ATHENS, Ga. — Few people know the ins and outs of Georgia men’s basketball as well as Mark Slonaker, who played there in the 1970s, coached there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and then worked as a radio color commentator for the team.
Slonaker, a former head coach at Mercer, has experienced or witnessed the very few highs and many, many lows in the Georgia program for nearly five decades.
“We’ve had success, right?” Slonaker said. “We’ve had good teams, we’ve even had short bursts of two, three, four years in a row where we were good and excited. Basically, every time we get to that point, we can’t sustain it because something happens.”
Slonaker, who previously served as the school’s executive director of athletics alumni relations, likes to refer to those events as thunderbolts. Lightning has not only struck Georgia basketball twice, it has happened over and over again during the past 25 years.
In 1994, with the best recruiting class in school history coming of age, then-athletic director Vince Dooley gave Hugh Durham, the only coach to guide the Bulldogs to the Final Four, a mandate to show “significant improvement.” The Bulldogs went 18-10 in 1994-95. Durham was fired after 17 seasons.
Dooley hired Tulsa’s Tubby Smith to replace Durham, and he took the Bulldogs to the Sweet 16 in his first season. A year later, the Boston Celtics fired M.L. Carr and hired Kentucky’s Rick Pitino. Smith, who guided the Bulldogs to the NCAA tournament in both of his two seasons, left to take over the blueblood Wildcats and won a national championship in 1998.
After two mediocre seasons under Smith’s top assistant, Ron Jirsa, the Bulldogs went searching for a proven coach to rebuild the program. They settled on Jim Harrick, who won a national title at UCLA in 1995, but was fired before the start of the 1996-97 season for picking up the dinner tab for two of his players and trying to cover it up.
When Georgia hired Harrick away from Rhode Island in April 1999, he nearly changed his mind when the school wouldn’t let him bring his son, Jim Harrick Jr., as an assistant coach because of nepotism rules. Once Harrick waffled, Georgia officials were ready to withdraw the job offer and instead hire Delaware coach Mike Brey. But Dooley was visiting a Civil War battlefield in Virginia and didn’t have good cell service. By the time Dooley was reached, Harrick had changed his mind again and accepted the job.
After taking the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, Harrick was forced to resign in 2003 following an NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic fraud, which involved his son (who was hired after the board of regents changed its nepotism rules) teaching his players in a class on basketball strategy.
The Bulldogs have been climbing uphill ever since, and now they’ve reached rock bottom under former Indiana coach Tom Crean. Georgia dropped its 10th straight game, 75-68 to No. 13 Tennessee on Tuesday night, and has now lost a school-record 24 games. The Bulldogs are 1-16 against SEC foes and will finish last in the league.
“I just really focus on the things that I’m a part of every day that we try to do our best to control,” Crean told ESPN on Wednesday. “It hasn’t been easy doing that, but at the same time these guys fight, they keep coming back, they keep showing energy, and we keep trying to give ourselves every chance to win, but we’ve just been short.”
Sometime after next week’s SEC tournament, the Bulldogs are expected to fire Crean and start searching for yet another new coach. Crean, who is 47-73 in his fourth season, is owed a $3.2 million buyout under the terms of his contract.
Georgia athletic director Josh Brooks declined to comment for this story.
For an athletic program that won a national championship in football this past season, and has won national titles in baseball, golf, tennis, track and field, gymnastics and swimming and diving, Georgia’s inability to field a competitive men’s basketball team that can annually compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament has been a never-ending puzzle.
“It’s been mystifying,” said former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity. “Because if you look back on the history of the program, you’ve had some really, really good coaches that never were able to sustain consistency. There are a lot of people that haven’t figured it out.”
Technically, Georgia hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since upsetting No. 1 seed Purdue 76-69 to reach the Sweet 16 under Smith in 1996. The 26-year drought is third longest among Power 5 schools. Only Nebraska, which has never won a game in the NCAAs, and TCU, which last won in 1987, have waited longer.
Even if you include Georgia’s first-round victory over Murray State in the 2002 NCAA tournament, which was later vacated because of NCAA sanctions related to Harrick, it has the fourth-longest drought in Power 5 leagues (Penn State hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since 2001).
“Things just haven’t worked out,” McGarity said. “Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. It’s just been a struggle, historically, to develop consistency at Georgia, where you’re maybe in the tournament or on the bubble year after year. Or when you’re not in contention, that’s an odd year. That’s where you want to be. It can be done.”
Dennis Felton, who was hired to replace Harrick, had taken Western Kentucky to three straight NCAA tournament appearances. He inherited a Georgia program on probation and reached the NCAAs just once in six seasons — after an improbable SEC tournament championship in 2008. That year, games had to be moved to Georgia Tech’s arena after a tornado hit the Georgia Dome, and the Bulldogs (13-16 entering the tournament) won a quarterfinal and semifinal game on the same day.
