Gardner: Harrick is National Coach of the Year

It could happen that Harrick will be named National Coach of The Year, after not even being SEC Coach of The Year. And what a deserving slap in the SEC's face that would be.

In one of college basketball's biggest heists ever, Georgia's Jim Harrick was not chosen as 2001-2002 Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. Instead the honor went to Alabama's Mark Gottfried, who served as an assistant to Harrick at UCLA in the 1990's.

Granted, Gottfried did an outstanding job this season. He directed the Crimson Tide (27-8) to its inaugural SEC Western Division title, first overall conference crown since 1987, league tournament runner-up and an NCAA Tournament berth. However, common sense reveals that Harrick deserved the SEC's top coaching honor more than Gottfried. What Gottfried achieved was expected, while the job Harrick did was absolutely amazing.

Anything short of winning the division title for Alabama would have been a major disappointment. On the other hand, Georgia was picked to finish last in the Eastern Division, and many felt the Bulldogs would be the SEC's worst team, counting both divisions.

Alabama began the season as a heavy favorite to win the SEC Western Division after reaching the NIT finals the season before. Gottfried's team had most of the necessary attributes to help ensure success--experience, size, speed and depth--while playing in the weaker of the conference's two divisions. Alabama returned Rod Grizzard, a first-team All-SEC selection and the conference's second-leading scorer and Erwin Dudley, a 260-pound center who was the only SEC player to average double figures in rebounding and scoring. The Crimson Tide also added guard Maurice Williams, who went on to earn 2001-2002 SEC Freshman of the Year honors, to an already formidable lineup.

Georgia lost five of its top seven scorers from the 2000-2001 team that barely made the NCAA Tournament with a 16-14 record. Only two starters returned, guards Rashad Wright and Ezra Williams. The frontcourt was depleted and while there were high expectations for Western Carolina transfer Jarvis Hayes, few envisioned how much of an impact he would make to the Bulldogs' fortunes so quickly.

Despite their obvious weaknesses, the Bulldogs won fourteen of their first sixteen games, including wins at Top Five-ranked Kentucky (88-84) and Florida (84-79) as well as a 86-68 rout of SEC Tournament Champion Mississippi State on those Bulldogs' home court. Georgia went on to tie for the SEC Eastern Division title and achieve its tenth 20-win (22-10) season in history and ninth NCAA Tournament berth.

Harrick also had to deal with more off-the-court problems in one season than most coaches will in the careers. One player (center Larry Turner) failed to qualify. Another (forward Damien Wilkins) had his eligibility appeal denied by the NCAA. And yet another, (point guard Mike Dean) was ineligible to play until the second semester because of a mistake involving his high school transcript. Then, backup point guard Tony Cole and forward Steven Thomas were suspended after being accused of an alleged rape at McWhorter Hall that still has yet to produce any charges against them or Bulldog football player Brandon Williams. After being allowed to play again by school officials, Thomas was suspended a second time for a home game against Florida by the SEC for heading toward the Auburn bench on Feb. 9 after he was slugged by a Tiger player. Also, Ezra Williams' brother was shot and killed a few days before the Florida game in Athens. No doubt, both happenings directly affected the Bulldogs play in a 85-70 loss. And to top it off, forward Chris Daniels was suspended for a half against Kentucky in Athens for throwing an elbow in the Auburn game. Inexplicably, the league did not announce Daniels' suspension until after reviewing videotapes of the game at the urging of Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.

Despite being short-handed in the first half of that game, the Bulldogs beat Kentucky 78-69 as Harrick completely outcoached Smith in a game that proved to be the difference in settling the tiebreaker between Kentucky and Florida that gave the Bulldogs the Eastern Division's top seed for the SEC Tournament.

Considering these facts, not only should Harrick have won the SEC's top coaching honor, he also should be National Coach of the Year. Harrick and first-year Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight have done far and away the best coaching jobs in collegiate basketball this season. I'm proud to say that Knight is a personal friend of mine and I consider him the best basketball coach of all-time. He may be the favorite to receive the National Coach of The Year award. He completely turned around a Texas Tech program in one season, like Harrick, without much talent to work with--six holdovers, four junior college transfers, two freshmen and a walk-on. However, it will be a farce if someone other than Knight or Harrick receive the award regardless of what happens the rest of the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps the best definition of a good coach is one who accomplishes the most with the available talent. Harrick has done that better than any coach in America this season.

It could happen that Harrick will be named National Coach of The Year, after not even being SEC Coach of The Year. And what a deserving slap in the SEC's face that would be.

Tim Gardner can be reached here: beluedawg@yahoo.com


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