Felton wants fans to fill seats

ATHENS – At least three bus loads of Tennessee fans will be coming to Athens this weekend for the Volunteers men's basketball game against Georgia.

First-year Volunteer coach Bruce Pearl has been encouraging the excursions all week with the promise that there will be plenty of tickets available at Stegeman Coliseum.

"That's a real sad commentary," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said Wednesday.

Pearl already has ruffled some feathers in the SEC with his style, but Felton is not upset at the Tennessee coach's assumption that Bulldog fans will leaves plenty of tickets up for grabs. In fact, he sadly agrees with Pearl.

"I've been disappointed in our crowds this year," Felton said. "Sometimes, I don't know if our fans understand how special it is what we've already accomplished this year. I don't sense it."

Georgia, which had an open date Wednesday, is 14-8 overall and 4-5 in the SEC heading into Saturday's game against the No. 11 Volunteers. The Bulldogs, who are bouncing back from their worst season in 30 years, have averaged announced crowds of 6,960 in 10 home games. That's the third-lowest total in the conference, ahead of Auburn (4,582) and Ole Miss (3,785).

"We go into that Florida game (on Jan. 7) flying pretty high, got the No. 5 team in the country in here, it's Florida, and I was taken aback (how small the crowd was)," Felton said.

Georgia officials announced a crowd of 9,204 for the game against the Gators. Stegeman seats 10,523 and hasn't sold out this season.

"They had 23,000," at Tennessee for the Georgia game on Jan. 11, Felton said. "We'd like some of the same."

The Volunteers actually had 21,612 in Knoxville for that game. Georgia's largest home crowd of the season was 10,027 against Kentucky on Jan. 17.

The Volunteers (17-3, 8-1 SEC) are averaging 17,070 fans per home game, the second-highest total in the SEC. Pearl, who was featured on a five-minute segment of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption on Wednesday, is a fiery salesman of his program and has visited more than 200 local organizations in Knoxville to promote the Vols.

Felton also beats the bushes for support, he said.

"I hardly ever say no," he said.

Like Pearl, Felton knew he was fighting an uphill battle when he accepted his current job. The Bulldogs and Volunteers each play a distant second fiddle to their school's football teams and have little basketball tradition.

Georgia has won just one SEC championship in its 73 years in the league, and its 40.9 percent winning percentage is the third-worst among the school's 12 current members. (Tennessee has won eight titles in 72 years.)

"It's never been done here," Felton said. "We have to eliminate the reasons it's never been done here. I know that we have to put an incredible effort into building the program into something special in all facets. It goes way beyond just coaching and playing."

The fans don't seem to be the only people who Felton wishes would pay closer attention to his team. When asked if the administration had given him everything he needed to build a first-rate program, he paused for several moments before saying, "We're working at it. It's just one more area that we're working at."

And while his pleas to his bosses are in private, his prodding of the fan base is very public. One of the reasons Felton has been so vocal about his team's chance of making the NCAA Tournament, however remote it may be, is to draw attention to a positive, he said.

"I'm wondering how many people understand we are one of very small percentage of teams in the country who still have a shot to reach the ultimate goal (the tournament)," he said. "I guess I just want people to understand."

He's trying to sell everything from Georgia's fast tempo pace – the Bulldogs are fifth in the SEC in scoring with 73.2 points per game – to its youth – they have just two upperclassmen on their scholarship roster.

"It's a team you get to really watch grow up," he said. "I'm certain that we can have incredible passion behind basketball here."

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