Mailbag: Hoops concerns, spring football and more

semerson@macon.comMarch 20, 2013 

This week we delve into basketball concerns, and the state of hoops recruiting, then move on to talk of Georgia's offense trying not to repeat last year's defensive problem, the objectivity of sportswriters, and the merits of G-Day.

It might well be that coach Fox's bosses are backing him, but the ultimate bosses, Georgia fandom, are not. If they don't show, the coach must go!

(Friday’s) column says that 6,500 fans on average see Georgia play at home. And, that isn't going to improve next year especially if K C-P goes pro. You rightfully say that something must be done about the poor attendance. But keeping Fox is not the solution. It's the problem. Take a look at Tubby Smith's tenure to see what attendance was then, it might be illuminating. He was a winner.

If WE started to win CONSISTENTLY, advance in the SEC and the Dance, be competitive every year, I think you would see a solid uptick in attendance. A winning program generates such.

We haven't been to the Big Dance with Fox in his first four years except once. Other than that, what has he done to merit return next year? And if he's weak in recruiting, as many say, how in the world can anyone expect improvement next year or any year? It's a road to nowhere.
- Don Joel

It may be that history bears you out, and others already antsy for a change. But for the moment the people in power don’t agree. And I’m not sure I do either.

The simple fact is that the history of the Georgia men’s basketball program would not justify replacing Fox right now. This is a program that has received just 11 NCAA tournament bids in its history, and won a total of seven NCAA games. As I outlined in Tuesday’s column, Fox’s record over the first four seasons is on par with Georgia historically, and his SEC record is slightly better. Furthermore, only once in the past 20 years – Billy Gillispie at Kentucky – has an SEC men’s basketball coach been fired in four years or less after reaching the NCAA tournament at least once. And Georgia ain’t Kentucky, obviously, when it comes to expectations.

As someone who has known people in the coaching industry for awhile, I can promise you that outside of some off-court problems, Georgia replacing Fox at this point would not be received well, and would make it harder for the school to find a capable replacement. Georgia just isn’t considered the same kind of job in basketball as it is in football. And among the coaches I speak to, Fox is well-regarded and well-respected. Firing him now would be seen by many in the industry as more of a Georgia issue than a Fox issue.

You are right that attendance is a problem, as I’ve said too. And yes, attendance was better (though not by a huge amount) the two years that Tubby Smith was around. But Tubby left for another job. Then came the short-lived Ron Jirsa era. Then came Jim Harrick, who won with the help of NCAA violations. Then came Dennis Felton, who couldn’t turn it around. Now here is Fox.

There is little appetite at Georgia to keep starting over with the basketball program, and Greg McGarity (who didn’t hire Fox) believes in his coach. Keep in mind, this year’s team was dominated by underclassmen. Yes, one of them could leave. But whether or not he does, there actually is some talent on hand, and all signs point to the administration wanting Fox to have a chance to build a consistent winner.

Some say the problem with Georgia hoops is we don't recruit well. Your thoughts? Shouldn’t we benefit from our proximity to ATL?
- Abraham Baldwin, via Twitter

(First off, yes I’m aware this isn’t THE Abraham Baldwin.)

This is going to keep sounding like I’m making excuses for Fox, but no, the proximity to Atlanta doesn’t help. I’ll just pass along the consensus from the various coaches I’ve spoken to about this:

The proximity to Atlanta helps Georgia Tech, which is part of the reason it has pulled in more elite players over the past 20-30 years, particularly from out of state. You can sell Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Chris Bosh. (The lure of ACC basketball also tends to trump SEC basketball, much like SEC football trumps ACC football.)

Football players in the state of Georgia grow up wanting to play at Georgia. But a lot less grow up wanting to play basketball here. There just isn’t the history of winning or the tradition. That’s why it will probably require getting the “next tier” type of talent, such as Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, and allowing a coach time to develop them. And every now and then you hope you hit the jackpot with a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

1- Have you been hearing positive reports from players or other coaches about the assistance speed coach Sherman Armstrong has given players since his hiring? Does it seem to you that he's made a difference? Any examples to share?

2- Any idea why at the bottom of the screen of the Ledger-Enquirer site your stories post on it always has a link to the "Isaiah Crowell dismissed from Georgia football team" story? (It's constantly under the heading "Previous Story") Seems to me it's been like that ever since the story was published 9 months ago. Not the best headline to be constantly reminded of.
- Rob, Johnson City, Tenn.

