Mark Fox was on a path to landing the game he has long wanted.
For a while, Georgia and Georgia Tech were engaged in serious discussions to play a game at Philips Arena in 2017.
Fox publicly has discussed his intention to schedule this game. Talks began back when Brian Gregory was Georgia Tech’s head coach and continued after Josh Pastner was hired to replace him. At one point, Fox was under the impression a deal would get done.
It turned out not to be the case.
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When Georgia Tech finalized its new athletics administration last fall, the philosophy on this game changed. From there, talks stalled, preventing a potential neutral-court matchup between the two in-state rivals.
“I fully understand what the GT/UGA game means to both fan bases,” Pastner said in an email to The Telegraph. “Our administration and myself all agreed that for right now it is best to keep the GT/UGA game a straight home-and-home series. I have the highest level of respect for Coach Fox and his program.”
Fox declined to comment for this story.
A recruiting concern
Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs serve as a fertile recruiting area for college basketball.
Therefore, it is at least seen as a possibility that a Philips Arena game could turn into a recruiting tool for Georgia. For instance, if Georgia were to outdraw Georgia Tech in this game, it would be a bad look for the Yellow Jackets and something Georgia coaches could point out to Atlanta-area recruits.
Pastner was asked in a follow-up question via email if a neutral-court game at Philips Arena could pose a recruiting advantage for Georgia.
“The GT/UGA game was a game that I inherited on my schedule,” Paster said. “This game was played before I was born and the game will be played way after I leave this beautiful earth. I have great respect for Coach Fox and his program. For us to win a game against a team like UGA, we will need to be near perfect in our execution, effort, and energy, whether it is at home or on the road.”
The final 11 words in Pastner’s reply were the most telling.
“However, I do know that we don't recruit in Athens, GA,” he said.
Three of Georgia Tech’s contributors from this past season’s team were from the Atlanta area — Josh Okogie (Shiloh), Quinton Stephens (Marist) and Corey Heyward (Peachtree Ridge).
Georgia Tech recently picked up a commitment from Evan Cole, a three-star recruit out of Cumming.
Georgia’s 2016-17 roster featured four Atlanta-area players. But only Derek Ogbeide, who starred at Pebblebrook, saw considerable time on the floor at 23.2 minutes per game.
Still, Georgia continues to recruit the state’s capital and the area around it hard.
Incoming freshman Rayshaun Hammonds, a top-50 player nationally, is from Norcross, located 20 miles north of Atlanta on I-85. Incoming freshman Teshaun Hightower spent last season at Mt. Zion Prep in Baltimore but is originally from Lithonia, which is 19 miles east of Atlanta on I-20.
It wouldn’t be out of the question for Pastner, or any college coach for that matter, to keep his home city as off limits as possible.
And this line of thinking is consistent with how Pastner approached a particular in-state game at his previous coaching job at Memphis.
In 2012, Pastner stated his desire to discontinue Memphis’ series against Tennessee for recruiting purposes.
“I know the fans probably like it,” Pastner said, via the Scout.com affiliate TigerAuthority.com. “I just have felt that, why help any teams that want to recruit in Memphis all the time?”
Under Pastner, Memphis and Tennessee met during his first five seasons on the job.
Memphis won the final three of Pastner’s five games against the Volunteers, with a final matchup taking place on Jan. 4, 2013.
Memphis and Tennessee haven’t played each other on the hardwood since but are reportedly in talks to rekindle the rivalry.
While Pastner doesn’t want to play Georgia on a neutral court, the Bulldogs could always schedule another team for a game in Atlanta. In 2015, Florida State and VCU agreed to play a neutral-court game at Philips Arena.
Given the proximity of Athens to Atlanta, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Georgia to find a separate suitor for a game on the Atlanta Hawks’ home floor.
Change in philosophy
When Pastner took the head coaching job, he told Georgia Tech officials he was against the Philips Arena idea but wouldn’t mind if they continued to explore it. But not too long after Todd Stansbury was hired to be Georgia Tech’s athletics director last September, discussions for the game came to a halt.
Georgia Tech men’s basketball administrator Marvin Lewis said there were a couple of additional factors involved with this decision.
