UGA, coach Tom Crean to part ways after basketball season

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UGA men's basketball coach Tom Crean will leave after this season.Crean has coached the team for four years.The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned a search firm has been vetting potential candidates to replace him for at least two weeks.Georgia has lost 11 in a row since recording its only SEC win over Alabama 82-76 on Jan. 25.UGA Athletics Director Josh Brooks has declined to comment on Crean’s coaching status during the season.

ATHENS — Tom Crean stood by himself, leaning against the painted cinderblock wall of the tunnel underneath Section P at Stegeman Coliseum. Facing the court, the building was empty except for UGA facilities personnel, who were busy sweeping, mopping and tidying up the 58-year-old arena an hour after Georgia’s 75-68 loss to Tennessee.

Asked by a passerby what he was doing, the Georgia head coach said, “Oh, just taking everything in.”

Crean could have punctuated that line with “one last time,” but he didn’t. Whether he knew it then or not, all indications are that was the last Georgia home game he’ll coach.

After overseeing the losingest season in the history of Georgia basketball, all indications are that Crean and the Bulldogs will part ways after the season concludes, according to multiple people with knowledge of the situation. However, an official decision has not been made.

“This is a tough team. With all the stuff that's been going on outside of basketball, I can't complain with how we're coming together and trying to find a way to make it work. All we can do is keep pushing forward, keep trying to win games."

- graduate point guard Aaron Cook

That merciful end will come whenever the last-place Bulldogs (6-25, 1-17 SEC) bow out of the SEC Tournament at Amalie Arena in Tampa. Odds are that will be after Georgia’s first-round game against 11th-seeded Vanderbilt (15-15, 7-11) late Wednesday. The Commodores, who already beat Georgia twice this season, are heavily favored to win again.

UGA Athletics Director Josh Brooks has declined to comment on Crean’s coaching status during the season. But events have trended toward this inevitable outcome for a while. After four years as the Bulldogs’ men’s basketball coach, the buyout clause of the six-year, $19.8 million deal that Crean signed with Georgia when he came to Athens in March 2018 reduces from $7.2 million to $3.2 million at season’s end.

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After Tom Crean's four years as the Bulldogs’ men’s basketball coach, the buyout clause of the six-year, $19.8 million deal that he signed with Georgia when he came to Athens in March 2018 reduces from $7.2 million to $3.2 million at season’s end. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

After Tom Crean's four years as the Bulldogs’ men’s basketball coach, the buyout clause of the six-year, $19.8 million deal that he signed with Georgia when he came to Athens in March 2018 reduces from $7.2 million to $3.2 million at season’s end. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
After Tom Crean's four years as the Bulldogs’ men’s basketball coach, the buyout clause of the six-year, $19.8 million deal that he signed with Georgia when he came to Athens in March 2018 reduces from $7.2 million to $3.2 million at season’s end. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Crean’s agent, New York attorney Jordan Bazant, sought a contract extension after last season. That was denied. That’s a death knell for a coach trying to recruit the summer amateur circuit and transfer portal.

But it was the cascade of regular-season losses that sealed Crean’s fate. And now Georgia’s administration has moved on. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned that a search firm has been vetting potential candidates for at least two weeks. By the time the season officially is over – but not before then – Brooks should have a focused pool of three to five candidates to pursue.

For that reason and many others, the Bulldogs’ search is not expected to take long. UGA wants to settle on its next coach as quickly as possible. The spring signing period for basketball recruits begins April 13, and the coaching market is expected to be crowded and competitive.

In the early going at least, Georgia appears to be focused on four primary targets: Xavier associate head coach Jonas Hayes, Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes and USC head coach Andy Enfield.

