ATHENS – Jim Harrick is retired now, living in Los Angeles, and yes, still keeping tabs on the Georgia basketball program he left 13 years ago. The circumstances of his departure weren’t good, but the feelings on his end are warm.
“I follow them a lot. Absolutely,” Harrick said. “I think (Mark Fox) has a nice team this year. That little guard (J.J. Frazier) is really good. You’re in there with that monster Kentucky all the time. But they’ve been decent.”
And yet, decent isn’t enough for some in the fan base. As Georgia once again fights for an NCAA tournament berth, the angst among the fan base – such as it is for UGA basketball – is again in full form.
But is that angst reasonable? Should Georgia fans expect more than a team that’s decent, based on the program’s history, support and talent base?
This reporter sought out the opinions of two former Georgia head coaches, another former SEC head coach, two national analysts, and a national recruiting analyst. They were asked the central question: How good should Georgia basketball be?
From those conversations, a consensus emerged.
WHAT SHOULD EXPECTATIONS BE?
In Georgia’s practice gym, there is a collage on one wall, featuring former players like Dominique Wilkins, Jarvis Hayes and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and current head coach Mark Fox. On the other wall is a banner for each NCAA tournament trip. There are only 12, for a program that has played basketball since 1905.
“Georgia is one of those jobs people often say is a sleeping giant or whatever — mostly because of the Atlanta recruiting base. But then you look at the history of the program and nobody has ever just killed it there,” said Gary Parrish, a national college basketball writer for CBSsports.com. “Only two Sweet 16s ever. Only two league titles since 1931. So all of the evidence suggests it’s a difficult job, which is why you never really hear people in the industry speak negatively about the job Mark’s done or doing. He’s been to two NCAA Tournaments. That’s more than most Georgia coaches have made.”
Hugh Durham took Georgia to the Final Four in 1983, and remains the program’s most storied coach. Since he left in 1995, success has been fleeting: Tubby Smith had two good years (including a Sweet 16) then got the Kentucky job. Harrick made two NCAA tournaments and was on the way to a third before the Tony Cole scandal hit, and he was forced out.
Out of the 12 NCAA trips, Georgia has gone out in the first round eight times.
As for the SEC tournament, only twice have the Bulldogs won it: 2008 and 1983. It has only made the final game six times, and the semifinals 15 times – including each of the past three years.
So what should expectations be for this program?
“To me, I think if you’re going to the tournament twice every four years at Georgia, that’s pretty good,” said Jeff Goodman, a national basketball writer for ESPN.
Harrick essentially agrees.
“I think reasonable is making the tournament, and getting hot one year. Hugh took them to the Final Four,” Harrick said. “We had some good teams when I was there. I think it’s reasonable to be good. I don’t know that they’re going to be good every year, but you get a group of kids in there and do a good job of recruiting, you have a nice little run.”
Dave Odom, the former coach at Wake Forest and South Carolina, is now semi-retired, doing color analyst work on television, and enjoying some ACC games from his home.
When the remote control lands on Georgia games, something sticks out.
“When I look at a Georgia basketball game, the first thing I look at is the crowd,” Odom said. “I look at the stands. I don’t care if it’s mid-week or the weekend, rarely does a game begin and Stegeman Coliseum where there’s not at least as many empty seats as there are full seats filled. And that creates an atmosphere in the coliseum that just drains you, as a participant, as a player, as a coach, it takes away from the excitement of competing. When you know you don’t have some of the advantages from fan support that some of the competition in the league has.”
That’s not just a symbolic problem, as Odom and others point out: Poor attendance affects recruiting (players want to play in good atmospheres), and the ability to win home games (Odom guessed that Georgia loses a couple games per year where a better crowd would put the home team over the top.)
“I go straight to the fans and say: Do you really want a top-flight program? And then if you do, buy a ticket, go in the stands 30-40 minutes before gametime, and get behind your team,” Odom said. “Because the coaching is there. That will excite players, and it will help recruit more players from the natural Georgia area.”
