It isn’t that Georgia hasn’t hired competent basketball coaches. Hugh Durham knew his X’s and O’s. Tubby Smith is one of the best in the business. For all his foibles, Jim Harrick could oversee an offense. Even Dennis Felton, fired 10 months after an astonishing SEC tournament championship, was a good basketball man, and most basketball men hold Mark Fox, the incumbent, in high regard.
Georgia basketball, however, requires more than a coach. It requires a salesman. It has long lacked the galvanizer who will do as Ray Mears did at Tennessee in the early 1960s and Dale Brown did at LSU in the late ’70s.
Mears rebranded an entire state “Big Orange Country” and found a dribbling unicyclist to lead his Volunteers onto the court and, not incidentally, coached well enough to beat Kentucky on a regular basis. Brown traveled around handing out purple-and-gold nets to be affixed to whatever hoop he could find in the parishes of Louisiana. Neither man was cowed by the thought of coaching basketball at a football school.
For every SEC school except Kentucky and perhaps Vanderbilt, it’s not enough just to know your basketball. You have to promote the heck out of basketball just to rise above the ruckus raised by football every day of the year, and football’s roar has grown only louder with time and success.
The football roar in Athens is deafening. Georgia fans — meaning Georgia football fans — take perverse delight in looking down their Bulldogs noses at basketball. It’s not quite the same at Florida or Alabama or LSU or Tennessee, where the locals will rally around a good roundball team. But Georgia basketball has been the hardest sell in a league that requires hard selling: After the Bulldogs made an improbable run to the 1983 Final Four in Albuquerque, home attendance dropped the next season.
That might have changed had Smith not left for Kentucky in 1997 after two superb seasons. Perhaps things would have been different had Harrick not recruited Tony Cole. But the reality is that Georgia basketball remains, if not a guilty pleasure, then surely a grudging one. (Though we must concede that the Bulldogs have done well against SEC competition, and that the Ole Miss game of Feb. 15 was a sellout.)
If anyone is apt to put Georgia basketball on the map for the long haul, he’ll need to be a latter-day Mears or Brown. Alas, I’m not sure who that might be.
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