Let’s be clear: Georgia has done nothing wrong. It approached the best available candidate, had him on campus two days after Mark Fox was fired, then had him back the next day and offered him $3 million a year to coach the Bulldogs. That Thad Matta said no is – not going to lie – a major disappointment. But life’s full of disappointments.
Once past the pangs of rejection, the takeaway here is that athletic director Greg McGarity, who has never hired a men’s basketball coach, located and pursued the guy he should have pursued first. There’s nobody else who would be interested in coaching Georgia who’s a match for Matta’s credentials. Tom Crean, the No. 2 candidate, has been to one Final Four; Matta has been to two. Earl Grant of Charleston has never coached at a Power 5 school. Kermit Davis Jr., about to leave Middle Tennessee State for Ole Miss, ran afoul of the NCAA while coaching Texas A&M and got a two-year show-cause.
Matta was the only place to start. If he had said yes, that would have been the happy ending. That he didn’t may have had less to do with Georgia than his physical condition. He told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman: “It was the most difficult decision because Georgia is a tremendous opportunity for a coach to build a great program. Unfortunately, I just don’t feel that I am completely ready at this point to give Greg McGarity and Georgia what they deserve.”
Thus does the process continue. There’s no rush. The NCAA tournament hasn’t yet begun in earnest. Crean, who hasn’t coached a team in 12 months, can be contacted any time, and – as mentioned in this space over the weekend – a person who knows him very well says the former Marquette/Indiana coach has keen interest in the Georgia job. If Matta was the place to begin, Crean is now the place to turn.
By offering Matta $15 million over five years – as noted by Seth Emerson of DawgNation, Matta would have become second to Kentucky’s John Calipari in salary among SEC coaches – Georgia has signaled its intent. The Bulldogs don’t just want a garden-variety basketball team. (They have one of those as is.) They want bigger and better, and for that they’re willing to pay the going rate for a top coach. Matta won the Big Ten and graced the Final Four. Crean has done both of those things, too.
But what if Crean likewise declines? Well, that would be a double bummer. There’s no obvious third choice. Georgia might be left with no recourse but to go the mid-major route, which wasn’t/isn’t the plan.
McGarity wants a man who has coached at a Power 5 school. If Georgia can’t hire Crean, it will have to try to convince someone who has a decent job that this would be a better one. That’s never easy. Steve Prohm of Iowa State has been mentioned. There’s thought that Shaka Smart isn’t happy at Texas. Buzz Williams left Marquette for Virginia Tech; would he now leave Blacksburg for Athens?
As for the most famous/infamous coach currently unemployed, stop right now. There is no chance that Georgia will pursue Rick Pitino, nor should it. Even if we forget that he just got fired after his third major scandal at Louisville – sex in a restaurant, strippers in the dorm, money to a recruit – and that almost no other school would have stuck him after the first two, there’s a logistical issue: If he returns to college coaching, he can be penalized by the NCAA for this latest alleged transgression. (He never got around to serving his stripper-related five-game suspension.) If you hire Pitino, he might be docked a whole year. You want your new coach to wind up not coaching?
I know some Georgia fans believe McGarity to be the root of all incompetence, but I find nothing troubling in this search. He made the right move in firing Fox, the right first move in the search for a replacement. I have no reason to believe Georgia’s basketball search is about to collapse the way Tennessee bungled its football hire. I expect McGarity will find someone else who’s qualified – and willing to accept the kind of money being offered.
I applaud everything the Bulldogs have done so far, except for the part where Matta said, “No, thanks.” That’s always a possibility when you aim high, but Georgia certainly shouldn’t aim low now. This was a setback. It is not yet a failure.
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