1-The good performance of Georgia players at the NFL combine are one example that could at least in part be credited to Armstrong. We’ll see more at Georgia’s pro day on Thursday. But in a general sense Armstrong’s contributions just fit in with the overall improvement of the strength and conditioning program, as reflected by the team’s stamina in big games last year (Florida and Nebraska especially.)

2- I’ve alerted the IT people to that a couple times, and don’t really know why it’s the case.

Most recent news has Todd Grantham praising Sterling Bailey. My Q: What's your take on the D-line? Semingly athletic, but undersized and young.
- @thestrongsauce, via Twitter

Grantham, but also Chris Wilson, were praising Sterling Bailey. That’s a great sign for Bailey, but perhaps also another warning to Ray Drew that he needs to make a move soon if he’s going to grab that starting spot opposite of Garrison Smith.

I think your read on the line is pretty accurate. That might worry some out there, automatically assuming bigger is better, but we saw last year that’s not always true. They are smaller on the line, and there’s no way around it. The trick is going to be using that as an advantage. Wilson mentioned being an “attacking” defense, so that could be a clue as well. There’s going to be less NFL-ready talent on this year’s line than last year. But if they use what talent they have better – i.e. rotate more than last year – then there doesn’t have to be a drop-off.

Last year, we returned most of our defensive starters from a defense that was ranked 5th in the nation in 2011. The defense was going to be the backbone of our 2012 season, with all of the question marks coming from our offense. However, it took half the season for our defense to find its identity again and truly play up to their potential. Now that the 2012 season is over, all the media/analysts/message boards point to complacency that lead our NFL talented defense to such a flat half of the season, with many players coming out and saying that “they just expected to be great again.” Now our roles seem reversed for the 2013 season, the offense is now labeled the backbone of the team and all of the questions marks are coming from the defense. Thus, my question is, what are the coaching staff and the players doing to ensure that the offense doesn’t also become complacent this time, “just expect to be great again,” and come out flat for the 2013 season?
- Ray Bailey, Ft. Sill, OK

Well, one step is making sure, or at least hoping, that two key offensive starters don’t get suspended the first four games. That certainly didn’t help Georgia’s defense last year.

But a number of players, and perhaps coaches privately, do think that last year’s defense was too overconfident from the get-go. Obviously Shawn Williams felt that way. So how do you avoid that with the offense? I don’t know that there’s a surefire way, motivationally. But there’s a different mentality between the Georgia offense and defense: The offense by its nature is more technical, relying on execution and strategy. The defense is emotional. That’s the general nature of offenses and defense in general. But if you look at the men on each side of the ball – Bobo and Grantham, Aaron Murray and Amarlo Herrera – you can also see why that would be the case at Georgia.

All that’s to say I’m not sure over-confidence and motivation will so much be the issue for the Georgia offense. It will still come down to calling the right plays and executing them. Plus, all these guys on offense witnessed what happened with the defense in 2012; that in itself may be enough to forestall the same problems.

It can be very easy for sportswriters to influence the way a school is perceived on a national scale. For example, Nick Saban's recent dismissals seemed to garner more media praise for his dedication to running a high-character program than it made headlines for him losing control or recruiting the wrong kids (cue the Mark Richt joke). You seem to do a good job of maintaining professional objectivity while covering UGA. However, after reading columns and articles from guys at SI and ESPN for years, it’s tough not to pick up on, or at least imagine, their personal opinions on specific programs. For example, at SI.com I would bet that Andy Staples has a positive opinion of UGA while Stewart Mandel has the opposite. As a professional sportswriter,can you pick up on these biases more easily, and how much do they really influence their work? Are they often the result of receiving annoying junk mail from disgruntled fans? Finally, any writers that really jump out to you as being pro or negative UGA?
- Gordon, Austin, TX

First off, thanks for saying that. It means a lot to hear that I’m objective towards Georgia and have overcome my visceral, personal dislike for the Bulldogs. (Kidding!)

But seriously, while I’m sure everybody has a blind spot, my sense is that most college football writers don’t have any personal animus towards specific schools. That would be too obvious for fans to figure out and would affect our credibility. Our prejudices our towards our own beliefs. Some of us, for instance, want to see the programs and coaches that “do it the right way” succeed, and let that bleed into our coverage. Some of us don’t care about that. Some of us may root a bit harder for the mid-majors, cinderallas and underdogs. Some of us may favor certain conferences. But those two writers you mentioned – Staples and Mandel – overall seem pretty objective. (And Staples is a Florida grad, so for him to be perceived as pro-Georgia is quite an accomplishment.)