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In the early going at least, Georgia appears to be focused on four primary targets to replace Tom Crean: Xavier associate head coach Jonas Hayes, Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes and USC head coach Andy Enfield. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

In the early going at least, Georgia appears to be focused on four primary targets to replace Tom Crean: Xavier associate head coach Jonas Hayes, Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes and USC head coach Andy Enfield. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
In the early going at least, Georgia appears to be focused on four primary targets to replace Tom Crean: Xavier associate head coach Jonas Hayes, Cleveland State head coach Dennis Gates, Wake Forest head coach Steve Forbes and USC head coach Andy Enfield. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

There’s no question where the Bulldogs’ basketball lettermen are leaning. As a group, they have been very outspoken about why Georgia needs to bring back Hayes if and whenever a change is made.

“It’s time for us to hire one of our own,” said Mark Slonaker, who played and coached for Hugh Durham at Georgia, was head coach at Mercer University for several years and recently retired from UGA Athletics as a senior administrator in development. “We haven’t ever done it. We have a highly qualified (candidate) ready to do it. Jonas is going to bring in talent, and he’s going to be great for the program. He was one of the most popular players we’ve had here, and he could really heal the Bulldog Nation.”

Notably, Hayes is the only one of the aforementioned candidates not to already have head coaching experience. But he effectively left UGA in hope of one day getting this opportunity.

Hayes was an assistant on Georgia’s staff when Mark Fox was fired after the 2018 season. When Crean was hired later that month, he wanted to keep Hayes. Crean knew Hayes could help him get into Atlanta’s recruiting-rich AAU circuit.

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Former Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes reportedly is a candidate to replace Tom Crean. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Former Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes reportedly is a candidate to replace Tom Crean. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Former Georgia assistant coach Jonas Hayes reportedly is a candidate to replace Tom Crean. (Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Hayes and his brother Jarvis Hayes matriculated from AAU themselves, playing for the Georgia Stars before transferring to Georgia from Western Carolina to play for the Bulldogs under Jim Harrick in 2000. But after spending a couple of days making some of those introductions for Crean, Hayes opted instead to leave.

Hayes had served brief stints as an assistant coach at Morehouse, South Carolina State and Belmont Abbey before spending six years at Georgia. Hayes decided he’d be better off broadening his basketball horizons outside of the Southeast. He was snapped up at Xavier, where he’s been the last four years as head coach Travis Steele’s right-hand man.

Success hasn’t been easily achieved at Xavier in the hardscrabble Big East. The Musketeers are 18-12 this season after averaging 17 wins the first three seasons. They enter Wednesday’s Big East Tournament in New York as the No. 8 seed with an 8-11 conference record.

But Hayes was promoted to associate head coach last year and has helped Xavier land many key recruits. Among them is freshman Elijah Tucker, a 6-foot-7 power forward and four-star prospect from Canton that 247Sports ranked 119th nationally.

Hayes, who is represented by Atlanta-based agent Mark Carmony of the CSE talent agency, would jump at the opportunity to coach at his alma mater, it is believed. He likely would not command an exorbitant salary such on the level that Crean received one year removed from coaching at Indiana. Jonas’ twin brother Jarvis is an assistant coach at Georgia State and certainly would be interested in joining him.

“All the guys want him,” Slonaker said of Georgia’s lettermen. Hayes is also a favorite among some athletic board members.

Gates is also an intriguing prospect. While he’s at Cleveland State now, the 42-year-old Chicago native earned his reputation as Leonard Hamilton’s primary recruiter at Florida State. That program has mined Atlanta for top talent for years.

Forbes may be off the market now after accepting a four-year contract extension from Wake Forest on Monday. The 56-year-old coaching veteran from Iowa was named ACC Coach of the Year after leading the Demon Deacons to a 23-8 record this season.

Enfield might be on Bulldogs’ radar because Brooks has gone to Southern Cal for his last two hires, men’s and women’s track coach Caryl Smith Gilbert and women’s soccer coach Keidane McAlpine. Both had coached the Trojans to national titles but were looking to come South.

