A Layup, Not a Three: Why Damon Evans Should Aim Lower When Hiring the Georgia Bulldogs' Next Head Basketball Coach

There is a distinct limit to the extent to which I care about basketball at all, and much of the basis for what limited concern I do have is the fact that basketball is holding Georgia back. MaconDawg and the Georgia Sports Blog’s Paul Westerdawg know and care a lot more than I do about basketball, but here is one relatively ill-informed fan’s opinion on the events of recent days.

First of all, this situation stinks. Alabama got Anthony Grant, the candidate I preferred, and it never appeared that Georgia was on his radar screen; it was a question of whether he wound up in Gainesville (if Billy Donovan left for Kentucky) or Tuscaloosa. Athens never appeared to be seriously among the options Coach Grant was considering.

Next came Mike Anderson. Richard Pittman predicted that Coach Anderson would laugh in our face, and, while I don’t believe he regarded Georgia’s offer with derision, he took less to stay put and Missouri fans never seemed seriously worried that he would leave for the Peach State. Their focus always was on Memphis as a possible alternative destination.

Where, then, does that leave us? I greatly respect Damon Evans’s commitment to swinging for the fences in making what could be the hire by which his tenure as his alma mater’s athletic director is judged. Now that going for the home run ball has produced a strikeout and a flyout at the warning track, though, it is time to revise our short-term expectations.

I don’t like writing that, but I do so because others (namely, the aforementioned Pittman) are writing things like this: "Georgia may be the worst basketball coaching job in the conference. Georgia really has no tradition of success and it is even more firmly entrenched in football than other football powers in the conference." To that, the best retort I can offer is what Quinton McDawg wrote in January:

Before the 1990-91 season, Georgia basketball had two conference championships, cracked the AP top 25 in four seasons, and made four NCAA tournament appearances (although one was later vacated because of NCAA violations). Until that same season, Florida had won one conference championship, appeared in the AP top 25 four years, and had three NCAA tournament appearances. The two programs were virtually identical. . . .

So what happened in 1990? UF hired Lon Kruger to bring them from irrelevance to mediocrity. Kruger did just that. He also guided the Gators to a Final Four appearance. Kruger's results were spotty, but his hiring put UF basketball on a distinct upward trend. Then, when Kruger left, Billy Donovan came in and made the Gators a national power. All it took was good coaching hires and the commitment to the program that great coaches demand.

UF, a school with no appreciable basketball tradition, went on to win back-to-back national titles after their program's long history of losing. UGA, meanwhile, has remained stuck in its past, watching lots of upstarts with far fewer resources, a much smaller native talent base, and much less potential for national appeal pass the Dawgs by.

It’s hard to argue with that, which is why I argued this in response to Pittman:

Georgia is to S.E.C. basketball in 2009 what Florida was to S.E.C. football in 1989. (Actually, the Bulldogs have had more success in basketball than the Gators had enjoyed in football 20 years ago; Georgia has been to a Final Four, but Florida had never won a conference title.) With funding available, facilities improving, and a huge recruiting pool an hour’s drive away, Georgia is the "sleeping giant."

Unfortunately, we are where we are, and the widespread perception focuses much more on the present reality of the slumber than on the future prospects for being a force. While the status of the Georgia basketball program is not as bad as many outsiders imagine, the stature of that program is worse than we in Bulldog Nation could have conceived. Right now, Georgia is the sixth-best basketball program in the S.E.C. East by a wide margin and ours is the weakest basketball tradition in what historically has not been (with the obvious exception of Kentucky) an especially tradition-rich league for roundball.

The sad fact is that the present sorry state of affairs likely leaves us here:

At this point, I’ll be O.K. with not landing our Billy Donovan, as long as we land the equivalent of our Lon Kruger, who sets us up to land our Billy Donovan five years down the road. Maybe this job is just that bad at this point, and what we need is someone who can get us to crawl consistently so this job will become attractive to coaches who can teach us how to walk.

We tried to hire our Billy Donovan, or at least our Bruce Pearl. It didn’t work. We simply aren’t at the level of being able to entice the next Billy Donovan or Bruce Pearl to Athens; the last time we accomplished anything like that was when Vince Dooley hired Tubby Smith, and Georgia proved to be only a way station for Coach Smith along the road to Kentucky.

The guy who can take Georgia basketball to the level it is capable of occupying is out there, but, right now, he won’t return Damon Evans’s phone calls. That guy is choosing Tuscaloosa and maybe even Memphis over Athens. Trying to hire that guy now is folly and can only end in embarrassment.

Our Billy Donovan isn’t interested in being our Billy Donovan right now. Nevertheless, our Lon Kruger is out there---heck, our Lon Kruger may even be Lon Kruger---and it’s time to go hire him. He’s not the long-term solution, but he will get us from irrelevance to mediocrity. His results will be spotty, but he will put Georgia basketball on a distinct upward trend.

Then, and only then, will the giant have shown sufficient signs of being ready to awaken. Then, and only then, will Georgia be able to hire an elite basketball coach. The dorkiest kid in class just asked the head cheerleader to the senior prom on the theory that she might think he one day would be the next Bill Gates. The rejection was predictable. Now, rather than sulking and feeling sorry for himself, and rather than setting his sights on another cheerleader, that kid needs to ask the cutest junior in the band, in the hope that she’s at least somewhat in his league, that she will say yes, and that, once he’s been seen at the prom with her, the cheerleaders will start to take notice of him.

That’s where Georgia basketball is right now. We shouldn’t like it, but we have to accept it. The first step to finding a solution is admitting that there’s a problem. I applaud Damon Evans for failing while daring greatly. I respect him for going for the big hire. It was admirable, but it was overreaching. We can compete for a top-of-the-line coach in literally every other sport in which the Bulldogs take part, but basketball is the lone exception in which we languish pitifully far behind our peers.

We shouldn’t be looking for the Joshua who will lead us to the Promised Land while we yet remain in bondage in Egypt; first, we need the Moses who can guide us through the wilderness. It’s time to hire a coach we can get, one who’s good enough to make the Bulldogs good enough to stand a chance next time with the sorts of guys we should have known would turn us down this time.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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