The Dennis Felton era at UGA ended this morning after a tumultuous five and a half seasons of mostly disappointing basketball in Athens. When Felton was hired in April 2003, I knew of no Georgia fans that were unenthusiastic about the hire. Unenthusiastic about the situation our new coach was inheriting? Yes. But the thought process then was that we were getting a successful young coach that had succeeded at a mid-major program from a hoops crazy state, averaging 20 wins a season during his time at Western Kentucky. For those who were disgusted with the state of the basketball program under Harrick, it was refreshing to see the disciplinarian approach Felton immediately brought to the team, jettisoning repeated-troublemaker Steve Thomas before he had even coached his first game. It was clear that things were going to be done Felton's way, or they weren't going to be done at all.
With some holdovers from Harrick's uber-successful (at least by UGA standards) teams, Felton's 2003-2004 squad finished the season strong to earn an NIT berth, where they were eliminated in the first round. Save for another NIT stint in 2007 and last year's insane ice-storm/two-games-at-Tech-in-one-day run to win the SEC Tournament, which would prove to be one of the few highlights from Felton's time in Athens.
Because of the brutal situation inherited, Felton was given a longer leash than is usually provided in Division 1 basketball. Not much was expected of the 04-05 or 05-06 squads, and those teams obliged, combining for a 23-35 record. This period wouldn't have stung so bad had two of the three blue-chip recruits Felton had landed (Louis Williams, Mike Mercer and Robert Dozier) ever set foot on campus. Unfortunately, Williams went pro right out of high school and Dozier ended up at Memphis after failing to qualify academically. Beyond those three players, however, Felton had made basically no inroads in the fertile Atlanta and Georgia recruiting markets, a unacceptable trend would continue through today.
Also, while no one doubted that Felton was a principled man that held his players to a high academic and personal conduct standard, his players continued to find trouble off the court. Mercer was kicked off the team last season following a string of academic and disciplinary suspensions. Steady JUCO transfer Takias Brown, the leading rebounder on the 06-07 team, was suspended twice and dismissed after failing to meet academic and class-attendance requirements. High-scoring shooting guard Billy Humphrey was likewise dismissed last summer after three arrests in eight months. For all the preaching about rebuilding the program with men of character that Georgia fans could be proud of, it became apparent that Felton had lost control of the program and was on borrowed time.
Even after winning that bizzarre SEC Tournament and playing a good Xavier team tough in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it never seemed Felton had regained the trust of the UGA faithful or the administration. For me, the low point came during a loss at Western Kentucky on December 2nd. That was a game that UGA had scheduled as part of a deal when they signed Felton away from WKU. Not only did lose the game, but they weren't even favored against a program that had once appeared to be a no-brainer stepping stone to a better job, such as UGA's.
Felton was out of excuses and again on borrowed time. As Georgia Sports Blog has pointed out, programs (i.e. Baylor) have come back from worse situations quicker than what Dawg fans were seeing play out in Stegman. An 0-5 start to the SEC schedule, and last night's 26 point loss to Florida, were the final nails in the coffin. I wish Felton nothing but the best of luck in the future and I hope he succeeds in his next gig. I have no doubt he tried his damndest to succeed at Georgia. Unfortunately, he failed and it was time to cut the cord. There will be time to speculate on who the next Georgia coach will be (list!), but for now, the program and the athletic association can finally move forward in that direction.
Hopefully sometime soon, UGA students can form a line outside of Stegman, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to purchase season tickets to watch an exciting team, as I did prior to the '01 and '02 seasons. Because say what you will about Harrick, but he always got the most out of his players and his teams won. There's got to be a happy medium between his coaching style and Felton's admirable approach, and I hope Adams, Evans, et. al. can find it. Georgia basketball fans deserve that much.