On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of its historic run, Georgia’s 1983 Final Four basketball team will be back in Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday. So will its coach.
Hugh Durham is 75 years old now and long since retired. In fact, he has been away from Georgia for as long now as he was its basketball coach. Seventeen years it has been, and the longer Durham has been gone the more the Bulldogs have come to appreciate him.
What has become increasingly evident since Durham was forced out in 1995 – the Dogs were 18-10 that year, if you can believe it – is winning basketball at Georgia is hard. Just ask the six coaches that have had the job since Durham was ousted because he wasn’t winning enough.
The latest among those to try is Mark Fox, who is finding the going particularly tough. So far Fox has recorded one winning season out of three and, at this point, it seems very unlikely that a second is in the offing this year.
The Bulldogs limp into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State with a 6-8 record and on the heels of a 33-point loss at Florida in the SEC opener. Forward Marcus Thornton is out indefinitely with a knee injury (again), two players are coming off suspensions for undisclosed violations of team rules and attendance at home games has been poor.
Optimism is hard to find.
Durham lives in San Marco, Fla., with his wife Malinda, works out daily and plays a lot of golf. He also watches a lot of Georgia basketball.
“Just watching them, I think Fox does a good coaching job,” Durham said. “I’m talking about the stuff that they run and the kids seem to get after it on the floor and he’s got them sold on what they’re doing. He calls timeout and they’re attentive and have a positive body language.”
Here Durham pauses and his voice rises to that excited octave only he can achieve.
“You gotta have players!” he said. “I’d like to think we were able to coach, too. But we were also blessed with having some good players.”
Durham’s sitting in his home office as he says this and relays that he’s looking at a picture on the wall of that ’83 team after it won the SEC Tournament.
“I’m thinking Terry Fair was a pretty good player,” he says. “So was Vern (Fleming) and James (Banks) and Gerald Crosby. Go back and look at some of the clips from that team. Some of the stuff those guys did, hey, they were pretty good.”
Of course, ’83 proved to be a flash in the pan. Georgia had never reached the Final Four before and it hasn’t since. But perhaps the more remarkable part about Durham’s tenure with the Bulldogs is how they were always competitive and never awful. His worst season in 17 was 14-16 in 1993-94, he had only one other non-winning year (15-16 in ’88-89) and he never won fewer than six SEC games.
UGA has had poorer seasons than that eight times since Durham’s departure, and that doesn’t include two seasons of vacated wins under Jim Harrick. Fox might get SEC coach of the year if the Bulldogs win six league games this year. And the conference is currently a shadow of what it was when Durham was doing his best work in the 1980s.
“I took a lot of pride in the fact that we were pretty consistent,” Durham says. “I mean, other guys have done a good job there. Tubby (Smith) came in and for two years did a good job. Jim Harrick came in and, for a couple of years, they turned out a couple of outstanding teams. But we were basically blessed with some pretty good players when you really get down to it.”
A lot of people know that Durham was the winningest coach in UGA history, logging 298 wins from 1979-95. But fewer know that he is actually the winningest coach in history at three different schools. He also achieved that feat at the two other places he coached, Florida State (230) and Jacksonville (106).
Today, Durham is in the FSU, Kentucky High School, Florida Sports and Georgia Sports halls of fame. A few years ago, they even named the mid-major college coach of the year honor after him — the Hugh Durham Award.
Looking back on what he did at Georgia, perhaps Hugh Durham hasn’t been honored enough.