Tom Crean was good hire for Georgia, but now his program is kaput

Georgia coach Tom Crean might not make it to another season in Athens. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia coach Tom Crean might not make it to another season in Athens. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Georgia had just posted a third straight losing record in the SEC with men’s basketball coach Tom Crean. But sophomore point guard Sahvir Wheeler declared that next season would be different. Wheeler said a top-five finish in the league may sound “crazy” to outsiders. I thought it seemed ambitious but not preposterous given the players the Bulldogs had coming back.

“There’s definitely progress,” Wheeler said after UGA’s loss to Missouri in the 2021 SEC Tournament opener. “The players have all gotten better here under coach Crean. For us, we are just looking to take this and grow from it. This group of guys, we have good chemistry, and we wish we could keep playing.”

Six weeks later, Wheeler announced he was leaving the program. Eventually eight Bulldogs would head for the exits. Crean plugged the roster holes as best he could. It didn’t work. The Bulldogs have sunk to a new low, and it’s unlikely Crean will get a chance to pull them back up.

Georgia was 1-13 in the SEC before playing Tuesday night at Texas A&M, which was favored by 11 ½ points. The Bulldogs probably are the worst Power Five team in the country. The Big East makes men’s college basketball more of a Power Six. Georgia is worse than every team in that league, too. This could be the worst men’s basketball team in UGA’s modern history.

That’s bad enough. Then, last week, Crean’s program heaped off-court dysfunction and embarrassment on top of the losing.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that assistant coach Wade Mason got into a physical altercation with director of player development Brian Fish. Mason was initially suspended with pay. The AJC reported Monday that Mason won’t coach the rest of the season and won’t return for the second year of his contract. It seems likely that Crean will follow Mason out the door once UGA’s season mercifully ends.

AJC Bulldogs beat writer Chip Towers reported that Georgia turned down Crean’s request for a contract extension last summer. There are two more seasons left on the deal, which means Crean is working without the usual assurances for a head coach. Athletics director Josh Brooks didn’t hire Crean and apparently isn’t keen on retaining him for the long term.

I didn’t see it going this way for Crean at Georgia. He was the perfect hire at the right time. The Bulldogs needed a coach to take them to the next level after Mark Fox produced mediocre results over nine seasons. Crean needed a job after he didn’t win enough to satisfy Indiana’s ongoing quest to rediscover its glory days.

All signs pointed to Crean winning at Georgia. He’s a smart and accomplished coach. He recruited well at Marquette and Indiana. Crean did the same for Georgia when he signed a 2019 class headlined by Anthony Edwards. That was supposed to be the foundation for a revived program. It ended up being fool’s gold. All the players from that class were gone before the start of this season.

That Georgia team went as Edwards went, which was up-and-down (Edwards is starting to figure things out in his second NBA season). Edwards declared for the draft after one season. That was expected. The mass departures after last season weren’t.

When Wheeler left, Crean cited some contributing factors: the pandemic, the new transfer rules and Wheeler’s desire to play closer to home. But no SEC program had so many players leave for other programs last year. Then Wheeler ended up in Lexington. That’s farther from Houston than Athens.

Wheeler has started 24 games for the Wildcats. They were second in the SEC standings to begin this week. Wheeler isn’t the only ex-Bulldog playing a major role for a good team.

K.D. Johnson is the second-leading scorer for Auburn, which leads the SEC. Andrew Garcia (Kent State) and Toumani Camara (Dayton) are starting for mid-major teams contending for conference titles. Justin Kier is playing 20 minutes per game for Arizona, the Pac-12 leader. Tye Fagan scored 20 points to help Ole Miss rout Georgia on Saturday.

Johnson was the last of those players to declare his intention to play elsewhere. At the time, Crean released a passive-aggressive statement in which he wished Johnson well but also implied that he was OK seeing him go. We’d seen that side of Crean before. During his first season, Crean said he blamed himself for not running off more of the players he inherited (he later apologized). Now Crean’s program is falling apart after so many players left.

Retaining players is more challenging for college coaches nowadays. That’s a good thing. Players gained a little more power when the NCAA allowed them to transfer once without sitting out a year. Players still don’t have the same basic economic rights as other workers. They do have more control over their futures. Coaches either adapt or end up on the wrong side of the roster churn.

That’s where Crean is at now. He’s about to post a fourth straight losing season in conference games for the first time in his career. Crean started with three straight losing seasons at IU, which was on NCAA probation. Getting the guy who rebuilt that program was a coup for Georgia. It turned some heads in college basketball.

I’ve heard the cracks about how Crean should thank Dwyane Wade for his career. That criticism misses the mark. Show me a coach who wins big without great players. Also, Crean showed he could win without Wade at Indiana.

Crean took over a scandal-plagued program from Kelvin Sampson. After a rough transition, Crean produced a 138-69 record over his final six seasons in Bloomington. That included two Big Ten regular-season titles, four NCAA Tournament bids and three trips to the NCAA Sweet 16.

The Bulldogs have never had a run like that. They were 163-133 (77-79 in the SEC) with Fox. He had two one-and-done appearances in the NCAA tourney. Former UGA athletics director Greg McGarity fired Fox because he said the program hadn’t reached its “full potential.” The Bulldogs were 47-70 (15-53) with Crean before playing Tuesday night.

McGarity paid up to get Crean to Athens. Crean’s $3.2 million salary is about what he was making at IU in the end. It was fifth highest in the SEC this season. But UGA’s overall spending on men’s basketball lags behind its peers.

U.S. Department of Education data shows that the program’s $7.76 million budget for 2018-19, the last before the pandemic, was less than every SEC school except Mississippi State. If Brooks goes looking for a new coach after this season, he may have to commit to a bigger budget to lure a candidate with Crean’s track record.

Georgia did well to get Crean to Athens. Wheeler was right when he said the Bulldogs were building something last March. Then he left, along with several teammates, and now Crean’s Bulldogs have bottomed out.