It’s another one of those uninspiring times in the Atlanta sports calendar, as fans wade through: an NCAA tournament lacking a team from Georgia; spring training fretting over the Braves’ $5 value menu starting rotation; spring football panicking about everything, because, of course; an NFL offseason wondering about the Falcons’ screaming holes; an NBA regular season wondering about the Hawks’ playoff longevity.
I’ve found that confidence often spins off the coaching/manager positions. So when my boss asked me, “Why don’t you do one of those ranking things you do?”, I figured, OK, coaches. This will be a challenge. Because I don’t sense overwhelming support for many of the on-field/court decision-makers among our major pro and college sports teams.
No. 1 seems pretty easy. After that, well …
1. Mike Budenholzer, Hawks
• Feel good about: After four-months of thumb-twiddling and sitting at 31-27, the Hawks won 10 of 12 and now have a chance to go into the playoffs as a No. 3 seed in the NBA East. Budenholzer’s team struggled offensively for much of the season. The Hawks also appeared to lose the passion and edge they played with a year ago. But they have started to figure things out and could be on an upswing heading into April.
• Worry about: Size remains an issue but Tim Hardaway Jr.’s recent ascent improves scoring off the bench. Budenholzer has to be given some credit for Hardaway’s developing over the season and improving his overall game. Bud has his players’ attention but it’s difficult to project how good this team will be in the playoffs.
2. Dan Quinn, Falcons
• Feel good about: The Falcons started fast and rebounded slightly after a horrific middle of the season in Quinn’s first year. He went only 8-8 but that was roughly the preseason projection.
• Worry about: Quinn was entrusted with not only changing the culture but, like Budenholzer, now has control over personnel. Signing center Alex Mack and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu improved the roster but the contracts given to both players (particularly Sanu) limited how many holes the Falcons could fill in free agency. Quinn also needs to figure out how his team lost focus after a 6-1 start. And he also needs a better performance from his hand-picked offensive coordinator (Kyle Shanahan).
3. Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech (FB)
• Feel good about: Johnson has won before at Tech and coached in four ACC championship games (winning one) in eight seasons. He and the Jackets also seem to be at their best when everybody thinks they stink — and after last year’s 3-9 season, that’s exactly what everybody thinks.
• Worry about: The decline in the Jackets’ offense has again led some to wonder if opponents are figuring out how to defend the option. Better blocking would help. Defensively, there are still too many games when Tech is undersized and undermanned. That’s partly on recruiting.
4. Mark Fox, Georgia (BK)
• Feel good about: Fox had his third straight 20-win season, a rarity in Athens. Recruiting appears to be improving and the Bulldogs could have a pretty good team next year, led by J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten.
• Worry about: This year’s team underachieved. We can put it on the underwhelming senior seasons of guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, who were expected to be the team’s strength, But it’s Fox’s program and there were some games when the Dogs simply didn’t show up. Athletic director Greg McGarity seems content to judge Fox on next season.
5. Kirby Smart, Georgia (FB)
(He hasn’t coached a game so I decided to put him in the middle.)
• Feel good about: I can’t put him higher because he’s 0-0. I won’t put him lower because I believe he’s going to work out. Smart gets points for his first recruiting class, organization and perhaps beginning to implement a culture change at Georgia, but it’s early. Smart is untested as a head coach, but having worked under Nick Saban, he has seen what it takes to get a program to a high level.
• Worry about: He’s in charge for the first time and he’s replacing a coach (Mark Richt) who consistently won nine-plus games, even if Georgia too often fell short in big moments. Smart avoids Alabama in his first season but the opening game against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome won’t be easy and could be telling for the conference schedule.
6. Ron Hunter, Georgia State (BK)
• Feel good about: In the previous two years, the Panthers had consecutive 25-win seasons, two Sun Belt regular season titles and an NCAA tournament berth. His torn Achilles and coaching from a rolling stool in the 2015 NCAA tournament also turned into a marketing dream for the program.
• Worry about: R.J. Hunter is in the NBA and Hunter is out of sons who can shoot. The Panthers slipped to 16-14 this season and 9-11 (sixth) in the Sun Belt. Now that people are actually watching GSU hoops, there will be a little more scrutiny on the head coach.
7. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
• Feel good about: He has handled a difficult situation — roster: kaboom! — extremely well and the fact the Braves were 42-42 in July last season might go down as one the greatest accomplishments of his career. Gonzalez did well in similar circumstances in Florida.
• Worry about: I’m not convinced the front office views Gonzalez as a long-term answer when it’s done fixing the roster. But management likely saw no reason to make a change now. As surprisingly competitive as the Braves were in the first half last season, they spiraled in the second half. Injuries were a factor, but it wasn’t the first late-season collapse under Gonzalez. Starting pitching will be a problem this season.
8. Brian Gregory, Georgia Tech (BK)
• Feel good about: The Jackets are two wins into the NIT and one from going to that Final Four in New York, for anybody still watching. That brings Gregory to 21-14 after going 12-19 last season. He went 8-10 in a conference (ACC) that has six teams in the Sweet 16. So give the maligned coach some credit.
• Worry about: Tech will lose its four best players and next year’s team is likely to take a big step back. That no doubt is playing on the mind of athletic director Mike Bobinski, who has to make a decision on whether to extend Gregory’s deal for two years or buy him out. I’m not convinced the two NIT wins swing Bobinski’s decision one way or the other. Gregory relied on transfers this season and that can create an unsettling feeling.
9. Trent Miles, Georgia State (FB)
• Feel good about: The Panthers won their final four games to go to a bowl last season, easily a high point for the program.
• Worry about: Miles has to prove what happened down the stretch last season wasn’t an aberration. Student and fan support remain a significant issue. But Miles’ biggest concern remains recruiting and stocking the program with enough quality players to make GSU competitive. The jury is still out on that.
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