ATHENS – It was late March, a couple hundred fans out on warm spring night, and the Georgia baseball team was trying to avoid losing to Kennesaw State. Down two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the first two Bulldogs struck out. The third batter reached on a slow grounder, bringing up the leadoff hitter – who also struck out swinging. Game over.
“We’re not anywhere near where we want to be yet,” Georgia head coach Scott Stricklin said afterwards. “That doesn’t mean this team can’t be a good team and win games and challenge to be a postseason team. But as a program we’re not where we need to be and where we want to be. But I can tell you, and I say this with a lot of confidence, that the future is very bright here.”
Stricklin’s team would go on to finish three games under .500, and a baseball program that went to three College World Series between 2004-08 has now missed the NCAA tournament five straight years.
In so doing, it highlights an overall Georgia athletics program that is still trying to get to the top level it once occupied.
It would be a stretch to call it a state of malaise: There were successes this school year, notably the softball team reaching the Women’s College World Series, the women’s swimming team winning an NCAA title, and the usual strong runs from the historically dominant tennis and golf programs, guided by their longtime coaches.
But there are other programs that have struggled after coaching changes to regain their former dominance, notably baseball and gymnastics.
It has now been six full school years since Greg McGarity took over as Georgia’s athletics director. While many will judge him ultimately by how the two most visible sports (football and men’s basketball) have fared, the school has a total of 21 sports. And looking at it on the whole, frankly, the needle has not moved much in either direction.
By one measure, things have slightly improved under McGarity: It went from 20th in the Director’s Cup standings – the NCAA’s all-sports annual measurement – the year McGarity arrived, to a few spots higher. Georgia ranked 12th in the most recent Director’s Cup standings, which include everything but baseball. McGarity expects Georgia will end up 15th in the final standings, and third among SEC schools, behind Florida and Texas A&M.
“We’ll finish ahead of some schools that people think of as premier programs,” McGarity said. “We’ll finish ahead of Oklahoma, and Notre Dame, Penn State, a lot of schools that we are in the conversation about as far as top programs in the country. So across the board it’s a great testimony to a great balanced sports program.”
But that’s still far from where Georgia was a decade ago. It routinely finished second to Florida among SEC schools, and occupied a spot in the top 10 seven times between 1999-2008. The Bulldogs were second in the nation in 1999 and third in 2001. Still, things have definitely improved since the low point of consecutive 20th-place finishes in 2010-11.
By another measure, things have slipped a bit: In Damon Evans’ six years as athletics director (July 1, 2004 until his ouster almost exactly six years later), Georgia teams won 11 NCAA titles and 23 SEC titles. In McGarity’s six years, there have been four NCAA titles and 19 SEC titles.
McGarity was at Florida for nearly two decades under Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, who is set to retire this fall after establishing Florida as the SEC’s preeminent all-sports power. Foley is reputed to have started his tenure by asking each of his head coaches whether they could win a national title at Florida, and if they said no, they were soon gone.
“Sure. I would say the same thing,” McGarity said. “Absolutely, these are destination jobs. They’re not a stopover.”
In his six years at Georgia, McGarity has made seven head coaching changes. Football last year was obviously the most notable — and most debated — and a verdict will take awhile. As for the other six hires, the book remains out on them all.
McGarity’s very first hire was in volleyball. Things cratered last year under fifth-year coach Lizzy Stemke as the team went 5-25 overall and 0-18 in the SEC. But McGarity stands by his coach.
“We’re trying to create some history there, for something that’s never been a priority here at Georgia,” McGarity said. “It takes time.”
The early signs were good on women’s basketball, where first-year coach Joni Taylor guided her team to the NCAA tournament this year. It’s still early in the tenures of the track and soccer coaches, while women’s golf finally saw improvement in its fourth year under Josh Brewer.
That leaves gymnastics and baseball, two programs that helped propel Georgia’s all-sports standings success during the last decade. They were led by Suzanne Yoculan, who retired in 2010 after a legendary career, and David Perno, who was fired after the 2013 season.
Yoculan’s initial successor, Jay Clark, was fired by McGarity after three years and replaced by Danna Durante. The team has made it back to the Super Six three of the past four seasons, but has yet to reach the heights of the Yoculan years.
“I think Danna’s done a great job moving that program forward, succeeding probably the Nick Saban of gymnastics,” said McGarity, meaning Yoculan.
As for baseball, McGarity said the early decision-making in the recruiting process means a coach has to start out concentrating on high school underclassmen. There were some fans already calling for Stricklin’s removal, but McGarity – who has yet to fire someone he himself hired – opted not to make Stricklin the first.
“These positions are not popularity contests, as we all know,” said McGarity, referring to his own. “They’re about making some tough decisions at times. And just doing the best you can.”