Sometimes it seems like football sucks all the oxygen out of the room at UGA.
But that’s certainly not the case, as was driven home this past week when new head baseball coach Wes Johnson was introduced.
It wasn’t just the celebrated pitching coach’s resume with the Minnesota Twins and College World Series contender LSU that had everyone excited, either.
Providing a boost to the non-gridiron aspects of the university’s sports program was Director of Athletics Josh Brooks’ announcement that UGA is projected to finish eighth in the Learfield Directors’ Cup when the final standings are released later this month. That would be Georgia’s best showing in the overall national ranking of college athletics programs since 2018, when it also finished eighth.
Brooks, who was one of six finalists for the Sports Business Journal’s Athletic Director of the Year award this year, mentioned Tuesday that he said “when I got this job that we want to win championships in all 21 sports. … We want to be good in every sport that we have.”
Over the previous three years, UGA placed No. 19 (2022), 10 (2021) and 21 (2019). Georgia hasn’t finished in the Top 5 of the Directors’ Cup listing since 2004. It ranked third in 2001 and second in 1999.
The final Directors’ Cup standings will be released after the College World Series
Brooks said his goal, naturally, is to do much better than eighth place in the Directors’ Cup, which takes into account the highest finishes in 19 NCAA sports. As he put it back in May, when he was awarded a raise and contract extension: “If we’re keeping score, I want to win.”
(To encourage that sort of thinking, his new contract, running through 2029, includes incentive bonuses based on Georgia’s Directors’ Cup finish.)
Brooks fired head baseball coach Scott Stricklin after another mediocre finish that saw the Diamond Dawgs lose in the first round of the SEC tournament. But, overall, UGA had a pretty good athletics year. Besides another natty for Kirby Smart’s Dawgs, all of Georgia’s sports programs reached the postseason except four: men’s basketball, baseball and men’s and women’s cross country.
Among the highlights: Ethan Quinn of the men’s tennis team won the 2023 NCAA Singles National Championship as the team made the quarterfinals. He was named the 2023 Intercollegiate Tennis Association National Rookie of the Year.
Also, Will Sumner of the men’s track and field team won the 800 meters event at the NCAA Outdoor Championships (first time UGA has won that event), the women’s track and field team had its seventh Top 10 finish in the past nine years, the women’s tennis team was ranked in the Top 5 for the 18th time in 38 seasons, the women’s indoor track team finished fifth while the women’s outdoor team was 10th, softball reached the NCAA super regional round, and the soccer and volleyball teams reached the NCAA tournament for the first time in nine and 10 years, respectively.
Meanwhile, facility improvements continue apace at UGA. Phase 1 of the Sanford Stadium south side renovations are due to finish in August, construction is on schedule in the renovation of the tennis facility, a new basketball weight room in Stegeman Coliseum is planned and UGA announced plans for a new track and field complex to be constructed on South Milledge Avenue, across from the soccer and softball complexes. It will include both indoor and outdoor tracks. The site of the current UGA track on Lumpkin Street will be converted to two all-grass football practice fields.
They’re also upgrading the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall museum this summer, with the emphasis being on Vince Dooley, as well as Georgia’s national championships.
Also in the works are renovations of the Jack Turner Softball Stadium and Foley Field, home of the Georgia baseball program.
Meanwhile, in May UGA’s athletics board announced a $13 million increase in the department’s budget, rising to $175.2 million for the 2024 fiscal year from $162.2 million for the 2023 year. In a USA Today ranking of revenue and expenses for more than 230 NCAA Division 1 public school athletics departments for fiscal year 2022, UGA ranked fifth behind Ohio State, Texas, Alabama and Michigan, with total revenue of just over $203 million and expenditures of $169 million.
ABOUT THAT 2024 SEC SCHEDULE
With the announcement this week of the SEC’s stopgap, one-off football schedule for 2024, Georgia ended up with a pretty rough lineup of road games and a middling group of opponents in Athens.
Georgia’s home SEC opponents will be Auburn, Mississippi State and Tennessee. The Dawgs will visit Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Texas. In addition, Georgia will play Florida in Jacksonville and Clemson in Atlanta. Also visiting Athens will be Tennessee Tech, UMass and Georgia Tech.
The home schedule certainly will be better than 2023′s embarrassment, but still not great, with two cupcakes on the minus side, Mississippi State and Tech being OK opponents and Auburn and Tennessee the games with the greatest fan appeal. And I’m pleased that the schedule maintains the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, for now.
The trip to Tuscaloosa has drawn a lot of whining and moaning from Bulldog Nation, because the last time the Tide and the Dawgs played in the regular season (2020) also was an Alabama home game. These folks figure the conference should have had Bama traveling to Athens. However, since when does the SEC ever think about what’s fair for Georgia when it rejiggers its schedule? Last time, they worked it so that UGA ended up playing at Auburn two years in a row. This time, at least the two trips to Tuscaloosa are four years apart.
However, if the next time Georgia and Bama meet after 2024 also is in Tuscaloosa, the folks at Butts-Mehre should raise a ruckus, rather than adopting their usual “Thank you sir, may I have another” stance when it comes to the conference.