Mark Fox, who replaced Felton after an impressive run at Nevada, had winning campaigns in six of his nine seasons at Georgia. He was fired in 2018 after reaching the NCAAs only twice and losing in the first round both times.
Crean took Marquette to the Final Four in 2003 and guided Indiana to two Big Ten titles and the Sweet 16 three times. He was perceived as a proven coach who might finally get Georgia over the hump. Instead, he has one winning season in four years; the Bulldogs went 14-12 in 2020-21, when the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the season.
“The first two years, we set attendance records,” Crean said. “We were gaining momentum and recruiting well. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, which affected everybody, obviously, but it affected our recruiting that spring and summer in a big way.”
Things couldn’t have gone worse this season. After the 2020-21 season, nine Georgia players entered the transfer portal, including the team’s six leading scorers: Sahvir Wheeler (Kentucky), Toumani Camara (Dayton), Justin Kier (Arizona), Andrew Garcia (Kent State), Tye Fagan (Ole Miss) and K.D. Johnson (Auburn). Senior forward P.J. Horne, the team’s only returning starter, suffered a knee injury in October and has missed the season.
Looking for a quick fix after the roster was gutted, Crean and his staff added nine transfers. Florida Atlantic transfer Jailyn Ingram, who was expected to be one of the team’s better players, tore the ACL in his right knee in the ninth game. The hodgepodge rotation of transfers from programs across the country never meshed. The Bulldogs rank 337th among Division I teams in scoring defense, allowing 78.2 points per game, and 338th in field goal percentage defense (47.3%).
“We really didn’t have an opportunity to go out and replace a guy that ended up being the No. 1 pick in the draft [Anthony Edwards],” Crean said. “When we signed him, we knew we’d have him for one year. We played through the COVID season, and unfortunately had transfers. If a couple of transfers’ timing is different, maybe that part of it’s different.
“We lost two absolutely key guys [Ingram and Horne] that we didn’t have replacements for. We’ve tried to play catch-up ever since and try to manufacture things without those guys.”
The losing has taken its toll on the Bulldogs. Last month, assistant coach Wade Mason was suspended with pay while the athletic department investigated an incident that took place at halftime of an 84-65 loss at LSU on Feb. 16. Mason allegedly had a confrontation with director of player personnel Brian Fish.
When former NBA player Willie Anderson attended a reunion of Georgia players and coaches at Stegeman Coliseum last month, he couldn’t believe what he saw. Not only did the Bulldogs lose to Ole Miss 85-68 in front of a half-empty arena, but Fagan, who had spent three seasons at Georgia, led the Rebels with 20 points.
It has been an all-too-familiar sight for the Bulldogs in their forgettable campaign. Georgia is losing like never before, and it is also losing to many players who grew up in the state, or even worse, once played for the Bulldogs.
“It’s just a bad look for the program,” said Anderson, who played at Georgia from 1984 to 1988 and spent 10 seasons in the NBA. “It’s probably about as low as it has ever been.”
In Saturday’s 84-72 loss to Florida, Gators guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr., who attended Cedar Shoals High School in Athens, scored a season-high 27 points with five rebounds and four assists. The Bulldogs didn’t offer Fleming out of high school and passed on him again when he transferred from Charleston Southern, where he averaged 16.8 points and was a two-time Big South Defensive Player of the Year.
In a 99-73 loss to Arkansas on Feb. 2, JD Notae, who grew up 45 miles down the road in Covington, Georgia, scored 23 points with nine rebounds, six assists and three steals. The Bulldogs passed on Notae while he was playing at Newton High School and again when he transferred from Jacksonville University.
“They didn’t recruit me at all,” Notae told reporters last month.
Even on the rare occasions when the Bulldogs have played well this season, they’ve been bitten by familiar foes, like in their near-upset of No. 1 Auburn at home on Feb. 5. Guard K.D. Johnson, who played at Georgia last season, led Auburn with 20 points in a 74-72 victory. Forward Walker Kessler, whose father, Chad, late uncle, Alec, and brother, Houston, all played for the Bulldogs, had 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.
About the only way the Bulldogs could have more salt in their wounds would be to jump in the ocean after wrestling a porcupine.
“Basically, it just centers around recruiting,” said Durham, who is Georgia’s winningest coach with 297 victories. “When we had good players, we did OK. That’s about as simple as you can get. You’ve got to be able to recruit the state and pick up some quality players out of the area. You might say, ‘Well, we can’t recruit Atlanta.’ Well, you’ve got to be able to recruit Atlanta.”
Georgia has not only whiffed in Atlanta when it comes to recruiting, but it has largely been ineffective in the entire talent-rich state. Since 2011, the Bulldogs have signed only five of the 66 players from Georgia who were included in the ESPN 100. Auburn signed 10 top-100 players from Georgia during that time period (and later added Johnson and Kessler as transfers).