The push-back from fans: Put a better product on the court and the fans will come out. The chicken-and-the-egg scenario. The evidence, however, is that it’s not that simple.
Last year, after making the NCAA tournament the year before, Georgia ranked 65th nationally and 11th in the SEC in basketball attendance, averaging 7,345 per game.
Two years ago, during the run to the NCAAs, Georgia ranked 64th nationally and 11th in the SEC, averaging 7,517 per game.
The best season Georgia has had recently was 2001-02, when the team won 22 games and was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Even then, Georgia ranked just 48th nationally in attendance and sixth in the SEC, averaging 9,064 fans per game.
Although Harrick pointed out that his post-football season crowds were good.
“We were packing it when I left,” Harrick said. “When I left, we were drawing 9-10,000 a game.”
The biggest onus, according to Odom, is on the students. They’re the ones who create atmosphere and excitement, and then it rubs off on the rest of the crowd.
“I don’t think it’s the coaching. And I don’t think it’s the recruiting. And I don’t think it’s the administration. All those things you can blame, but then in truth it goes right to the students, and it goes right to the paying fans. They will demand excellence by their presence. They will demand basketball excellence by their loyal attendance,” Odom said.
“I think they’re right there on the cusp of being a nationally appreciated program that needs a boost. And the boost should come from the fans, and the students. I think at that point the fans can push them over, if they’d get in there behind them.”
Harrick had three words when it came to what it takes to win at Georgia: “Recruit. Recruit. Recruit.”
“Georgia is a great basketball job because there are so many players in the state of Georgia,” Harrick said. “Certainly there are so many people in there recruiting. It’s like Southern California, everyone comes in here. But boy, there’s a lot of players in the state of Georgia. A lot of players. And hopefully a lot of them want to go to Georgia. Hopefully.”
Emphasis on that last word: Hopefully.
There is one former Georgia player currently in the NBA: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was also Fox’s highest-rated recruit, a McDonald’s All-American in 2011. The second-highest rated, forward Rayshaun Hammonds, is a top 50 national recruit this year.
Otherwise, Fox has relied mostly on signing less heralded players and developing them. Critics wonder why he’s not able to rack up more elite prospects in a talent-rich state.
Analysts say it’s not that simple. And it wouldn’t be for any Georgia coach.
The first is ethics. Fox, according to ESPN’s Goodman, is not “on an even playing field.”
“There’s a lot of guys that cheat. Mark Fox isn’t one of them. That makes it awfully difficult,” Goodman said. “He’s gotten good players. But is he ever going to get the top 25 players at Georgia? Probably not unless if you’re cheating.”
Even if Fox did want to go into those “unsavory aspects,” it seems clear his administration would prevent it. Ever since the NCAA problems and subsequent violations in the early 2000s, the edict to any UGA basketball coach has been clear: Win, yes, but don’t get into trouble doing it.
“The expectations are tough. Especially, again, when you’re trying to do it the right way, which Mark Fox has,” Goodman said. “It’s not apples to apples. It’s not. Some fans don’t care. (They say), Hey, get players however you can, do whatever you can to get results. Listen, the next guy you get, if you make a move, may not be able to coach or get talent.”
The second issue, especially when it comes to in-state recruiting: Yes, there’s lots of talent in Georgia. But how many of those players grow up wanting to play basketball at Georgia?
And with all that talent in this state, a UGA coach is hardly able to put the proverbial fence around it.
“Schools all across the country are going to recruit Atlanta, and Georgia. So you’re competing against everyone,” said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “You have an advantage of being the state school and the local school. But it’s not like Georgia has a storied basketball tradition where kids are growing up with posters of Georgia basketball on their wall, or going to Georgia basketball camps. So that’s what you’re going up against.”