Overall, in the long run I’m hopeful that the SEC getting rid of divisions will lead to a general upgrading of the Dawgs’ home schedule, as they’ll no longer face annual games against the weaker SEC East programs and will play more SEC West teams.
True, going undefeated in the regular season might become more difficult, but a 12-team College Football Playoff should balance that out.
The hopes for more attractive home schedules Between the Hedges especially should be bolstered if the conference finally bites the bullet and adds a ninth conference game in 2025, eliminating one of those wasted days at Sanford Stadium devoted to who-gives-a-crap lesser nonconference teams. (That decision apparently depends on ESPN ponying up more money for the extra conference game, which seems likely.)
Still, whether it’s an eight- or nine-game schedule, in the divisionless SEC everyone will play everyone else in the conference twice every four years, which is the way it should be.
One final note: Many college football observers had expected the 2024 schedule to have Georgia finally making its long-awaited visit to College Station to play Texas A&M there for the first time since the Aggies joined the SEC, and they were shocked to see that the Dawgs’ trip out to the Southwest will have them facing the Longhorns in Austin, instead.
Me, I don’t really care. While I agree that Georgia and A&M having met only once in a regular season game in a dozen years is ridiculous, I consider any season you don’t have to listen to the blathering of Jimbo Fisher to be a blessing. On the plus side, a friend joked this week that he suspects by the time the Dawgs actually do make it to College Station, Jimbo won’t be there any longer.
BULLDOG CLUB UPDATE
Those fans donating $100 or more to the Hartman Fund this year are supposed to get a Georgia Bulldog Club membership packet that includes a national championship garden flag in addition to the usual schedule magnet and car decal. (Those who increased their contribution by 10% or more also are to receive a national championship commemorative coin.)
If, like me, you were wondering whether you should have received your packet by now, I contacted the club and got this response: “The membership packets have yet to be sent out. You can expect to receive this before the start of the season/end of the summer. Our apologies for the wait!”
NEW FOR YOUR BOOKSHELF
It took a while, but Kirby Smart’s book about the 2021 national championship season, written with Loran Smith, finally came out this month.
“How ‘Bout Them Dawgs! The Inside Story of Georgia Football’s 2021 National Championship Season” (UGA Press, $39.95) is a large-format hardcover look at the season, with 150 color photos, many of them by the terrific Cassie Wright.
Most of the book is written in the first-person from Smart’s point of view, as he gives a game-by-game account of the season, which saw Georgia win its first natty in 41 years. There also are lots of features on the team’s players.
It’s interesting to note that Smart reports Nick Saban told him after the championship game in Indianapolis that “Y’all got us in the fourth quarter, you outplayed us.” “That was big to me,” Smart says, “because we had lost so many games to them in the final period of play.”
Another noteworthy tidbit: Although Georgia won the semifinal game against Michigan handily, Smart noticed that his players were fatigued in the fourth quarter, so he stepped up conditioning before the championship faceoff with Bama. It paid off.
While the book is about the 2021 season, there is an afterword featuring a transcript from the press conference after the Dawgs had demolished TCU for their second consecutive national title earlier this year.
Speaking of the 2022 national championship season, another hardcover book about it arrived after I’d done my earlier wrapup of commemorative volumes. “Double Dawgs: How Kirby Smart’s Dawgs Reached Perfection in 2022″ ($39.95) features recaps of all the season’s games by Dean Legge of Dawg Post. It’s a fairly no-frills affair, but I did get a kick out of the foreword by comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who says of the semifinal game against Ohio State: “Trailing by 14 points early in the fourth quarter, Georgia’s young defense stiffened its back, and Stetson got that pissed-off squint in his eye,” leading to a Dawgs win. That seems to sum up latterday Stetson Bennett perfectly.
Finally, another book out, “Dawgs Rising: How Kirby Smart Tranformed Georgia Into a Perennial Contender” ($39.95, Pediment) is a collection of Athens Banner-Herald articles from the Smart era in Athens. The first printing was last year, but a new printing this year adds recaps of the first two games of the 2022 season (why only two?) and several articles by Marc Weiszer about the second consecutive national championship and looking ahead to Georgia setting its sights on a “three-peat.” The pictures in this one, which has the same horizontal hardcover format as the ABH’s book on the 2022 season, are very nice.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
As I’ve noted here before, Dawgs fandom tends to be a family thing, handed down from generation to generation, and a lot of us owe our initial UGA exposure to our fathers.
In the past, I’ve written about my own father being a lifelong Dawgs fan, and also have had other fans tell their Bulldog father stories. This year, I was asked to write about my dad for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Father’s Day edition. My story is in Sunday’s print paper on the front of the Living & Arts section, and subscribers can check out the online version. Meanwhile, anyone can read the free, expanded version on my Quick Cuts blog, with many more stories about the best man — and Dawg — that I ever knew. If your father is still around, and is responsible for you being a Dawgs fan, be sure to thank him!