“It’s been mystifying. Because if you look back on the history of the program, you’ve had some really, really good coaches that never were able to sustain consistency. There are a lot of people that haven’t figured it out.”
former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity
Only twice in the past 10 years did the Bulldogs sign the top player in the state: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2011 and Edwards in 2019. There wasn’t enough talent around them to make a difference. The Bulldogs went 30-34 in Caldwell-Pope’s two seasons; they went 16-16 in Edwards’ lone season.
“We’ve had coaches who just didn’t have any feel for our history, really hadn’t recruited the state of Georgia and didn’t have relationships built up in our state,” Slonaker said. “They’re all good coaches and had success at other places, but by the time any of them got around to building relationships in the state of Georgia, they’d accumulated too many average seasons, so they could never take it to another level where we all think we could be.
“If you take the five best teams in Georgia’s history, the roster is going to look like seven kids from a nine-man rotation are from the state of Georgia with two really good out-of-state players. There’s going to be some fluctuation, but that’s pretty much what it’s going to look like. We’ve gotten away from that.”
Karl McCray, president of the Atlanta Celtics, one of the top grassroots programs in the country, has helped develop many of the best players from the state, including future NBA players Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Randolph Morris and Dion Glover. He also worked with current Auburn forward Jabari Smith, a potential No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft.
“It’s very, very difficult to understand,” McCray said. “I know everybody recruits, but for whatever reason they just haven’t been successful getting the kids in Georgia.”
McCray said he’s never met Crean. The Bulldogs head coach says Georgia’s coaches were working with other people in the Celtics program and actively recruited Auburn’s Smith.
“What’s so strange about it is that our kids love the state of Georgia,” McCray said. “They love the Georgia program, but for whatever the reason may be, they haven’t been signing with that program. It’s just a puzzle and a mystery to me. I don’t have one kid that’s come through my program that doesn’t like the school, especially Georgia football. I just can’t put my finger on it.”
McCray said he had lunch one time with Fox, who mostly shied away from recruiting grassroots players in Atlanta.
“He just thought grassroots was not a good situation for high school kids,” McCray said. “But most of the top players are playing on the grassroots circuit.”
The Celtics have produced 28 NBA players, 17 McDonald’s All-Americans and hundreds of Division I players, according to McCray.
“It’s the same thing with Georgia Tech,” McCray said. “There’s no reason why those two programs shouldn’t be at the top of college basketball every year. All the talent that comes through here, I mean the state is absolutely loaded. Everybody else is coming at us with everything they’ve got — Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Tennessee. And the state of Georgia just ignores us. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Anderson, who trains college prospects at a gym in Atlanta, has also been perplexed by Georgia’s recruiting efforts.
“What’s sad about the program to me is that I see [Florida State coach] Leonard Hamilton in Georgia more than I see the Georgia coaches,” Anderson said. “If I go out to a state high school game or tournament, he’s there. We’ve got to get out and beat these guys. We’ve got the top guys from Georgia at LSU, Kentucky, every SEC program, but not at UGA. We have enough players in this state to win without going to other states to recruit.”
Crean defended his program’s recruiting but said it has been difficult with so much speculation about his future.
“There are going to be challenges, and there are a lot of things that go into that,” Crean said. “As far as being active, this was an extremely tough recruiting cycle in the summer and fall because people were constantly using my situation against us and the potential of what could happen with me. It’s just very, very hard to deal with. We were really locked in on a lot of very good players and it didn’t happen for us. We got close on a lot of guys, but it just didn’t happen.”
Stegeman Coliseum, which opened in 1963, has long been considered a recruiting obstacle. The facility has undergone a series of facelifts, including a $13 million renovation in 2010 that upgraded the concourses and an $8 million investment in 2016, which added new seating areas and a center-hung scoreboard. A $30 million training facility for men’s and women’s basketball and gymnastics opened in 2007, but the basketball facilities are still perceived as being near the bottom of the conference, according to sources.
“You take recruits to the practice facility and then do a couple of laps around Stegeman Coliseum, but you don’t take them underneath that place,” a former Georgia assistant said. “When you look at that place on TV, they’ve got it looking as good as they can. But if you get in there and start digging, it’s not comparable to other facilities in the SEC.”
Until Georgia’s 33-18 victory against Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Jan. 10, the Bulldogs were constantly hounded about their 41-year drought without a national football title.
After ending that dubious mark, Brooks is about to turn his attention to trying to end another one — 26 years without an NCAA tournament victory.
“We have to get this hire right,” Slonaker said. “We’ve got to hire somebody that knows not only the University of Georgia, but knows the state of Georgia, and who’s going to attract the talent and guys that can compete at a high level.”