Back To The Future: The Revival Of Georgia Basketball

Football is more than just a sport at the University of Georgia; it is like a cult that seduces the entire campus into a frenzy every Saturday each fall. Students and alumni alike, 92,000 of them in all, head to Sanford Stadium each Saturday to watch their beloved Bulldogs play “between the hedges.” The team has produced two national titles, 12 SEC titles, and 731 wins in its history. Recently the team has enjoyed enormous success under Coach Mark Richt (outside of this past season when the team finished with only six wins) and has recently been home to some of college football’s biggest stars including quarterback Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions), running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos), and wide receiver A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals). With the success and popularity of football at Georgia so dominating on campus, the basketball program has struggled to make a dent in Athens.

“Georgia basketball was perceived as a second-sport on campus when I arrived (in 2008),” says Trey Thompkins, All-SEC forward this past season and recent draft pick of the Los Angeles Clippers. “It was the sport that really didn’t matter much. Georgia has always been a football school, and the basketball team definitely noticed that.”

While Thompkins says that Georgia has always been a football school, there was one time in school history where the basketball program had its moment in the sun. That time was during the 1980s when the Bulldogs featured electrifying players like Dominique Wilkins and Vern Fleming, but the periods before and after fit neatly into Thompkins’ statement: that basketball was a second-class citizen on campus.

Prior to 1978, the Bulldogs had never played a postseason game. No regular season conference titles, no conference tournaments titles, no NIT invites, and certainly no NCAA appearances. Nothing. The program was totally irrelevant until the administration at Georgia made a bold move. They convinced Florida State alum Hugh Durham to leave the head coach position at his alma mater, where he coached the Seminoles to a 230-95 record and their only Final Four appearance, to help turn around the basketball program at Georgia. Durham came into a situation that didn’t look promising but over the next 17 years he made Georgia into a basketball school.

“There is no question that football came first at Georgia when I arrived there for a number of reasons,” says Durham. “The first reason is that the team has a rich tradition. The second reason is that the program has a loyal and very deep fan base that has developed over time. The third is that the football program brought in the most money for the athletic department and allowed them to help keep Georgia successful in all other sports. Basketball was perceived as a sleeping giant because of the lack of success it had had over the years.”

Durham’s arrival on campus didn’t immediately bring attention to the basketball program. He believed the team had to win, and prove themselves to the campus and community at large before they could expect to see the fan support that football had enjoyed for so long. Durham was also lucky enough to come to Georgia during huge changes in the landscape of college basketball.

“Some things happened when I got there in 1978 that were beneficial for the basketball program,” he says. “ESPN came on board about 1979 and if I remember correctly, their inventory included a lot of college basketball games. Also around that time the NCAA Tournament was undergoing a change and the format was expanded allowing more teams to compete for the championship. That definitely had a tremendous effect on interest because now, even though we weren’t winning the conference championship or the conference tournament championship, we still had a chance to make the NCAAs.”

Those changes paved the way for the most successful three-year span in Georgia basketball history. During the 1980-81 season, the Bulldogs were led by Wilkins, Fleming, James Banks, and Terry Fair. That group led Georgia to its first ever appearance in the SEC Tournament Championship and then to the NIT, its first ever postseason invite. While the on-court success was brought on by the talent of the Bulldogs, what really started to endure fans to the team was the type of players Coach Durham had. The star players, led by The Human Highlight Film, were all brash, electrifying players who fans immediately gravitated toward.

“I think our players, the players we recruited, had a lot of confidence in their ability, and we had confidence in our abilities as coaches,” says Durham. “We felt like we were recruiting quality people and quality athletes and those guys thought it themselves that they were quality people and quality athletes, and those were some things that might be a problem in the media but the people that were involved in the program certainly didn’t feel that way. Those players were electrifying talents and they knew it, and I think that combination really created a buzz for us.”

That core group of players again led the Bulldogs to new heights in 1981-82. That season Georgia not only made the NIT but reached the Final Four, setting yet another benchmark for the program. After that season Wilkins made the decision to leave Georgia after his junior year and declare for the NBA Draft, so naturally they were not expected to do as well as they had the past two seasons. But Durham’s ’82-’83 group shocked the college basketball world. Led by Fleming, Banks, Fair, and Lamar Heard, the Bulldogs not only made their first ever NCAA Tournament, but reached the Final Four before bowing out to North Carolina State. That team is still the most successful in Georgia history.

After 1983, the Bulldogs built upon the success of the previous three seasons, and continued their unprecedented run of success making four more NCAA Tournaments and five NITs during the remainder of Durham’s tenure. Coach Durham retired in 1995 and Tubby Smith was brought on as the next coach at Georgia. Smith led the team to their first back-to-back 20-win seasons in school history, including a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1996 and another NCAA appearance in 1997. The program seemed to be continuing the success it had in the Durham era and looked to be on the way to continuing its climb toward permanent basketball relevance. Then the University of Kentucky came calling, they wanted their former assistant Smith to take over as head coach for Rick Pitino who had just left for the NBA.

