Many have tried to redraw the map at Georgia, giving basketball a major, lasting place somewhere on it. Bless their hearts. It’s Tom Crean’s turn now.
Thursday was a debut of sort for the Bulldogs’ new coach, his first game against out-of-towners inside Stegeman Coliseum. Just an exhibition, free of charge, against West Georgia, a relative game of shirts vs. skins. Nothing that counted against anyone’s record. The most fleeting of glimpses of things to come.
That the building was 80 percent empty shouldn’t be seen as any sort of indictment. Not on a rainy night, with the town laying in supplies and banking some sleep for a SEC East football showdown in ... Kentucky?
So, we ask the question: In a crazy, mixed-up world where football is important in Kentucky, why can’t basketball be of great significance at Georgia?
Speaking earlier this week, Crean sounded all kinds of optimistic notes about being able to build a big, enthusiastic following in Athens. You come to Georgia, you have to recruit a following as well as recruit players. Optimism is important. And on initial inspection, Crean seems the type who could give you a peppy five-minute soliloquy on a new haircut.
Leaving the security of a good TV gig after one year to come to UGA, Crean said he wouldn’t have done it if not for all the built-in sports passion in these parts.
And rather than resent king football, Crean embraced it as a reason to sign up. That’s a real important mindset around these parts.
Of course, when John and Jim Harbaugh are your brothers-in-law, treating football with a certain reverence is probably the wisest course.
“I was a fan of what was going on here already,” Crean said. “I thought that there was obviously a lot of passion at the school – the football thing had a lot to do with it for me. I thought there was tremendous opportunity here for me and my family.”
The Creans, all of them, come here singing the virtues of this community of coaching, of a sense of shared accomplishment throughout the athletic department. No matter which sport is the alpha. She hasn’t been here that long, but Crean’s wife, Joani, already could cut a pretty convincing public-service announcement all of Bulldogs athletics. This family is all-in.
“We’ve done it the other way, where the football program wasn’t the tail that wagged the dog,” she said. She was referring, of course, to nine seasons at Indiana, before her husband was fired in the spring of 2017 following a loss to Georgia Tech in the NIT.
“This is great,” she said. “Tom wants to be around people he can learn from. And there’s the energy. That’s what he wants to be around. Not just football. The track and field. Tom Black’s got it going on with the volleyball. Look what Joni (Taylor) is doing with the women’s (basketball) team. Look what (baseball coach) Scott Stricklin did last year (a NCAA bid). It’s just energy. Everybody’s got it rolling, and now it’s his job to get the men’s side rolling.”
By every indication Thursday, Crean intends to get off to a running start. The tempo on offense Thursday was noticeably more urgent than during Mark Fox’s final season. The 98 points against West Georgia was far more than the Bulldogs scored at any stage last season (87 vs. Winthrop was the high).
Watching the 6-foot-11 Nicolas Claxton push the ball up the floor was the most entertaining takeaway from this first-impression evening.
Even if these Bulldogs err (as in 26 turnovers Thursday) and if the shots don’t fall, they at least will be making quicker mistakes. They are, at this stage, a worthwhile curiosity.
As for making any concrete initial promises to the fans, “I don’t think you can,” Crean said.
“I think they’ll feel the passion, and hopefully the intensity of it.”
Because, yeah, basketball matters.