’t say that ignorantly. I’ve seen it in person and live. I also played college basketball and spent five years traveling the country playing AAU basketball with the Atlanta Celtics, one of the most successful AAU programs around. I’ve seen basketball up close, and Georgia has some of the best basketball in the country. But you don’t have to have had the experience I’ve had to know that Georgia has won in basketball, and it can again. I’ve seen folks be very passionate about what happens in Stegeman. 

But Stegeman is stale now. 

And folks will try to tell you that its stale because its always been stale. That’s not totally true. Those folks are conveniently leaving out or weren’t around for the run from Tubby to Harrick. In those eight seasons basketball mattered at Georgia. The Bulldogs have gone to 12 NCAA Tournaments; four of them came in that eight-year period. The rest came in the other 92 years of Georgia basketball. 

People cared, and they will care again. 

Also, consider that these non-traditional “basketball” schools have gone to the Final Four since UGA last won a NCAA Tournament game: Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Florida, Michigan State, West Virginia, VCU, Wichita State, LSU, George Mason, Oklahoma State, Georgia Tech, Marquette and Texas. 

Is Georgia really that dysfunctional at this one sport? Can the institution really have that difficult a time dreaming about the possibilities of winning it all in basketball? Are those who cover the program really that stuck in their narratives that they can’t see that other “football” schools have achieved major success in basketball at least once in the last 15 years?

Second, its important to understand that no one in the basketball coaching industrial complex or media is going to be critical of Mark Fox. First, he does do a good job of coaching Xs and Os. He’s hardly a moron. And he has developed some players - no doubt. He is generally considered a good, not great, coach - and I’ve been told that in my off-the-record conversations with folks, where they are much more likely to tell you the truth as they see it than when they are quoted for the entire world to see.

But the important thing folks need to understand is that college basketball reporters are not going to criticize coaches because that’s where they get their information from. Really, when was the last time a basketball TV personality or national basketball reporter criticized a coach, or called for them to be fired? Likewise, former and current coaches are not going to criticize them, either. Its against the code of current and former coaches - just not going to happen. 

Not publicly that is. 

So any noise from the AJC’s fan site Dawg Nation regarding Fox - either the 10- or 12-year plan article or this week’s article asking how good should Georgia basketball be? - are entering the discussion from the wrong point of view. They are setting the floor with the program, and pretty much saying: “Fox isn’t going under the floor of what this place has been.”

I don’t disagree with that premise specifically. But that’s not the way a multimillion-dollar company should be run (and UGA and the rest of these athletic departments are companies who put a product on the playing surface). How sort-of good can we be?

Think about if the above premise were used in crafting John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” speech. Americans wouldn’t “ask not” they would ask if they were OK with being OK. Take it a step further: Getting to the moon? The Russians are probably cheating anyway, so… 

That is to say that they have no vision that involves Georgia getting to a Final Four - only excuses and explanations as to why Georgia can’t or won’t succeed at that level or any level above the floor at which it currently sits. That thinking suggests that folks should be happy Dennis Felton isn’t still there, or that Jim Harrick, Jr. isn’t passing out any more tests. It can always get worse, they warn. 

Yeah, it can. But it can also get much, much better. 

The most ridiculous notion written of late might be former Wake Forrest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom’s comments suggesting that fans are at least part of the reason UGA fails. 

“In truth it goes right to the students, and it goes right to the paying fans. They will demand excellence by their presence,” he is quoted as saying on the fan site.

That is beyond ridiculous. That is bullshit. 

Odom should know from his years at South Carolina, which are considered some of the most loyal fans in college sports, that fan support in the stands only helps so much on the floor. Its a straw man and false argument perpetrated by folks who can’t see a better way. 

After all he won all of zero NCAA Tournament games in Columbia, but I can assure you those long-suffering fans were there to cheer on their Cocks much of the way. Give me a break, bro.  

Third, and this another major thing to dispel, is that Georgia doesn’t cheat in basketball therefore the likelihood that it will accomplish meaningful goals is less likely to happen. 

Another incorrect premise. 

There are many layers to this straw man, and some of it has to do with the racial undertones of AAU basketball. Folks have always said “AAU” like its a bad word - dismissing it as it rolls off their tongues. That word’s implied negativity stands in nearly all cases: “Yeah, but the AAU crowd”, or “We aren’t going to play the AAU game.”

Why this reaction? 

Most, but certainly many of the coaches in AAU ball are black. Most, but certainly many college coaches and nearly all college administrators are white. The world of AAU basketball is most assuredly black. I lived in that world for five years, and it can be a strange and new world if you are not used to it (not the black part; the AAU part). But its the world that feeds college basketball, and college basketball seems pretty good with it considering its been around for decades and major companies like Under Armour, Adidas and Nike are invested in major ways to make sure nothing happens to the future of AAU.

That it takes money to travel to AAU events means the money has to come from somewhere - shoe company contracts, generous folks around the way, parents, the players working or whatever. 

In our case, we cleaned up Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium after Braves’ games in the early 1990s. It was nasty work - I cleaned up vomit more than a few times. We got to the stadium around 11 PM and left around 3 AM. We worked with folks who used that as their main means of income. We worked with prison-release folks. We worked with the poor. 

Nobody talks about the times I was in there cleaning up the stadium with future Georgia football, basketball and NBA players. AAU is just dismissed off hand because its “dirty” (like college football recruiting isn’t). 

