Athens, GA (Mar 16, 2008) - I can tell you the exact moment I became a fan of Coach Mark Richt and his University of Georgia Football Program. It was at the 2002 SEC Football Championship Game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. And it was not when they won the game.
I had moved to Athens, GA in 1994 and worked a lot of games coached by Ray Goff and Jim Donnan. I never could embrace the team as a fan because I was a Damned Yankee who grew up believing there was no other football than what was played up North, especially in Happy Valley and South Bend.
But one single moment at the 2002 Championship game led me to become a huge fan of Coach Richt and his team: the coin toss. As absurd as this sounds, it is true. When the Arkansas captains came onto the field for the toss, the were walking with helmets dragging and feet shuffling, like they could care less about being there. The Georgia captains, on the other hand, came out as a solid unit, walking side by side with helmets held upright in their arms. Coach Richt was bring out his team in a respectful, disciplined manner, earning my respect as a newly christened Georgia Bulldog fan.
Georgia basketball, on the other hand, is a different story. Georgia fans seem to think that they are a premier college basketball program, when nothing could be farther from the truth as the long history is just not there. When Women's Gymnastics and Basketball outdraws Men's Basketball on a regular basis, well that should tell you something. Yes, the Bulldogs made a final four once upon a time, and they enjoyed a short run of success under Tubby Smith. But Jim Harrick and his son came in, destroying any semblance of a solid, honest program with their antics and actions.
So in this shadow, Dennis Felton came in to rebuild this program. Like many others, I respected him as a coach with all of the rules he put into place, and the approach he took to the game. I cringe at the team doing their own version of the "Dawg Walk", and the "Ask Coach Felton" Q&A session with the fans in the student section before each home game. Unfortunately, some things had to be tried to get fans into the seats since they were not winning a whole lot of games.
Coming into this week, speculation was high that Felton and his staff would be fired for their last place finish in the SEC East with a 4-11 record, and the fact that they had not been to the NCAA Tournament in many, many years. Felton did not help his case by defending himself by saying that other programs like Baylor and St. Bonaventure were having similar rebuilding problems like Georgia. I am sorry, but Bonnies time came and went a long time ago and there is no way you can equate the programs.
But something funny happened this week, when Georgia won their opening SEC tournament game aganst Ole Miss. So I did want to watch the game against Kentucky Friday night, since I have had to pass on working the SEC Tournament the past couple of years because of work commitments. Of course, the tournament was postponed to yesterday, and this was the day I became a true fan of Coach Felton, his staff (though I have always been a fan of former Navy Head Coach and now Georgia Associate head Coach Pete Hermann), and the team.
What this team has accomplished this week, win or lose today against the Razorbacks of Arkansas, is nothing short of truly special. The team came in with nothing to lose and could easily have folded their tents and phoned it in. Instead, every single player on the team rose to occasion and won 3 games in a row, including the two games yesterday, to advance to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 1997.
This is the kind of thing that separates a great "team" from a good "team": the ability to rise up over the adversity of last year's death of Junior team leader Kevin Brophy, the loss of 3 players this year because they did not have their priorities in order, and the shadow of the firing of their coach to show the basketball world what they are really made of.
They have to win today to make the NCAA Tournament, and if they lose the NIT cannot even come calling because they will be below .500 at 16-17. They might get a shot in the new College Basketball Invitational being put together by Fox Sportsnet, but they will not likely get a home game.
So people of the Bulldog Nation need to unite and become supportive fans of Coach Felton, his staff, and the team, even if Bobby Knight does not know the name of the Georgia coach: