ATHENS – Kelley Hester was hired a decade ago as the head women’s golf coach at Georgia, her alma mater. And last week she celebrated at UGA’s golf course as her team qualified for the NCAA national tournament, an historic feat for her program.
The only problem was Hester’s team was Clemson, not Georgia, which was in the same NCAA regional last week. The Bulldogs didn’t qualify, finishing two spots behind Clemson. This was Hester’s first year at Clemson, after her contract was not renewed by Georgia in 2012. She went on to Furman, then to Clemson, which had never made the nationals, but now it has.
That was last week. This week the Georgia men’s golf team also had an early exit, finishing 10th in its regional and failing to make the national tournament. It was a surprising end for a program that has been relatively strong and keeps producing winners on the PGA Tour.
For some, it may be just golf, just another couple programs to which they don’t pay much mind. But it also continues what has been a rough year for Georgia athletics, perhaps the roughest in some time.
The two marquee teams had disappointing years: Football and men’s basketball, the travails of which have been broken down enough in these parts. Football, and to a lesser extent men’s basketball, are where most every athletics department hangs its hat, but Georgia has always prided itself on its all-sports success.
And this year, well …
Gymnastics, arguably the third-most visible program at Georgia, failed to make the Super Six and fired its coach.
The women’s basketball team, which was expected to have a down year due to its youth, did indeed.
Then there’s baseball, where the Diamond Dawgs were very, very mediocre for most of this season, but are making a late run to try to salvage something. After consecutive winning series over ranked teams, the Bulldogs can squeak into the SEC tournament, which takes the top 12 teams in the conference.
It may not be much, but in this year of malaise, they’ll take it.
This isn’t even accounting for tennis, where the NCAA championships being held in Athens over the next 10 days should be a source of excitement, but instead have so far been overshadowed by a brewing off-court scandal involving assistant coaches for the Georgia men’s and women’s teams.
Last year, Georgia finished 15th in the NCAA Director’s Cup, the all-sports rankings. It doesn’t look good for equaling that this year, as spring sports are usually Georgia’s strength, but golf struggled, so the tennis, track and softball teams will have to come up big. The concern now is equaling the 20th-place finishes that occurred in 2010 and 2011, which were the program’s worst ranking since 1997.
There’s enough going wrong that it’s natural to wonder whether there’s something systemic that’s amiss. UGA president Jere Morehead said he didn’t think so. Athletics director Greg McGarity did own up to coaching hires being his own responsibility. He also has pushed positive stories, such as the indoor track team finishing second (women) and fourth (men) at the NCAA championships in March. (“Publicity on these accomplishments was scarce following the meet,” McGarity wrote donors a couple days later.)
Georgia has the resources, both in terms of money and recruiting base, and has shown in the past it can be a great all-sports program. There are some very good coaches, and some very good people working in the administration, on all four floors of the Butts-Mehre building, who only want what’s best for UGA athletics.
Perhaps things will turn around. Perhaps it’s just one rough year.
But it has definitely been a rough year.