Athens – It was a year ago this week when implausible acts of God resulted in a tornado hitting Atlanta and Dennis Felton saving his job.
It’s difficult to determine which event was less likely. But let’s just say that 12 months later, downtown is still struggling to forget and the Georgia basketball program is struggling to remember. I was hoping to get some perspective on it all from former Bulldogs coach Dennis Felton. But let’s just say our conversation was brief.
“I don’t really have time right now,” Felton said by phone. “I’m kind of busy. Let me call you back.”
Now, I’ve played this game before. He says he’ll call you back and sounds so earnest saying it. But he doesn’t. Then you call him back but he doesn’t answer. I had thought about trying to keep Felton on the line with some offbeat conversation. “Hey, how ’bout those Thrashers?” But I figured he’d just hang up. So I went along with it.
And here I sit. Still waiting. It’s like that line from an old country-western song: “If the phone don’t ring, you know it’s me.” For what it’s worth, “I’m kind of busy. Let me call you right back,” are Felton’s first public comments since he was fired six weeks ago.
The Bulldogs open play in the SEC tournament Thursday. They are not expected to win a game and a natural disaster is not expected to hit the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. You’re probably safe hitting that exacta this time.
“I told them I want them to act like defending champions,” interim coach Pete Herrmann said.
Might be hard. How do you even remember?
Georgia won four regular-season SEC games last season. Then it won four games in three days in two venues (Georgia Dome and Alexander Memorial Coliseum) to win the conference tournament. The Dogs were lunch for Xavier in the NCAA. But by then everybody in Athens had passed out from the altitude and barely noticed.
Athletics director Damon Evans had no choice but to keep Felton. But after seven straight losses and a 0-5 start in the SEC this year, he had no choice but to fire him. The rest has gone pretty much as expected, save an upset of Kentucky that even moved Felton to phone Herrmann.
“We talk a lot,” Herrmann said. “He called me after the Kentucky game and congratulated me. Funny but he didn’t call me after the South Carolina loss.”
Players and coaches will tell you anything is possible (again). In reality, they’re all just trying to get to the finish line. It has been particularly emotional for Herrmann, who hadn’t been a head coach since his days at the Naval Academy in 1992, and he certainly wasn’t wishing for this job, given the circumstances.
“Dennis and I have been together 11 years — every day, every practice and every game,” he said. “At the beginning it was really difficult. I told him when we talked the other day, ‘I’m still thinking about you every day,’ because we would go at this together: How are we gonna practice? How are we gonna play them? It’s been an emotional roller coaster. But I owe it to him and to these players to do the best I can.”
One more loss and Georgia officially closes the book on the Felton era. A year ago, he helped cut down the nets. Celebration pictures cover the walls of the basketball offices.
Now it’s hard to convince yourself that it ever happened.