ATHENS — I received an unsolicited phone call from Hugh Durham on Monday. That’s not to name-drop, but just to inform you that Georgia’s winningest basketball coach of all time still very much cares about Georgia basketball. And he, like everybody else, wanted to know what I’d been hearing about the Bulldogs’ coaching search.
Durham was fired as Georgia’s coach 23 years ago, almost to the day. Whoever UGA hires next will be the sixth coach it has had since he was dismissed.
“Evidently the job’s a lot harder than most people think,” Durham said with a chuckle.
The Bulldogs parted ways with Mark Fox on Saturday. At nine years, he lasted the longest of Durham’s five successors. Together those five averaged 4.6 years apiece.
“They had a real good one but he left after two years,” Durham said, referring to Tubby Smith, who left in 1997 to take over at Kentucky. “That was too bad, too, because I’m pretty sure that’s the only job he would’ve taken.”
It was, or so Smith has said. Alas, he won a national championship with the Wildcats, and now, three jobs later, he is embroiled in a political mess as coach at Memphis. Otherwise, Durham thinks Smith still could do good work at Georgia.
He thought Fox would do a good job, too, or was hoping so.
“I really like Mark,” said Durham, who won 298 games in 17 seasons at UGA. “He was a good coach. He just couldn’t over that hump.”
Durham said he really likes Thad Matta, too. The former Ohio State coach met with Georgia Athletic Director on Monday morning to discuss the Bulldogs’ vacancy. If he’s the least bit interested, Durham believes UGA should stop its search right there and do what it takes to hire him.
“I like Matta,” Durham said. “He’s the best coach out there. What might happen is you can’t get Matta. That’s what we don’t know.”
Indeed, Pittsburgh and Louisville are schools with basketball openings with which Matta’s name has been associated. He reportedly already talked to Ole Miss. So the competition for Matta will be intense.
Durham himself hasn’t coached in a while, but he remains a basketball junkie. He watches the best games every night in the TV room at his home in Jacksonville, Fla., and he remains very much plugged into basketball coaching circles. So he has strong opinions about who can coach and who can’t and what it takes to be successful in the SEC.
And from where he’s sitting, Matta is the best candidate Durham has heard of. It’s not only that Matta has a top-15 career winning percentage among basketball coaches of the last 50 years (.740) or that he did it in highly competitive basketball leagues such as the Big Ten and Atlantic 10. For Durham, it’s also notable that Matta won big at Ohio State, where he claimed nine conference titles (five in regular season) and advanced to two Final Fours and one championship game.
“Matta has been at a place where football is big, and that’s a different deal,” Durham said. “That’s a lot like what you have at Georgia and Kirby Smart right now.”
That’s just one of the reasons Durham likes Matta better than Tom Crean for the Georgia job. Crean has been at Marquette and Indiana, places where basketball reigns supreme. Durham said getting along well in basketball at a place where football rules is a key element to achieving success.
Durham thought Fox had a good knack for that, too. In the end, however, Durham said Fox’s poor rapport with AAU coaches in Atlanta probably prevented him from taking advantage of all the talent that should have been at his disposal.
Durham emphasized that doesn’t mean Fox needed to cheat. He simply needed to figure out how to work with them.
“AAU is like aspirin,” said Durham, who was inducted in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. “It’s generic. It’s not all bad. What’s bad is [AAU] teams being sponsored by shoe companies and only sending their guys to certain places based on that. But not all AAU teams are bad. You have to establish relationships and figure out how to work with them. If somebody starts talking about breaking rules, don’t do it.”
Durham said he remains in touch with his Georgia friends and former players and keeps a close eye on the program. He was at the LSU game in February to be recognized along with his 1983 Final Four team and he attended Georgia Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Macon.
Durham still believes Georgia can win big in basketball. It’s just a matter of getting the right guy at the right time.
That’s what the Bulldogs got when they brought Durham to Athens from Florida State in 1978. He, in turn, brought Dominique Wilkins and James Banks and Terry Fair and Vern Fleming a short time later.
That’s what he said the next coach has to do. Go find three or four top-notch players and “tell them to come play together at the best university in the South.”
He believes Matta or Crean could do that, but also somebody such as Georgia State’s Ron Hunter or College of Charleston’s Earl Grant. At the end of the day, it’s not terribly complicated.
“If you recruit Atlanta successfully and you can coach, you’re going to be OK,” Durham said.
He’s 80, otherwise he’d come do it himself.
“It’d cut into my golf time,” Durham cracked.