The 52-year-old Enfield came into coaching prominence when he led Florida Gulf Coast to an NCAA Tournament victory as a No. 15 seed in 2013. He parlayed that into the USC job, where he’s led the Trojans to three NCAA Tournament appearances, an NIT berth and 178-115 record (.608). Enfield also learned the art of recruiting as an FSU assistant. However, Enfield is also is a leading candidate at Maryland, which has had an opening since Mark Turgeon resigned in December.

As for Crean, his failings at Georgia have been well-documented at this point. His four-year stretch with the Bulldogs is the worst since the four years that ended Dennis Felton’s tenure in 2009. Crean enters the SEC Tournament with a 47-74 mark (.388) at Georgia, 15-57 (.208) in conference play.

Early on, it appeared Crean would avoid a similar fate. After an initial 11-21 season, Crean inked a top 10-ranked recruiting class that included Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards, an Atlanta native and the No. 1 prospect in the nation. But while Edwards had great individual success – he was named SEC Freshman of the Year and became the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick – the Bulldogs’ season ended abruptly at the 2020 SEC Tournament due to the fast-developing COVID-19 pandemic. They were 16-16 (5-13 SEC) and preparing to face Florida in the second round when the tournament was canceled.

The rest of that squad returned and showed improvement with a 14-12 season that included a 7-11 SEC mark. Not long after the season ended, however, came a mass exodus that started with Toumani Camara heading to the transfer portal. By the time Sahvir Wheeler and K.D. Johnson left for Kentucky and Auburn, respectively, nine Georgia players had bolted.

Crean did the best he could to replace them with 10 newcomers, including seven transfers. But when starting forwards P.J. Horne and Jailyn Ingram were lost to season-ending knee injuries before the season even reached a 10th game, the Bulldogs’ fate was set.

The losses have been piling up since. Georgia has lost 11 in a row since recording its only SEC win over Alabama 82-76 on Jan. 25. The average margin of defeat has been 12.4 points.

All the losing finally reached a breaking point in the locker room on Feb. 16. Assistant coach Wade Mason allegedly punched player personnel director Brian Fish at halftime of the LSU game in Baton Rouge. The incident was reported by Fish the next morning, UGA Human Resources launched an investigation and Mason was indefinitely suspended with pay. Mason, hired by Crean from Stephen F. Austin last June, has since left the program.

That could not have helped Crean’s cause. He said he met with Brooks on Feb. 23 and was told no decision on his future had been made. A general wellness check of the program was conducted by UGA in the aftermath.

“It’s business right now, and it’s not my first time through it,” Crean said late last month. “We’ll see how it all goes.”

Of course, anything can happen in sports. Georgia Athletics Director Damon Evans was fully prepared to fire Felton as soon as the Bulldogs’ season ended in the 2008 SEC Tournament in Atlanta. At the time, UGA actually was in deep discussions to bring in John Thompson III from Georgetown as Felton’s successor. Of course, a tornado hit downtown Atlanta, destroying one side of the Georgia Dome and forcing the tournament to be completed at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Remarkably, Felton’s four-SEC-win Bulldogs shocked the college basketball world by winning three games over the final two days to become one of the most unlikely SEC Tournament champions in the event’s history. Alas, Georgia was bounced in the NCAA Tournament’s first round, and Felton was fired with 12 games remaining in the regular season the next year.

To the credit of Crean and his staff and players, the Bulldogs have remained competitive all season. They led Missouri by as many as 14 points last Saturday before falling late in the regular-season finale. They also have had Auburn, Texas A&M and Florida on the ropes late in other games. But lacking size and depth, they just haven’t been able to close games in what has been a strong overall year for the league.

“This is a tough team,” graduate point guard Aaron Cook said. “With all the stuff that’s been going on outside of basketball, I can’t complain with how we’re coming together and trying to find a way to make it work. All we can do is keep pushing forward, keep trying to win games.”

It’s fitting that the last chance for that comes on Florida’s Gulf Coast. When this season finally ends, everyone involved will be deserving of a beach vacation.

Crean, as it turns out, has a house just down the road in Sarasota.