But because of our work and other folks helping, we were able to travel to New Orleans, Oklahoma City and Las Vegas to play in front of Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Billy Tubbs, Jerry Tarkanian and Nolan Richardson. And, yes, I’m still waiting on my first scholarship offer from that group.  

Was everything on the up and up? No way. I remember being 15 and that being the first time that I had seen $30,000… cash. But that wasn’t our concern. We were paid in the travel we were getting, and the food that came with it. We were there to play basketball and win. We did both pretty well with the possible exception of when we dealt with Ron Mercer, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Matt Harpring, Paul Pierce, Antawn Jamison or Vince Carter.

I didn’t match up so great against them. 

No one in my organization or on my team ever broke an NCAA bylaw in the five years I was around that I saw. Our "coaches" were usually guys from around the way who were trying like hell to help kids from rough parts of Atlanta. I'm not sure that they really gained anything out of the years and years of time they put into it. But many of the kids I played with are now assistant coaches scattered around the country in conferences like the ACC, SEC and A-10. They will be head coaches soon. 

But the folks sponsoring us and our coaches… their role and obligation was to us - not the schools recruiting us. 

Do schools cheat to sign top AAU basketball players? I am certain of it, but I have no proof of it. But that’s the wrong question to ask. If cheating is so prevalent, when was the last time Georgia turned a competitor in for basketball recruiting violations? If not why?

If you are not going to turn folks in you are recruiting against, or you don’t have enough to actually have them get caught for something that actually matters… then why is that narrative dripping out of Athens?

Georgia isn’t better than another school because it “doesn’t cheat”. It isn’t better because it isn’t better. Period. End of sentence. The Dawgs are allowed to recruit every prospect in the country. Most of them just are not interested in playing for Georgia right now for whatever reason. 

It is that simple. 

This from Goodman: “There’s a lot of guys that cheat. Mark Fox isn’t one of them. That makes it awfully difficult. He’s gotten good players. But is he ever going to get the top 25 players at Georgia? Probably not unless if you’re cheating.”

Then turn them in, and prosecute them within the bylaws of the organization you are with (the NCAA). If not, move along and quit bringing this up behind the scenes. Better yet, recruit well enough for someone to accuse you of cheating. 

For all of the accusations directed at Nick Saban and Alabama about recruiting in the last decade, the Tide hasn’t been on probation since the one he inherited when he got there. And that had nothing to do with recruiting. That was about textbooks. So either Bama is not cheating, cheating and not getting caught or cheating and not being turned in. 

The “he-don’t-cheat” thing is noble, but its not winning games, and is a very delicate crutch for an athletic department to be using this day and age.

But more than anything, and I write this after two hour-long conversations with bright former UGA lettermen about the state of the athletic program they love, is that Georgia simply doesn’t dream big enough - and not just in basketball even though that was the bulk of our conversation of late. Baseball. Basketball. Whatever. 

Being OK is OK with everyone.

One person was upset that there wasn’t more pressure on Fox to win, and that person is a major Fox supporter, and is eager to see him win at Georgia. “The problem isn’t specifically with Mark,” they said. “The problem is that no one is really pressuring him to win in a significant way.”

The other followed up by saying: “There’s no appetite to win at basketball. The board doesn’t care about it. I'm not sure what the board cares about."

And yet it furnishes its head basketball coach with $2 million a year and what we have been told is a state-of-the-art practice facility. That’s from a program where “doing the right thing” got Mark Richt sent packing because he didn't win enough. In basketball terms, the expectations are not nearly high enough for the resources at hand.

The league has gotten serious about basketball in a way that perhaps few people saw coming. The fault here isn’t specifically Fox’s. Yes, one can get into the weeds and discuss his eight-year time frame in terms of failure. Its not been total failure, but he might not be the right fit at UGA moving forward in a league that’s as eager as ever to matter on the national stage in this sport. 

Kentucky has locked John Calipari in for what seems like forever in Lexington. Alabama hired Avery Johnson, who has NBA Finals coaching experience. Auburn brought back Bruce Pearl in hopes that he can do there what he did at Tennessee. Meanwhile the Vols brought in Rick Barnes who took Texas to the Final Four, and made Clemson basketball matter. Mississippi State, which has one of the smallest budgets in the league, brought in two-time Final Four coach Ben Howland. Even lowly South Carolina got rid of Darrin Horn’s ineptitude in favor of resident screamer Frank Martin, who appears to have the Chickens pointed in the right direction. 

SEC basketball recruiting has picked up of late, too. When Fox arrived in Athens in April of 2009, three SEC teams were ranked in the top 20 in basketball recruiting rankings. Right now five of them are: No. 1 Kentucky, No. 5 Alabama, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 18 Mississippi State and No. 19 Auburn. 

According to Scout, Fox hasn’t signed a Top 25 class since he’s been at Georgia. Every other school in the league has had at least one class ranked in the Top 25 since then save Ole Miss.

In the end, Georgia has to want to win at basketball. It feels like, and the results bear this out, that UGA is OK with where it is at with basketball. The program isn’t an off-the-court embarrassment like it was at the end of Harrick’s time. The program isn’t an on-the-court embarrassment like it was at the end of Felton’s time. 

It isn't an embarrassment. It just is.

And that’s the real issue today. All programs have hurdles ahead in the race of sport, but this institution has made the decision to not to get ready to jump over them, or really care if they do. It is OK with being in the race rather than winning it.

And that’s the problem - not the false narratives or the AAU boogymen that are whispered about so much. 


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