Special report: Are Georgia’s athletic programs in a state of ‘malaise’?

Georgia Florida Football 2016
Losses to rivals Florida (above), Georgia Tech and SEC foe Vanderbilt on the football have been lowlights for the UGA athletic program in the past year.

ATHENS – Brian Getzen Fortson is an Athens resident who has been going to Georgia athletics events since 1970. Last weekend he watched South Carolina, a program that in both basketball sports had been in the wildnerness in recent years, make two Final Fours, and win the women’s national championship.

Like many Georgia fans, Fortson shook his head as he watched that and wondered: Why can’t that be us? And why is Georgia struggling in so many sports right now?

“The amount of talent in this state, we should be great every year,” Fortson said. “We have the resources and money in this state. We should be the Stanford of the East. We are a sleeping giant and we just are not reaching our potential.”

Georgia is still very good in several sports in which it has been traditionally been strong: Men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s and women’s swimming, as well as equestrian. Those sports have had the same coaches since at least 2001.

But the school is struggling to get back to national prominence it once had in gymnastics and women’s basketball, while baseball has been an immense struggle. The baseball team is one of just two SEC teams with a losing record, and is in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the seventh straight year.

All that on top of the recent performance of the two most visible sports, football and men’s basketball, with close rivals excelling in those sports, and you have an angst-ridden fan base. Or in some cases, resigned to the current state.

Georgia Tech’s players enjoyed tearing up the hedges at Sanford Stadium after beating UGA last season.(AJC photo)

“Malaise is probably a good word,” said Michael Brochstein, who runs the popular Georgia fan blog Get The Picture. “Because I think there’s a certain portion of the fan base that just sits there and say, this is how we are. They tolerate this stuff.”

Struggling to rekindle former success

In the updated Director’s Cup Standings, which the NCAA uses to measure schools in all sports, Georgia ranks 24th in the latest NCAA Director’s Cup standings, updated Thursday, which measures how schools do in all their sports. Last year at this time Georgia ranked 28th, and eventually finished 15th, third in the SEC.

Not bad. But it’s a far cry from the heights of the 1990s and 2000s, when Georgia routinely finished in the top 10, and as high as second. In the 1990s, Georgia’s average finish in the Director’s Cup was 13.8. In the 2000s, the average finish was 9.9.

So far this decade, the average finish is 16.1.

Georgia won 36 NCAA-recognized national championships from 1987-2009. It has won five this decade, three in women’s swimming and two in equestrian. (Unfortunately for Georgia, equestrian doesn’t count in the Director’s Cup standings, and Georgia only has 20 varsity sports, so all have to count in the standings, while many schools can count sports like rifle and fencing. When athletics director Greg McGarity arrived in 2010, the program was ranked 20th, so while it has not improved much, it has not slipped either).

Brochstein remembers McGarity coming home from Florida in 2010 – after being part of the SEC’s best all-sports athletics department – talking about championships in all sports.

“If that’s the standard, this has not been a great era for Georgia athletics,” Brochstein said.

So what’s the problem?

There’s a perception among many fans that the school doesn’t spend enough, and is too guarded with its finances overall. USA Today compiles a financial database for all public universities, and in its most recent study, the 2014-15 fiscal year, Georgia ranked 25th in spending (just over $95 million), but 15th in revenue (just over $116 million). Among SEC schools, Georgia was 10th in spending, and eighth in revenue.

“There’s a perception that they’re concerned about funding first and winning second,” Brochstein said.

But many fans come back to the coaching turnover, where most recent hires haven’t come through.

Baseball, gymnastics, basketball woes

Scott Strickin was hired as the baseball coach four years ago after a successful run at Kent State, when he went to the College World Series. But his first three years ended with losing seasons, and this year the Bulldogs are 13-17. These are tough days for a program that went to three College World Series from 2004-08 and won the national championship in 1990.

The gymnastics program won 10 national championships, including five in a row from 2005-09, at which point legendary head coach Suzanne Yoculan retired. Her successor, Jay Clark, was fired after three seasons, replaced by Danna Durante. Under Durante, the Gym Dogs’ best finish at the final NCAA meet was fifth. This year the team has again qualified for the NCAA meet, after going 11-9 during the regular season and ranking No. 10 nationally.

As for women’s basketball, Joni Taylor just finished her second year, after being elevated from associate coach to succeed longtime head coach Andy Landers, who guided Georgia to five Final Fours and 20 Sweet 16 trips. Taylor took the team to the first round of the NCAAs last year, then went 16-15 this year, missing the NCAAs. (But this year’s team was young, and next year’s team brings in four recruits ranked in the top 100 nationally.)

Men’s basketball coach Mark Fox was under a cloud of uncertainty most of this past season. (DawgNation File)

Then there’s men’s basketball, where Mark Fox – a coach who McGarity inherited – has built the Bulldogs into a consistent winning program. But many fans want more than just the two NCAA trips in Fox’s eight years.

Meanwhile, Georgia fans see other schools raising trophies. What the SEC has done in football is well-chronicled, but the success of South Carolina – a school with zero national titles in any sport in the 20th century – is remarkable.

The Gamecocks won consecutive baseball national titles in 2010-11, then women’s basketball this year. And it’s long-struggling men’s basketball program surged to an improbable Final Four this year.

‘It’s just kind of sad for me’

Doug Bennett, a lawyer in Atlanta and season-ticket holder for basketball, said he supports Fox, but was still frustrated watching the Gamecocks in the Final Four.

“It’s just kind of sad for me,” Bennett said. “How are they doing this?”

There is at least one recently-hired coach who is having some success: Track. Petros Kyprianou, hired the summer of 2015, led the indoor track men to a second overall finish at the NCAA meet while the women finished fourth.

McGarity said Thursday he would prefer to wait until the season is over to comment in detail.

“The athletic year will be completed sometime in June. There’s so much to be played right now,” McGarity said. “Right now we are trending where we have been the last four years at this point, with other sports still in competition for the next three months.”

In the end, football remains the main focus. There isn’t much hand-wringing at Alabama over its No. 29 ranking in the Director’s Cup, because football is doing so well. But at Georgia, with its history of all-sports excellence, it’s different.

“Kirby’s recruiting well. Hopefully it’ll transfer to wins,” Fortson said. “But I think if you’re going to try to be excellent in everything, then try to be excellent in everything.”

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