“I truly believe there were very few jobs in the country Coach Smith would have left Georgia for at that time,” says Durham with conviction. “He had developed a solid base for a program, he had two quality years there, but you have to remember he was an assistant at Kentucky under Coach Pitino. He realized the magnitude of the Kentucky Basketball program after his time there, so when he had an opportunity to go to what many consider the No. 1 program in the country, he made that decision that he had to go.”

After Smith left, the program went into a slow, painful decline for Georgia Basketball fans. Smith was replaced by his assistant Ron Jirsa who coached the team for two years, not making the NCAA Tournament in either one. He was then replaced by Jim Harrick Sr., who experienced some success in his four years in Athens leading the program to two NCAA appearances before the NCAA started investigating his program. Those investigations led to the bombshell that Harrick’s son, Jim Harrick Jr., had created a class specifically for his players that had no academic merit whatsoever. It also found that many of Georgia’s players hadn’t paid for certain things during their time on campus such as long-distance phone calls. Harrick was summarily dismissed and the program was put on four years probation. Dennis Felton was charged with righting the sinking Georgia Basketball ship, and didn’t inspire any confidence that he could so.

“Coach Felton came in with the program on probation and for whatever reason he was not able to connect with the Georgia Basketball people,” says Durham. “So when you don’t win and you are not connecting with the fan base naturally the program is going to go into a tailspin, and go backwards, and that is what happened.”

Felton had a 58-63 record in his first four seasons at Georgia, and as Durham mentioned, had isolated a core group of basketball supporters. He appeared on the verge of being fired before the “Dream Dogs” made a miracle run in the 2008 SEC Tournament held in Atlanta. That year Georgia finished 14-17 in the regular season but won the SEC Tournament, including playing two games in one day during the Tournament after a tornado hit the city. That saved Felton’s job for the time being, and he went into 2008-09 with high hopes and a stellar recruiting class that included Thompkins and Travis Leslie. That year was a disaster, and Felton was fired mid-season. After the season, the Bulldogs brought in Mark Fox from the University of Nevada to be their new head coach, a move that has Georgia on its way back to replicating the on- and off-court success it had in the 80s.

While Fox has proven to be the right choice for Georgia, he was not immediately well-received by the fan base, but more importantly by his future players. Thompkins was coming off a freshman campaign that landed him on the All-SEC freshman team, but when Fox came aboard seriously considered transferring to another university. The loss of Thompkins would have hindered Fox’s ability to succeed these past two seasons, but the coach made a compelling pitch to Thompkins that made him decide to stay.

“He told us he would change the feeling in the locker room, the feeling on campus, and the perception of the basketball program,” Thompkins cites as the reasons he decided to stay. “That really resonated with me.”

In Fox’s first season the Bulldogs finished 14-17, but there were numerous bright spots for the previously downtrodden program. Georgia beat ranked teams Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Florida, and the emergence of Leslie was one of the bigger surprises in college basketball. Leslie went from averaging 6.3 points his freshman year to almost 15 his sophomore year, and his electrifying dunks had people thinking back to the glory years of UGA basketball. Thompkins also had a stellar season averaging 17.7 points and 8.3 rebounds on his way to being an All-SEC First Team selection. After the season both players seriously considered going pro (both would have likely been first-round picks), but decided to go back to school.

“Travis and I somewhat made our decisions together,” says Thompkins. “He made his decision first but we talked about it and realized we wanted to leave together. The chance to make the NCAA Tournament played the biggest role in my return. I didn’t want to leave school with a bad taste in my mouth, and am definitely glad we were able to make the Tournament this year.”

As Thompkins mentioned, the Bulldogs did go back to the Tournament this past season before bowing out to Washington in the first round. Georgia went 21-11 in the regular season and beat Kentucky at home in front of a sold-out Stegeman Coliseum, one of many sellouts for Georgia this season. On the heels of reaching the NCAA Tournament both Thompkins and Leslie declared for the NBA Draft, where they were both drafted in the second round by the Clippers.

So, while Georgia Basketball may never be able to overcome the football team as top dog on campus, behind Coach Fox the team has generated interest in the program that hasn’t been seen since the days of the 1980s. For that, the man who began Georgia’s basketball tradition is proud.

“Since Coach Fox has been there, not only has he done an outstanding job on the court, but he has done a fantastic job of reenergizing Bulldog basketball fans, and that is where the program is today,” says Durham. “I think everybody associated with the University of Georgia athletic department and the team’s fans, including myself, realize that the team is making positive strides, and recruiting good players, and on a path towards success.”

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