Tom Crean got the job in Athens Thad Matta didn’t want. And after being spurned by Matta earlier in the week, the Georgia Bulldogs didn’t want to be left alone at the altar once again.
If Crean had said no to Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity, people would have wondered if this coaching search was akin to what Tennessee went through a few months ago to find a new football coach. Thankfully for Georgia, the second choice may have been the right one.
Nick Saban was not the first choice 11 years ago in Tuscaloosa. Rich Rodriguez was first offered the job to coach Alabama, but he said no. That second pick worked out well, wouldn’t you say?
That’s not saying Crean is going to become basketball’s version of Saban. Circumstances sometimes dictate the second choice turns out to be the best choice. And for a Georgia fanbase starving for success on the basketball court, Crean’s résumé looks very good.
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Georgia has been to the NCAA tournament 12 times and won only seven games in the school’s history. Crean has been a head coach for 18 years — nine years at Marquette and nine more at Indiana — and he has been to the Big Dance nine times.
Yes, Bulldog basketball fans will take that percentage any day of the week.
Crean must do a few things former coach Mark Fox didn’t do. First and foremost, Crean must build a relationship with high school coaches in the Atlanta area. That’s not saying he must intrude on the AAU circuit, which Fox detested, but Crean must build relationships in the 404 area code which could lead to some of the elite talent staying home.
This state is full of basketball stars, but if they are elite talents, they usually go to Kentucky or Duke. Crean must do what Kirby Smart has done in football and close the borders. He must build a wall to keep more young talent from his own back yard from going elsewhere.
But there’s more. Crean not only has to recruit potential players to wear the red and black, he must also win back the fans. Sure, winning will cure some of the apathy which has settled into the Georgia fanbase over the past two decades, but Crean must do something very simple. He must invite the fans to get engaged in Georgia basketball.
Remember when Bob Hoffman took over at Mercer in 2008? The program had hit a bit of a roadblock with three straight losing seasons. Hoffman knew he had to win over the people in Macon, whether they were Mercer graduates or not. He spoke anywhere they’d have him, put up signs on gamedays all over town and simply invited people to come watch his product.
Crean must do the same thing. He’s not like Smart, who knows the passionate fans will flock to Athens for football no matter what. Crean must extend his hand and realize people in this state don’t care about his program as much anymore, because it just hasn’t won enough. But before he can even play one game, Crean must reach out.
He must come to Macon for a Bulldog Club gathering. He needs to travel to all four corners of the state and invite fans to Athens to watch this team. Let him go to Waycross and Albany and Savannah and Columbus and Dalton. Let him build partnerships so that when these towns outside of the 404 develop talent, players will want to go play for him.
Sure, it’s not easy to get back to Macon from a midweek home game in Athens, but he should tell people from here and from South Georgia to load up a van one Saturday morning and head north to watch his team play.
He just needs to invite them back. Then they might go back to their Georgia town and share with others what he is doing to build a better program.
Crean has been successful, and this is a great opportunity to hit the refresh button on Georgia basketball. The hungry Georgia fans are hoping he’ll wet their appetite with something a lot better than what they’ve had to deal with for decades of mediocrity.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.