The landscape of the tournament Mark Fox exited Friday tells us where Georgia, after firing Fox on Saturday, must go. It doesn’t need the hot young assistant or the mid-major flavor of the month. It doesn’t need someone who might grow into the job. It needs someone who has done the job.
The SEC tournament’s top two seeds were Auburn and Tennessee, who are coached, respectively, by Bruce Pearl and Rick Barnes. The former took Tennessee to the Elite Eight; the latter guided Texas to a Final Four. The No. 5 seed was Missouri, which is coached by Cuonzo Martin, who took Tennessee – yes, the Volunteers have gone through a bunch of coaches – to the Sweet 16.
More? The No. 6 seed – and a Saturday semifinalist -- was Arkansas, coached by Mike Anderson, who took Missouri to the Elite Eight. The No. 9 seed was Mississippi State, coached by Ben Howland, who steered UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours. The No. 11 seed was South Carolina, which had a down year but crashed the 2017 Final Four; it’s coached by Frank Martin, who previously took Kansas State to the Elite Eight.
Of those six men, none were in place when Fox arrived from Reno in April 2009. The league Fox joined – John Calipari left Memphis for Kentucky two days earlier – isn’t the league he leaves. There are many more good coaches. (Don’t forget Alabama’s Avery Johnson, who once led the Dallas Mavericks to the NBA finals.) There are several programs capable of breaking upward to join Kentucky and Florida at the pinnacle. Fox worked nine years and couldn’t make Georgia such a program. Now somebody else gets to try.
Sometimes membership does have its privileges. The Bulldogs’ conference brethren have lit the way for them. Unless Jeff Capel could be persuaded to leave Mike Krzyzewski’s side, there’s no current assistant who should be considered, and Capel does have experience as a Power 5 head coach. (He was fired by Oklahoma in 2011.) But the more realistic way – the more prudent way – is to find someone who has headed a prestige program and let him sprinkle some of that nous on Stegeman Coliseum.
I’ve mentioned these names before, but here they are again – Tom Crean, who took Marquette to the 2003 Final Four and Indiana to three Sweet 16s, and Thad Matta, who led Ohio State to the 2007 NCAA title game and the 2012 Final Four. Both were pushed out of their Big Ten jobs last season. Both are believed to want to coach again. Crean is 51, Matta 50.
Health is a concern for Matta. He had back surgery that didn’t take a decade ago and left him with what’s known as a dropped foot, but it has been reported that he just spoke with Ole Miss about its vacancy. Georgia is a better job than that, and Matta has known good jobs – first Butler, then Xavier, then Ohio State. He has recruited at the highest level, landing Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. and Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger for the Buckeyes.
Crean was an apprentice of Michigan State’s Tom Izzo. His Marquette Final Four is famous for Dwyane Wade’s triple double against No. 1 Kentucky in the 2003 Midwest Regional final. Crean left Milwaukee for Indiana in 2008, taking over in the wake of Kelvin Sampson’s phone-related NCAA sanctions. It took Crean forever to get the Hoosiers hurryin’ again – his first three teams were 38-66 – but in 2011 and 2012 Indiana made the Sweet 16. The second of those seasons was seen as a disappointment Crean never quite lived down: IU had begun the year ranked No. 1.
He married into the Harbaugh family, so he knows much about living alongside football. He can be thin-skinned. He reads everything and has been known to text columnists at 6:15 a.m. to express disapproval. My worry with Crean: If you can’t win enough to suit Indiana, one of the few places where basketball is a bigger deal than football, what assurance is there that he’d win enough at a place that reached its one and only Final Four at the expense of Michael Jordan?
Of the two, I’d pick Matta. He has been tweaked as an indifferent tactician, but I sat behind the Ohio State bench when the Buckeyes beat Georgia Tech in the NCAA round of 32 in 2010 and didn’t detect a missed trick. Matta’s reputation as a world-class recruiter waned toward the end in Columbus, but it’s fair to wonder how much of that was health-related.
If Matta is indeed hale and hearty, he’s the choice here. If not, I’d be more than OK with Crean. (A close friend of his insists he has great interest in the Georgia job.) What wouldn’t be OK is for Georgia to aim low. The SEC is a better basketball conference than it has been in decades, and the Bulldogs are based in a fertile recruiting state. Only toward the end did Fox really avail himself of that bounty, and even then he had major misses. Four words: Collin Sexton, Pebblebrook High.
To borrow, sort of, from Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”: It wasn’t so much that Fox got small as the rest of the SEC got big. Time for Georgia basketball to rise to its full height. Time for Georgia to find a man who can be trusted to win at this level – because he already has.