- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When Georgia hired Dennis Felton as its men's basketball coach five years ago, the school asked him to clean up its program, which had been ridiculed nationally because of academic fraud and NCAA violations committed under former coach Jim Harrick.
Felton cleaned up the program, so much so that the Bulldogs have mostly labored through a 13-15 season with only eight scholarship players. After Felton dismissed two starters before they even stepped on the court this season, Georgia lost 11 of its first 14 SEC games before winning at Auburn 59-54 on Wednesday night.
Now, with only Saturday's home game against Ole Miss remaining before next week's SEC tournament in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Felton's job security seems tenuous. Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said he'll evaluate Felton's future once the season ends, and he hasn't given his coach a vote of confidence.
Might Felton's house cleaning cost him his job?
"I promise you this: If I were to get fired, it would be for not winning enough games," Felton said Wednesday night. "It would not be for a lack of our guys consistently representing our university and our program with class."
Felton seemed to have the Bulldogs back on track heading into this season. Georgia expected to return four starters from a team that finished 19-14 and played in the NIT in 2006-07. But then forward Takais Brown, the Bulldogs' leading scorer last season, and guard Mike Mercer, their most athletically gifted player, were kicked off the team.
Mercer, who transferred to South Florida, had previously been suspended 15 games for failing to adhere to Georgia's academic policies. He was kicked off the team for "being a disruption," Felton said at the time. Brown, who is now playing professionally in Finland, faced a nine-game suspension when he was dismissed for failing drug tests, according to sources.
We had big expectations because of our progress and how we had built the program back up and were poised to be very good. Then we lost a lot of players. I don't know how anyone is expected to be really good when you lose five or six players and several of them are your top guys.
--Georgia coach Dennis Felton
Georgia's roster got even thinner after reserve center Rashad Singleton quit the team in January because he felt he wasn't getting enough playing time. Promising freshman forwards Jeremy Jacob and Chris Barnes suffered season-ending injuries.
"This year, we had big, big expectations, and they were for all the right reasons," Felton said. "We had big expectations because of our progress and how we had built the program back up and were poised to be very good. Then we lost a lot of players. I don't know how anyone is expected to be really good when you lose five or six players and several of them are your top guys."
Felton's biggest dilemma might not be what his teams haven't done as much as what other SEC schools have recently accomplished. SEC East rival Florida won back-to-back national championships. Tennessee was ranked No. 1 earlier this season and might be a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, Georgia can't seem to get its program off the ground. Not that the Bulldogs aren't trying. Last year, the school completed construction on a $30 million practice facility for basketball and gymnastics.
"I want to be successful in everything," Evans said. "There are some sports I want to see us build upon. We are 110 percent committed to Georgia basketball. I think Georgia basketball should be great. Of course, we expect great things from basketball, just like we do from every sport."
Georgia's attrition is what concerns Evans most, according to people close to the situation. The Bulldogs have lost six players during the past two seasons. Forward Younes Idrissi and guard Channing Toney, who is averaging 11.5 points at UAB this season, left Georgia before the 2006-07 season. Four players were suspended during parts of 2006-07, and Brown, Mercer and forward Albert Jackson were to be suspended a total of 30 games this season. Guard Billy Humphrey was suspended four games this season after he was arrested twice, first for having a pocket knife on campus and then for underage possession of alcohol.
"We've had two brushes with the law in five years," Felton said. "Probably 90 percent of the programs would give their right arm for that track record."
Georgia senior Sundiata Gaines, the team's leading scorer and co-captain, said his coach made too many recruiting mistakes in the past. After all, it was Felton -- and not Harrick -- who recruited the players who recently were dismissed or left on their own.
"I believe he has the program headed in the right direction, but he has to have the players behind him to get going in that direction," Gaines said. "We definitely had good players, but we didn't have the right players with the right character. He didn't have players from the right backgrounds to go through this. It's hard to lose somebody every year. Unfortunately, he's just been dealt a bad deck of players."
Who knew the house of cards would fall so quickly?
"I think it's pretty easy to see that we would have had a better record without getting rid of the guys that [left] early in the year," senior forward and co-captain Dave Bliss said. "But it was a decision that was made and it was a risk. That's part of building something [Felton] can be proud of. I think the jury is still out on whether it was a good decision or not. A lot of it is out of his control. The athletic department had a big role in that stuff. There were some changes that needed to be made. How to go about it? That's one way to do it."
At least one college basketball coach suggested Georgia's new academic standards, which require student-athletes to attend dozens of tutoring, study hall and advisement sessions each month, make it too difficult to build a program that will consistently win.
"The job is too hard," said the coach, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "You can't find enough good players who are willing to do all of that."
But Evans, who instituted the policies last year to improve Georgia's lagging graduation rates, defended the new plan. Evans said Georgia's other athletic teams haven't struggled to adhere to the policies.
"First and foremost, we're about academics," Evans said. "Aren't we supposed to encourage our kids to go to class and do what they're supposed to be doing academically? We should be asking more of them academically, to be honest. We've had other teams at Georgia have success under the same guidelines. We want to graduate players from this institution and win basketball games."
Felton said each of his players have already graduated or are on track to graduate ahead of schedule, and he added that many of his players earned their academic degrees in less than four years. Mercer, who faced the longest suspension for academic reasons, was a year ahead of schedule in graduating and had a 2.5 grade point average when he left, according to sources.
"Our players have performed in the classroom," Felton said. "We've never had a player become academically ineligible. Our players are not only graduating and on track to graduate, but the vast majority of time our players are ahead of pace to graduate on time. So we're certainly doing all the things that are consistent with the mission of a great university like Georgia."
Yet the Bulldogs have failed to consistently get it done on the court. In five seasons at Georgia, Felton has a 71-78 record. His teams have lost more than twice as many SEC games (53) as they've won (26), and they have yet to finish a season with a winning record in SEC play.
"I can tell you this: I don't feel like I need to defend the job myself and our staff have done at all," Felton said. "I'm proud of everything we've accomplished and everything we continue to accomplish. This year was a step backward, no doubt about it. But it doesn't define what we've done with this program and where we're headed with this program. If you ask me, I don't think there's any cause for speculation [about my job]. I think we've coached as well as we've ever coached here. Any team which has endured the kind of [personnel] losses that we've endured is bound to struggle. At the same time, we've fought and competed, and we've kept ourselves in position to look forward to a great season next season."
Evans will ultimately decide whether Felton is back on the bench next season. In March 2007, Evans recommended a two-year contract extension and $200,000 raise for Felton. Georgia would owe Felton more than $2 million if he were fired after this season.
Is that too hefty a price for starting over again?
"I'm going to wait until the end of the year [to decide]," Evans said. "I like to take a look at everything and see where we are at the end of the year. The fair thing to do is look at everything in its totality. There is a lot of basketball to be played."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.