I've struggled mightily over the past couple of weeks with my feelings for the University of Georgia basketball team. As you may have noticed, there's been a lot of talk about the state of the program. Rule one of college athletics: when the "state of the program" conversations begin, the state of the program clearly isn't all that good. Such is the case in Camp Felton, where the 'Dawgs ate a series of creampuffs to start the season, and have proven completely incapable of competing in the SEC ever since.
That's not entirely Dennis Felton's fault. Tennessee is a top 10 team. Florida won the past two national titles and has a roster that, while young, is loaded with talent. Kentucky will always be able to bring in quality basketball players and will never be an easy out. Heck, even Vanderbilt looks like a decent bet to make the Sweet 16. That only leaves South Carolina, and we split the series with them.
And the program is a hell of a lot better off than it was when he took over. Time has a way of helping us forget where we've come from, but let me remind you. Our basketball program was a national laughing stock. One of our assistant coaches (in addition to being a walking, talking example of the benefits of anti-nepotism policies) had his bogus phys. ed. quiz posted all over the internet as a good example of what's wrong with college athletics.
Felton was brought in essentially to stop the bleeding. To perform triage. He took the ragtag leavings of the Harrick administration and crafted a basketball team that, while not a tournament contender, won at least as many games as it should have. Until this season.
Let's get this out of the way right now: Dennis Felton is in fact to blame for the majority of the "bad luck" that has befallen his team this season. I'm a firm believer that you cannot expect a coach to cook dinner unless you let him shop for the groceries. But when a coach routinely whips up cheezewhiz on crackers with shrimp flavored Ramen, he has to take the heat for it. I was willing to give Felton the benefit of the doubt when he was kicking Jim Harrick's players off the team.
But what we're seeing now, five year's into the Felton administration is a rash of reactive discipline. Felton and his staff have done a poor job of proactively recruiting players capable of living up to the university's academic and disciplinary standards. He has then been forced to kick them off the team when they failed to live up to those standards. This is Dennis Felton's fault. His task in recruiting during 2004, 2005 and 2006 was not an easy one. But a lot of us have difficult jobs that we take heat for not performing. This afternoon's Tennessee game, a close 74-71 loss, was attributable largely to a lack of depth brought about by suspensions, defections and injuries. While Coach Felton can't be charged with keeping Jeremy Jacobs healthy, he can be charged with making sure that Takais Brown and Mike Mercer are capable of getting to study hall. Sometimes all of us are put in charge of making sure that those under our direction do the things they're supposed to do. Life is unfair that way.
Perhaps Jeremy Jacobs, Jeremy Price and Zack Swansey will pan out. Perhaps Trey Thompkins is as versatile a player as I suspect he is. And if so, Coach Felton deserves the credit for that because he recruited them. But at the same time, we have to ask ourselves where we expected the basketball program to be at this point. In fairness, University of Georgia basketball has never been that awe inspiring. But that doesn't mean that we should settle for mediocrity. Because if that's all you expect, it's all you'll get.
Is Coach Felton on the hot seat? Of course. Should he be fired? No. Not yet. There are two reasons for this. One is that he's not done that bad a job. We all wish that this year were turning out differently than it is. But that's life. And I'm a firm believer that you don't fire a coach based on one season's performance unless that performance involves dead bodies, questionable hotel bills or Kelvin Sampson. The other is that there's probably not a reasonable replacement. While college basketball is full of young up and coming coaches, we're not in a position to just pick one. There are a variety of other programs (paging Indiana . . .) with stronger basketball histories who may be looking. While our administration has shown a commitment to the basketball program, it may be hard to convince potential coaching candidates of that from the outside looking in.
Today's Tennessee game was a gutsy performance by a team that was outmanned and outgunned but refused to back down. I think that we'll see some more of those performances this season. But we don't go to Stegeman Coliseum to see gutsy losing basketball. And Dennis Felton has yet to show that he can do much other than deliver gutsy losses. 5 years in, the guts are keeping him from getting fired. However "the state of the program" is going to remain a topic of discussion as long as the losses keep coming as part of the package.