I do understand how from a fan’s point of view it can be easy to categorize a writer as favoring certain teams, or being pro-School A or anti-School B. As someone in the business, however, I can promise you that kind of thing never gets discussed. We do criticize each other for certain things, whether it’s not doing the right research, or being too inclined to favor a certain point of view. But we don’t sit around and say this person is pro-Georgia or anti-Georgia or anything like that.

You do hit on something about the fan interaction, though, in that in today’s world so many fans have the ability to get under our skin. That makes it easy to say certain fan bases are more irrational and annoying than others. But again, we can’t let that bleed into our coverage, and it usually doesn’t, because whether Alabama fans have to be blocked on Twitter doesn’t have anything to do with whether Saban is a good coach.

(Where the social media culture does become a problem is whether journalists are spending too much time reacting to or writing stories that respond to fans who, to be blunt, aren’t really grounded in reality. I’ve tried to become more cognizant of this lately, because there have been some non-stories pushed by fans that should really be left alone.)

I do get what you’re saying about the different perceptions of Saban and Richt when it comes to discipline. But so much of that has to do with preconceived perceptions. Saban is seen as rigid, and Richt as a player’s coach. That does seem an overly easy, and perhaps outdated, impression. But in today’s Twitter culture there are also too many people rushing their opinions out there, whether it’s fans or journalists. When those four Alabama players were arrested, a number of people tripped over themselves to wonder why Saban hadn’t kicked them off the team. But anybody who followed Saban and Alabama closely could’ve told you that “suspended indefinitely” meant they’d soon be gone. And Richt’s discipline policies the past few years should have done enough to curtail the whole “lax discipline” meme’.

This is something that has been on my mind for some time now. In my opinion the G-Day Spring scrimmage is too dangerous. I know it's tradition and will more than likely never be taken away but let's take a closer look. Besides the no contact rule for the QBs, it's still a very physical game. Are very serious injuries possible for everyone on the field? Yes. Meaning Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Malcolm Mitchell, and everyone on the field (besides the QBs) basically has the same chance to tear their knee up as they would in a regular season game.

Does the scrimmage actually mean anything? No. All you get to see is a few early enrollees take the field with the "G" on their helmet. The game means about the same as the Shrine Bowl when Tramel Terry tore his ACL on the opening kickoff. Last year, Florida "Buck" linebacker Ronald Powell (one of their best defensive players at the time), tore his ACL in their spring game and when the actual season rolled around, they had to replace him with Lerentee McCray. Who is definitely not as athletic, impactful, and not as experienced as Powell. He did alright, but Powell was looking at a breakout year for them.

And let's be honest, the game is pretty boring. I remember last year the Black Team actually kicked a field goal inside their own twenty. It's just a glorified spring practice scrimmage. I realize that anyone on the team has a chance to be badly injured anytime they step on the practice field. But, taking a more competitive game/scrimmage away certainly doesn't hurt the team. I can't even imagine seeing Todd Gurley have to be carried off the field on a stretcher during the meaningless G-Day game.
- Daniel Smith/Knoxville, TN

You make a lot of valid points. I’m pretty sure coaches also treat this as a glorified scrimmage – and perhaps less important. The scrimmages are closed, while G-Day is open for everyone to see, so you’re not going to see Georgia pull out any secret play it wants to save for Clemson or South Carolina.

Then again, as you say players can also get hurt in scrimmages, or in practices. Trinton Sturdivant suffered his last torn ACL during a scrimmage. Given the rules in G-Day games – the quarterback can’t be actually sacked, for instance – I’m not sure G-Day is any more or less dangerous than a standard scrimmage, or the final few periods of practice, when first-teamers go against each other.

So it’s up to coaches to strike that balance, between the game simulation they feel players need and the desire to avoid injuries. G-Day really is more for the fans, and there isn’t really anything wrong with that. If they canceled G-Day, they’d just hold another closed scrimmage, which would have just the same injury risk for players. I mean, as long as the real games are played with tackling and hitting and physicality, you have to practice that sometime, right?

A little off of your beat, but important nonetheless. Can you ask somebody if beer will be served at Sanford Stadium for the Jason Aldean concert on April 13th?
- Aubrey Neeley

I have what presumably is bad news: No alcohol at the concert, per UGA.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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