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FROM MARCH 1:
Who are the leading candidates to replace Coach Fox?
FROM MARCH 6:
Unfortunately, I ask again, who are leading candidates to replace Coach Fox?
Congratulations, Mr. Vaughn. Your patience has been rewarded. I will attempt to answer your question, and I apologize that you had to ask it more than once. And, in fact, you’re not the only one who has asked it. In fact, Seth Emerson and I are getting this question at virtually every turn these days.
You initially sent your question on March 1 and, at that point, Georgia had one more regular-season game remaining. While we’ve all kind of seen where this situation was headed, but out of deference to Mark Fox and UGA Athletics, we waited to get into a detailed discussion about who might be in line to succeed Georgia’s men’s basketball coach. Of course, the Bulldogs still haven’t made an announcement about Fox’s future at this writing, and anything could happen. So as I’m sure you know, anything about potential “candidates” is purely speculative.
Now that the regular season is over and Georgia has finished 12th in the SEC, the Bulldogs must win five games in five days at the conference tournament to achieve the stated objective: playing in the NCAA Tournament. I think it’s safe to speculate now. And there immediately are several names that come to mind as possible replacements for Fox.
First on the list for me is Thad Matta. The longtime Ohio State coach mutually agreed with that school’s administration to step down last year. He’s had some serious back problems for a while, and it was getting the best of him. Well, apparently Matta’s much better now as we learned that he recently spoke to Ole Miss about its head coaching vacancy. Matta fits the bill of what UGA might be looking for in a coach, given the changes we’ve witnessed in the league in recent years. Namely, he’s an experienced head coach who’s had success at the highest level.
Matta’s teams won two NCAA regionals, nine Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships, four Atlantic 10 regular-season and tournament championships, and two Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships at Ohio State, Xavier and Butler, respectively. Matta’s not as old as one might think ― he’s 50 ― and he has some local ties as well. His brother, Greg Matta, has been the basketball coach at North Cobb Christian School in Kennesaw, Ga., for a while. That’s the school that produced J.J. Frazier and several other exceptional players.
In a league that now sports the likes of proven coaches such as Rick Barnes, Ben Howland and Bruce Pearl, Matta might make a good fit. But at least you know you’re in a battle with Ole Miss for him. (Arizona’s Sean Miller is a limb on Matta’s coaching tree as well, so you’d need to keep an eye on that and get some assurances.)
Tom Crean falls in the same category as Matta in that he has shown what he can do on a big stage. He led Marquette to the Final Four in 2003. After some early struggles under the constraints of NCAA probation brought on by predecessor Kelvin Sampson at Indiana, Crean led the Hoosiers to three Sweet 16s and two Big Ten titles. But he couldn’t get the Hoosiers further, and they finally gave up on him last year. He doesn’t have many ties to the South but, then again, neither did Howland, who’s doing a fine job at Mississippi State.
I’ve also heard some folks mention the NBA’s Billy Donovan of Oklahoma City, who had a relationship with Greg McGarity at Florida, as well as Shaka Smart at Texas. But I don’t see those two men as realistic candidates, and the Longhorns have been mentioned in some of the documents that have been leaked from the FBI investigation into college basketball recruiting.
If the Bulldogs don’t go the established coach route, then it would have to look at some up-and-coming young coaches at the mid-major level the way they did when they tabbed Fox from Nevada. There are always plenty of good young coaches to choose from, but you can never be sure if they’ll be successful at the next level. And if they are, you can’t be certain you can hang onto them. Pat Kelsey at Winthrop University is one such coach. So is Earl Grant at College of Charleston.
East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes is a name that I’ve seen thrown around a lot, but he left Tennessee and Bruce Pearl’s staff with a show cause attachment from the NCAA, same as Pearl. I don’t think Georgia would be willing to go down that road.
Another route to consider is to promote from within. That worked for Georgia’s women’s basketball team, which elevated Joni Taylor from Andy Landers’ staff, and she has returned that program to prominence. In that regard, Jonas Hayes has gotten a lot of sentiment from Georgia’s fan base because of the recruiting prowess he has displayed, as well as being a UGA letterman and Atlanta native and all. But that’s a bit of a risky proposition from the standpoint of not knowing his game-day coaching abilities. As Georgia witnessed with Ron Jirsa succeeding Tubby Smith, moving a few seats up the bench doesn’t guarantee similar results.
I’m sure there are many qualified coaches whom I haven’t mentioned here. That’s why athletic directors hire search firms to help them narrow down the field to a select few. But until the season is finally over, nobody can be completely sure whether the Fox tenure has ended. He is still being given the opportunity to coach his way out of this. But at this point, that’s a very tall order.
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