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Little gained by removing Felton & for now.


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Recent developments notwithstanding, Dennis Felton doesn t think his basketball program is on the wrong track. On the contrary, he said Monday, I do believe we will win championships at Georgia.

In a 25-minute phone conversation, Felton admitted this season has been a setback. He also regards it as an aberration. We ve made really good progress until this year, and if we had our team intact I just know we d be in a much better place to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament. This is the first time we ve taken a step back on the court.

Felton arrived in April 2003, replacing the disgraced Jim Harrick. The new man was handed a program facing deep-dish NCAA probation. We were walking into a severe challenge, Felton said, and we were met by several more along the way.

Still, Felton has been in place for 4 1/2 seasons, and his teams haven t yet managed an NCAA berth or a 20-win season. (Even the overmatched Ron Jirsa generated one of the latter.) Felton s latest team is 11-10, having lost five in a row. His record at Georgia is 69-73 overall, 24-48 in SEC play. And it must be noted that Baylor, which underwent an uglier scandal in 2003 a player was murdered by an ex-player and the coach was taped trying to cover things up is 17-5.

This season in particular, I wanted us to be in a better place, Felton said. But things changed dramatically when we lost our two best players.

Mike Mercer and Takais Brown were suspended due to academics last fall and were later dismissed from the team. They re not here because it had to be that way, Felton said. They gave me no choice.

Such has been the story of Felton s tenure: The biggest talents don t stay long, if at all. His most heralded signee, Louis Williams of South Gwinnett, opted for the NBA. Robert Dozier of Lithonia signed with Georgia but landed at Memphis after his SAT score was flagged and is today, in Felton s words, the second-best player on the No. 1 team in the country.

Since the last of Harrick s holdovers departed, Felton has largely made do with players of unquestioned tenacity but limited ability such as Levi Stukes and Steve Newman, seniors last season, and Sundiata Gaines and Dave Bliss, seniors now. Given Georgia s toughened academics and Felton s no-nonsense approach, will the Bulldogs ever attract the recruits necessary to win at the highest level?

We are building our talent, Felton said. Howard Thompkins [a signee from Weseleyan High School in Norcross] is arguably the best power forward in the country. He can make a huge impact, much the way [Vanderbilt s A.J.] Ogilvy and [Kentucky s Patrick] Patterson have done. He can make the skillful plays we need our talent to make. And Dustin Ware [a point guard from Kennesaw] is precisely what we need.

Last week, starting guard Billy Humphrey was arrested for the second time in three months. With the dismissals of Mercer and Brown and the headlines generated by Humphrey, does Felton feel embarrassed?

I go through the gamut of those tough emotions I m extremely disappointed and very frustrated. And, with the negative connotations for the program, yeah, I m embarrassed. But I m not at all embarrassed by our intentions and our effort behind those intentions to make everything go right. And I m not saying it s all right one time s too many, two are too many but these were the first two times in five years we ve had a brush with the law. I m not embarrassed by our track record.

Given the inherent obstacles faced by any coach coming after Harrick and relative lack of interest in Georgia basketball, Felton hasn t been subjected to much scrutiny. That has begun to change. Some folks, this writer included, are wondering if it should take this long to fix a busted program.

We ve had some awfully tough luck, Felton said. That s slowed us at times in what we were moving toward. But most explosive successes come after great adversity. I m not trying to compare myself to Mike Krzyzewski, but both he and his great rival Dean Smith faced enough adversity in their early years to make people question whether or not it could be done. Obviously somebody was wise enough to be patient.

The belief here is that nothing would be gained by changing regimes now. The belief here is, as it has been all along, that Felton is a good coach. But a good coach must eventually find a way to override rotten luck, or else he becomes an ex-coach. The belief here is that Dennis Felton has until 2009 to get it going, or else he s gone.

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