Financially, Lewis said there was no guarantee Georgia Tech could sell out its allotment of tickets for a game at Philips Arena, which seats 21,000 people. When the game is at McCamish Pavilion, Lewis said Georgia Tech has no problem packing the venue. Despite a slow start to its 2016-17 season, Georgia Tech claimed a sellout for its game against Georgia, which the Bulldogs win 60-43.
“There is a huge amount of revenue that comes from us maintaining that a home-and-home series,” Lewis said. “But obviously, with going to a neutral-site game, you’ve got rental costs, you’ve got additional fees and the share of the gate. Unless we sell out or get close to having a certain attendance point or ticket sales point, then financially it doesn’t make sense.”
Lewis said he was not part of the negotiation process between Georgia Tech, Georgia and Philips Arena. Much of those discussions took place under Georgia Tech’s previous administration.
Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said the change inside Georgia Tech’s athletics department is what likely caused the potential agreement to crumble. McGarity, however, doesn’t share Lewis’ concerns over the game being a tough sell.
“I think a game of that nature would probably have a better chance of selling out than it has on our campus,” McGarity said. “I just know in the big picture there was a lot of discussion about it between staffs. I was updated throughout, and at the end of the day, nothing could be finalized and an agreement couldn’t be reached between both schools. Obviously, if you don’t have both schools on the same page it’s not going to happen.”
During a 14-year span from 1981-94, Georgia and Georgia Tech held their annual rivalry in Atlanta at The Omni. But when the Yellow Jackets won six of the final eight games at The Omni, Georgia decided not to renew the deal. The series then moved back to each program’s campus.
When the programs revisited the neutral-court idea, Georgia officials were confident a Philips Arena deal was close. When Georgia Tech fired Brian Gregory and hired Josh Pastner, things slowly began to change.
“All I know is that this is something Mark wanted to do but it just couldn’t get worked out,” McGarity said. “I’m not sure of all the particulars because Mark was in those conversations with Tech. In my conversations with Mark, it just couldn’t get worked out.”
Fox’s case for a Philips Arena game
Georgia and Georgia Tech typically compete against one another late in non-conference play, which is usually after the fall semester ends. Students head home for the holidays, and attendance is consequently affected.
On Dec. 19, 2015, the last time the two teams played in Athens, Georgia announced an attendance of 8,011, which fell short of Stegeman Coliseum’s capacity of 10,523. But a highlight video from this particular game shows there were quite a few empty seats in the lower bowl.
“That game has not sold out because of the timing of it in Athens in many years,” McGarity said. “The students are out of town.”
As a result, Fox hopes to one day bring this rivalry to Georgia’s Atlanta-area students and fans during the winter break.
Unfortunately for Fox, it seems unlikely an agreement will happen any time soon.
“I really think every couple of years we ought to play it downtown,” Fox said in December. “I think it would be great for the people in the city of Atlanta. I think it could be great for everybody. But I haven’t been able to get that done yet.”
Instead of playing at Philips Arena, Georgia will host Georgia Tech in Athens this season. The two teams will play in December, meaning a potential chance to line up home football and basketball games in the same season will be missed by both the Georgia and Georgia Tech athletics departments.
If Georgia and Georgia Tech signed the Philips Arena deal, Georgia’s home game against Georgia Tech would have been pushed back a year. This would have given the Bulldogs both a home football and basketball game against the Yellow Jackets in 2018. Subsequent seasons would then bring each campus a home football and basketball game in the same season.
From there, it would have at least been possible for each athletics department to schedule home Georgia-Georgia Tech football and basketball games closely together. The potential of a full Georgia-Georgia Tech weekend of football and basketball could have been billed.
But that hypothetical scenario doesn’t exist and probably won’t in the foreseeable future.
Down the road, Georgia probably still will try to land a Philips Arena game with Georgia Tech. The interest level from Georgia Tech’s side would have to change quite a bit for it to happen.
“I know it was a great idea,” McGarity said. “We were on board. But it just wasn’t able to be worked out between the institutions. I’m sure the changeover came into play with the administration, new coaches. I’m sure all that came into play but I couldn’t tell you all of the particulars. It just couldn’t get worked out.”