Bop and Anonymous commented earlier and left two questions that I wanted to address as a part of separate posts.
Bop asked whether I thought Felton saved his job by winning the SEC Tournament.
My answer: Probably.
I am a Felton supporter and my comments are longer than my usual posts, so feel free to skip the rest if you like. But here are my opinions:
When Felton arrived at Georgia, he had no bench. Successive classes of recruiting had yielded few, if any, players. John Wooden would have lost with what Felton had to work with.
To make matters worse, Georgia had an NCAA investigation looming over its head. The NCAA eventually put Georgia on probation for four years and took away three scholarships. Felton worked to get the penalties reduced, and the NCAA lessened the penalties, but only because UGA's self-imposed penalties were so harsh.
Meanwhile, the Athletic Department placed a high priority on straightening things out, so that no future NCAA violations would occur. Recruiting would be very tough, and making sure that the existing players did the right thing would mean that everyone on the roster would have to adjust, and some might not make it. Cleaning up a mess is needed work, but a janitor has few friends.
Fans, by and large, don't care as much about compliance, academics and the like. In no small way, fans often live vicariously through their teams. It really matters to supporters of college athletics whether their team wins or loses.
So how was the athletic department supposed to respond? High requirements for the coach, few players, and lots of fans demanding prompt results? Last year marked Felton's fifth year at UGA. Hadn't Felton had long enough?
Five years sounds like a long time, but when you have no bench, have to start from scratch with recruiting, and have NCAA sanctions to deal with, it really is only enough time for you to cobble together whoever you can get for your first couple of recruiting classes and get them established as performing upperclassmen.
Yet, the wins were much fewer than the losses, and pressure from the fans and community had been raised. What to do?
I think the athletic department should have applied the appropriate measuring stick, which in my opinion can be phrased as follows: "How has Felton performed given the state of the program when he arrived and the size of the job he was asked to do?" Said another way, "Has he rebuilt the program, based on Credibility/Compliance, Academics, Recruiting, and performance on the court?"
I think that UGA's athletic director, Damon Evans, really missed an opportunity to frame the debate and to shape the expectations of UGA fans. When Evans was publicly non-committal in supporting Felton prior to the SEC Tournament, some fans cheered Evans on. Others questioned: How serious are we about doing things the right way?
If a coach has no bench and the athletic department institutes new policies on class attendance, etc., then the school has to take a long term approach. During that time, the department should carefully follow whether the rebuilding process has begun in earnest, and whether the team is moving toward the goals set for the program.
Georgia had gone from 8 wins to 15 wins the next season, and then from 15 wins to 19 wins in 2006/2007. Mercer and Brown were dismissed at the beginning of 2007/2008. The team's record slipped. Was the program still headed in the right direction? Was it still growing?
There was no doubt in my mind that Felton had rebuilt the program, but it was hard to see. Why? Because growth is not an event. It's a process.
The process will take time. All processes do. But if you build a structure with integrity, the results will come. Conversely, if you do not build correctly, then although you may have more wins in the short term, the whole program may come crashing down later.
Growth, both in nature and in athletics, often occurs while we're not looking. It takes place underground or while we're sleeping, or may be so slow and steady that it is unappreciated-- until there is an event that arrests our attention-- until in Georgia's case the growth is brought sharply into focus in the reflection of an SEC Tournament Championship Trophy.
Georgia players had been working out. Gaining confidence. Persevering. Learning. Training. Losing games in some instances, but staying with it. Getting closer. Growing, even when the record of wins and losses suggested otherwise. And when the team needed to pull together in ways that seemed impossible, the mental toughness and the physical stamina were there to be summoned.
So, what would Evans have done if UGA, instead of winning the SEC Tournament, had been bounced in the first round? Hard to say with any degree of certainty, but it looked to me that he was about to replace Felton. Ironically, had another coach been hired, he may have come in and posted a record that was substantially better than Felton's in his first few years, but a large part of that success would have come because Felton had done the hardest part of the job.
Fox Sports Article
So I would have kept Felton, not because he aced every exam, but because he had done more than enough to keep his job and work toward enjoying the benefits of all the hard work he did to make the program respectable again.
Here are my grades on Felton:
I think that Felton has done a remarkable job in restoring credibility to the program. Georgia quietly emerged from NCAA probationary status, which in itself is a significant achievement. We had no margin for error, and Felton deservedly gets the credit for making sure we were on top of compliance issues.
Academic Achievement: B+
Athletes arrive on campus, and if they have ever been pushed to buckle down academically, most certainly have never had to study hard enough to make it through the kind of curriculum they face at the university level. Georgia recently achieved an APR rate that was second only to Vanderbilt for SEC basketball programs. How did that happen? Felton had to work at it. He had to insist that his players show up at class and study hall. Having graduated with honors himself, Felton is serious about graduating all of his players.
Better and better in this area. Felton worked hard to scour the nation for guys who would be willing to play for the team. He found Gaines in New York, Bliss in Wisconsin, Woodbury in Virginia. The 2007 class looked really good. The 2008 class is even better. Now, can Georgia haul in Favors? If so, the lid on Georgia recruiting will be blown off. I really do think so.
Wins and Losses: C
Although you can't measure him solely by this criterion, the record of wins and losses is certainly part of the caculation. And Georgia has fallen short here. We play in a tough conference. Florida and LSU and Kentucky and Tennessee. It's going to be hard to have a great record when you go up against each of these programs two or three times a year. However, Felton has to find a way to do it.
I want wins as much as anybody. I hope that we start to see very exciting basketball soon.