That said, it’s hard to argue Georgia’s recruiting couldn’t have been better. Fox, who came from Nevada, without any natural connections to the area, took awhile to develop contacts, and recruiting is only now catching up. Even then, and with Hammonds on the way, Georgia’s current class only ranks 56th nationally on the 247Sports Composite, and in bottom half of the SEC.
“My perception is that it’s going okay,” Meyer said. “I do like Hammonds and (forward Nicolas) Claxton, I think they’ve got two guys there that they can work with. Those are two good players, but let’s look at how everyone else is doing. Auburn, and others, knocking on the door of top 10 classes.”
Fox’s record at Georgia currently stands at 142-110, and his SEC record is 65-62. His overall winning percentage (.563) is just behind Hugh Durham (.580), who coached from 1979-95 and was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame two months ago.
Fox has guided Georgia to four 20-win seasons, two NCAAs and two NITs. But he has not yet gotten out of the first round of the NCAA tournament.
““I think Fox has done a solid job. But I think even he would tell you he’d have liked to have gotten another tournament bid within the amount of time that he’s been there,” ESPN’s Goodman said.
Said Parrish, the CBSsports.com analyst: “I’m sure the fans want more because fans always want more. But I can tell you this definitively: Mark is respected by his peers. I’ve literally never heard anybody question whether he is, all things considered, doing a good job at Georgia.”
Athletics director Greg McGarity, who arrived at Georgia one year after Fox, has consistently backed his basketball coach. McGarity did not want to comment for this story, saying he will speak after the season, as he always does, but after last season he praised Fox’s leadership, pointed to a “different vibe around the program,” and pointed to the program’s tradition. Or lack thereof.
“Our history is not really good. We’ve had buckets of success,” McGarity said. “What we’ve been able to do three years in a row, to be able to play on Saturday three years in a row in the SEC tournament, they’re sort of building blocks.”
As Goodman and Parrish said, it’s hard to find people in the industry who are anything but laudatory about Fox. Even those who preceded him.
Pete Herrmann, who was the interim head coach after Dennis Felton was fired in 2009. So Herrmann immediately preceded Fox. Now the head coach at Young Harris, a Division II school, Herrmann thinks Fox has done “an outstanding job.”
“The numbers speak for themselves. If Mark Fox wins 20 games, it will be his fourth straight year of winning 20 games. No one has done that, including Hall of Fame coach Hugh Durham,” Herrmann said. “Dennis Felton was hired to rebuild the program. I always felt that he did. Mark Fox came in under different circumstances, but I just think he’s done well.”
Georgia enters Wednesday night’s game against Alabama with a 12-7 overall record, and 4-3 in the SEC. It will need a strong finish to make the NCAAs, and if a bid doesn’t come, it will produce more calls for a change.
Not a good idea, according to many watching from afar, who see the program on sound footing, set to have another solid team next year.
“Georgia fans, be careful what you ask for. Because it could be a whole lot worse,” Goodman said. “You’ve got two (NCAA) tournaments in seven years, you’re knocking on the door a couple other times. The other part is early on, Mark Fox wasn’t entrenched in that area. It took him awhile just to get up to speed so he could get guys like Hammonds.
“Now at least, if he doesn’t get it done the next three or four years, I get it. I totally get it. But it takes generally, when you’re not from the area and you get the job, the first couple years you’re not getting players. You’re not. It takes awhile to get up to speed. I think really you’ve got to judge him here in what he’s doing to do in the next couple years. But trust me, it could be a lot worse.”
Harrick, the last coach to take two straight Georgia teams to the NCAA tournament, is also on the “stay the course” track.
“I think Mark Fox is a really good basketball coach and I think he’ll get it done there,” Harrick said. “I think he’ll start consistently having really good teams. It takes awhile to get your bearings and get your feet on the ground and know the area. I think he does now. I think he’s got some really good assistants. Jonas Hayes is there. So I think they’ll do well.
“I’m counting on them to do well. I’m pulling for them.”