Coaching change aplenty under Georgia AD Josh Brooks

Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks (left) and head tennis coach Manuel Diaz after Georgia’s third round match of the 2023 NCAA Division I men’s tennis championships at Henry Feild Stadium inside the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks (left) and head tennis coach Manuel Diaz after Georgia’s third round match of the 2023 NCAA Division I men’s tennis championships at Henry Feild Stadium inside the Dan Magill Tennis Complex in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, May 13, 2023. (Tony Walsh/UGAAA)

DESTIN, Fla. – Josh Brooks inherited 15 head coaches when he succeeded Greg McGarity as Georgia’s athletic director in January of 2021. Twenty-eight months later, he has replaced eight of them.

That’s right, more than half.

This is not to say that Brooks is a ruthless, win-at-all-cost department head. There are arguments to the contrary. And some of those coaching changes were not initiated by the Bulldogs’ young AD. But the latest one certainly was.

Baseball coach Scott Stricklin was fired on Friday after it was determined the Bulldogs would not make the NCAA Tournament again this year. Georgia earned bids only three times during Stricklin’s 10 seasons as skipper, though it should be noted the 2020 team was ranked No. 2 nationally when the season was canceled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs failed to advance beyond the regionals when they did get in. They were 29-27 this past season and finished 11th in the 14-team SEC.

Stricklin was apologetic and gracious in a statement he sent out to “the Bulldog Nation” via social media this weekend.

“This is a bottom-line business and the bottom line is I did not win enough baseball games,” wrote Stricklin, who was 299-236-1 (121-146-1 SEC) with the Bulldogs. He added that he and his family felt “blessed and grateful” for their 10 years in Athens.

Brooks struggled with the baseball decision. He knows better than anyone that the program hasn’t been supported to the level of many in the SEC, and certainly not in a way resembling football. Twice the athletic association has delayed renovation plans for Foley Field for economic reasons. And even after the recently-approved $45 million improvement project is completed in 2025, the facility will remain one of the smallest in the league.

Accordingly, Brooks was leaning toward keeping Stricklin with a couple of weeks remaining in the regular season. But then the Bulldogs lost six of their final seven SEC games and UGA was ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament. Fan feedback was critical, and Brooks received more input from board members and donors at the two-day athletic board retreat on Lake Oconee last Thursday and Friday.

Brooks returned to Athens Friday and fired Stricklin during a meeting that afternoon. Stricklin had three years remaining on a contract that pays him $650,000 annually.

Had baseball done better, Georgia likely would be assured of a Top 10 finish in the Learfield Cup all-sports standings. It might finish Top 10 anyway, depending on how golf and track do the rest of the way. The final standings will be determined mid-June.

Those rankings are a critical measure for Brooks. His stated goal is for the Bulldogs to finish in the Top 10 every year. That certainly has contributed to all the coaching changes.

Some of the leadership transitions would have happened without Brooks’ presence. Three were retirements of long-tenured, successful coaches in women’s tennis coach Jeff Wallace (2023), men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach Jack Bauerle (2022) and softball coach Lu Harris-Champer (2021).

Women’s basketball coach Joni Taylor’s departure last year was a resignation. She left UGA for more money at Texas A&M. The Bulldogs made no attempt to match.

Petros Kyprianou (men’s and women’s track and field), Tom Crean (men’s basketball), Billy Lesesne (women’s soccer) and Stricklin were performance-based dismissals. Others could follow.

If anyone doubted Brooks’ patience, they could examine his management of the women’s gymnastics team. A program with one of the richest traditions in all of collegiate sports – it has won 10 national championships and once won five in a row – the Gym Dogs have regressed significantly under coach Courtney Kupets Carter. While they have continued to earn NCAA postseason bids every year, they haven’t been a national championship contender during her six-year tenure and have slowly sunk to the bottom half of the SEC.

Yet Carter apparently is set to return for another season. A first-time coach when she took over, Carter finally seems to have found some footing in recruiting. The Bulldogs just closed on the No. 1-ranked class in 2023, were No. 3 in the 2022 cycle and are trending toward No. 1 again in 2024.

Clearly, next year will be an important one for Carter. Meanwhile, women’s golf has under-performed under coach Josh Brewer relative to program history and men’s golf coach Chris Haack and men’s tennis coach Manuel Diaz are of the age and experience that they could choose to retire at any moment. As ever, change is inevitable.

As for hiring replacements, Brooks gets good marks so far. To date, men’s basketball has been his highest-profile changeover. Firing Crean and plucking Mike White from rival Florida looks like a cunning move 14 months in.

The Bulldogs made a 10-game improvement over the last season in White’s first year. His first full recruiting class carried a No. 13 national ranking and was No. 2 among SEC teams. Including four high school players and five transfers, all but one of the players were Top 100 recruits.

As for the others:

Ø Brooks brought in Katie Abrahamson-Henderson from UCF and “Coach Abe” repaid UGA with a 22-win season and NCAA Tournament victory;

Ø Softball coach Tony Baldwin, who was promoted from associate head coach, got the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 this year;

Ø Track and field’s Caryl Smith Gilbert, who Brooks brought in from Southern Cal, finished second and fifth in women’s and men’s track in the first year. Both are in position to finish in the Top 5 this season, with at least an outside shot at a national title;

Ø Soccer coach Keidane McAlpine also came to Georgia from USC. The Bulldogs made round of 32 in his first year and are in the process of bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in school history, including one of the nation’s premier transfers.

The others have been internal promotions. Brooks split the swimming and diving jobs that Bauerle oversaw for over 40 years between assistants Stefanie Williams Moreno (women) and Neil Versfeld (men). They just completed their first season with top 15 finishes.

Brooks promoted 10-year associate head coach Drake Bernstein to succeed Wallace in women’s tennis after another SEC tournament championship and deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

“I feel great about the people we’ve brought in and promoted,” Brooks said.

Otherwise, Brooks declined to discuss his personnel philosophies for this story because seasons are still on-going and decisions are still being made. Next up are the SEC Spring Meetings here in Destin, where Brooks and fellow SEC ADs will determine what an expanded SEC is going to look like and how it’s going to operate.

What’s already clear is the league is going to be even more competitive with the additions of Oklahoma and Texas. Regardless, the Georgia standard will remain the Georgia standard, and that means earning NCAA bids and competing for championships every year.

A point Brooks made during last week’s board meeting is that he intends to support all 21 of Georgia’s sports to the greatest extent that he can. But what he doesn’t want to hear is excuses for coming up short.

“I’m not one to focus on what we don’t have or what we perceive as a challenge,” Brooks said. “I want to focus on the positives. We have a phenomenal university where a young man or woman can get a phenomenal degree and live in a great college town. I’m not going to focus on whatever perceived disadvantages there are.”

As back-to-back national champions in football, obviously Georgia’s disadvantages are few. But with that also comes pressure for the other sports to follow suit. That takes strong leadership from both coaches and administrators. And frequent change, apparently.