Commentary

Will UGA truly aim big in its coaching search -- or take the normal SEC route?

Originally Published: January 29, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- If the NCAA tournament were scheduled to begin today, Florida, Kentucky and perhaps Tennessee would be the only SEC schools invited to the 65-team field.

Other than at Arkansas, where college basketball always seems to matter, would fans of the league's other schools even care?

Less than a month into SEC play, two of the league's coaches already are looking for jobs. Alabama's Mark Gottfried resigned Monday, and Georgia fired embattled coach Dennis Felton on Thursday morning.

What those aforementioned schools do next will go a long way toward determining whether the SEC really cares about being anything more than an elite football conference.

For too long, SEC schools have shortchanged their basketball programs in terms of coaching salaries and facilities.

Want evidence? Tennessee's football program recently hired Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the father of new Volunteers coach Lane Kiffin. Tennessee will pay the elder Kiffin $1.2 million to direct its defense.

Monte Kiffin's salary is more than what eight of the SEC's 12 basketball coaches are being paid this season.

Only Florida's Billy Donovan ($3.25 million per season), Kentucky's Billy Gillispie ($2.36 million), Tennessee's Bruce Pearl ($1.6 million) and Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings ($1.3 million) are being paid more than UT's defensive coordinator will make this year.

At a time when SEC football has never been better -- its schools have won the past three BCS national championships -- the league's basketball programs have seldom been worse.

Not a single team is ranked in this week's ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll.

Only one SEC school -- No. 25 Florida -- ranks in the top 25 of the latest ESPN InsideRPI. A staggering 10 of the league's 12 teams rank outside the top 55, including woebegone Georgia, which sits at No. 216.

Not surprisingly, the SEC ranks sixth (or last) among "BCS" conferences in RPI rankings.

Mediocrity is nothing new for many of the SEC's men's basketball programs. Georgia has played in the NCAA tournament only 10 times in more than 100 seasons of playing basketball. That's still more NCAA appearances than Auburn (eight), Ole Miss (six), Mississippi State (nine) and Vanderbilt (nine).

Now that's not to say the conference hasn't seen its share of success in recent years. In the 1990s, Kentucky and Arkansas brought home national titles and Florida and Mississippi State advanced to the Final Four. The Gators, of course, won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and '07, and LSU joined Florida at the Final Four three years ago.

Sustaining success has been difficult in the SEC, though. Georgia, for example, has won 20 games in consecutive seasons only once -- current Minnesota coach Tubby Smith accomplished the rare feat at UGA in 1995-96 and 1996-97.

[+] EnlargeDamon Evans
AP Photo/John BazemoreGeorgia AD Damon Evans (left) said he's committed to a big-time basketball program at football-crazy UGA. Will it work?
"That's something we really have to figure out," Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said. "I believe that we can have success here. You can go back to Tubby and see what he was able to accomplish and what some of our other coaches did. We don't have all the answers yet, but we will figure out what it takes to get this program to a high level of success."

That has been easier said than done for most SEC programs. Florida struck it rich by luring Donovan, a former Kentucky assistant, away from Marshall in 1996. Likewise, Gillispie was considered one of the game's best young coaches when he left Texas A&M for Kentucky in 2007.

But most SEC schools have settled for lesser-name coaches from smaller mid-major programs rather than opening their wallets for established coaches from larger schools.

Vanderbilt plucked Stallings from Illinois State, and Pearl was hired away from Wisconsin-Milwaukee. John Pelphrey went from South Alabama to Arkansas, Darrin Horn left Western Kentucky for South Carolina, and Auburn found Jeff Lebo at Chattanooga.

Evans, who is poised to make his first major hire since replacing legendary Georgia athletics director Vince Dooley in 2004, said his school is committed to putting more resources -- i.e., money -- toward basketball.

Felton was paid $760,000 annually. Georgia pays Mark Richt, its football coach, about $2.8 million per season.

"In our opinion, [basketball] is not a red-headed stepchild," Evans said.

Sources close to the situation say Evans is willing to make Felton's successor the first $1 million basketball coach in Georgia history.

The Bulldogs are setting their sights high: Oklahoma's Jeff Capel, who might command twice as much in salary as Felton, is believed to be at the top of their wish list of potential replacements.

Xavier's Sean Miller, UNLV's Lon Kruger, Baylor's Scott Drew and Virginia Commonwealth's Anthony Grant also might be considered for the job. Even Smith, who left Georgia for Kentucky in 1997, might be contacted about the Bulldogs' opening.

To sway any of the aforementioned coaches to listen, Evans might have to first convince them that Georgia is finally ready to get serious about its basketball program.

"I'll say this: Our commitment and my commitment to build Georgia basketball is strong," Evans said. "And when I say strong, I'll add very strong onto that. We're going to go out and find the best possible person for this job. That may mean we commit more resources than we have in the past, but we're not letting that hold us back from doing what we need to do to have a successful men's basketball program."

Evans might have to do more than increase his basketball coach's salary. Like many SEC programs, the Bulldogs play in an outdated on-campus arena. Stegeman Coliseum opened in 1964 and has received plenty of cosmetic Band-Aids over the years. Georgia opened a $30 million basketball training facility in 2007.

Only four SEC schools (Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee) play in arenas that were built after 1976. Auburn will open a new $92.5 million area before the 2010-11 season.

SEC schools historically have committed the brunt of their resources to their primary breadwinner and fascination -- their football programs. Basketball expenditures are budgeted only after football's needs are met.

But Evans insists it's finally time for Georgia to prove it can be successful in both sports.

"There are examples around the country," Evans said. "First and foremost, I don't believe you can have one or the other. I believe that you can have both.

"Take a look at Tennessee and what they've been able to accomplish. Take a look at Florida and what they've been able to accomplish. [Take a look] at a place like the University of Texas. There are plenty of schools around this country that are seen as football schools that have really good basketball programs."

For now, at least, there just aren't that many of them in the SEC.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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