For head coach Dennis Felton, Georgia’s improbable championship at the 2008 SEC Tournament seemed more than just a perfect storm (pun intended) or a magical confluence of events.
The Bulldogs’ title -- only the second such distinction in UGA history -- was more a culmination, the by-product of a 5-year process in the making.
Few people gave Georgia much chance to succeed at the 2008 gathering, and for good reason. The Bulldogs, pared to shreds by key attrition, had struggled to just four SEC wins during the regular season.
Behind their seniors Dave Bliss and tourney MVP Sundiata Gaines, though, they won the SEC Tournament in the hardest way imaginable. The Bulldogs won four straight games, two in overtime, two in a single day, two with Gaines having fouled out in the waning minutes, and in two separate venues, no less.
Georgia displayed a grit, a determination and a single-mindedness of purpose that lifted it to unforeseeable heights. Much of this behavior can, and should, be credited to Felton, who had stood tall in belief of his team throughout the long 2008 season.
Before last season ever began, Felton had seen his diligent work start to bear fruit. The team’s talent level had risen dramatically. Its facilities had vaulted into an elite category. And the Bulldogs were achieving academically like no one before them.
The progression of the Georgia program thus far under Felton, in fact, closely resembles the one he forged at his first head coaching post.
Two seasons at Western Kentucky produced little forward movement in the Hilltoppers’ Won/Lost ledger. His second team posted even fewer wins than his inaugural squad.
Western, however, took a giant leap ahead in Felton’s third season, going 24-7 and winning the Sun Belt Conference title. It began a string of three straight championship seasons.
At Georgia, similar results have emerged from the first five years of his tenure. His 75-80 record reflects a significant improvement from the dark days of Year Two, when the 2005 Bulldogs won just eight games.
Since then, Georgia has moved into the finest daily practice facility in America. The program has become an exemplary steward of the NCAA’s latest tool to measure classroom performance: the Academic Progress Rate. And, of course, the 2008 Bulldogs made history in winning the SEC Tournament and securing an NCAA Tournament berth.
Before he came to Athens in 2003, Felton had become the first coach in Western Kentucky history to take three straight teams to the NCAA Tournament. In five seasons in Bowling Green, he compiled a 100-54 overall record (.649 pct.), including a 76-20 mark after the 2001 season. The Hilltoppers earned each of those three NCAA berths automatically by winning the Sun Belt Conference tournament, lastly the ‘03 tourney on their home floor.
Felton was equally proud of his players’ performance off the court at Western. Among the student-athletes under his guidance, 100 percent of them graduated and all except two — a pair he inherited in 1998 — completed their degrees on time.
And at Georgia, he has built a similar academic track record, virtually from the ground up.
“When we talk about academic achievement, it goes way beyond getting a degree,” he says. “It means taking advantage of all the opportunities you have at a great university like Georgia. We want these young men to be in position to control their futures, to have a great life once they leave here.”
Felton had achieved an exalted status in Bowling Green. He had declined to pursue other, higher-profile jobs around the country. His contract had been extended through the 2008 season. He began a movement to renovate E.A. Diddle Arena, a $35 million project that was completed for the 2003-04 season.
All of those factors combined to make Western Kentucky a difficult place to leave. To lure Felton away, a school would have to possess, as he said, “a very special potential.”
Felton identified UGA as such a place.
Before he became a head coach, Felton climbed the collegiate ladder in a series of assistant jobs. He began at the University of Delaware for four seasons (1986-90) before one season each at Tulane and St. Joseph’s.
In 1992 he got his break when he took an assistant’s post at Providence under Rick Barnes. That season began a 6-year apprenticeship with Barnes that included two with the Friars and four at Clemson University (1994-98).
The six teams that Barnes and Felton coached together all posted winning seasons (including three 20-win campaigns), all played in the postseason (four NCAA berths, two in the NIT) and went 114-71, averaging 19 wins per year. One of their NCAA teams, the Clemson squad in 1996, lost to Georgia in the West Regional first round. The next year the Tigers went 21-8 and reached tne NCAA Round of 16.
Not surprisingly, Felton claims Barnes as the most valuable mentor of his coaching career. “For two reasons,” he said. “First, he’s one of the best coaches in the country, and you can learn so much from someone of his caliber. Second, Coach Barnes puts you in position to be involved in just about every aspect of the program. That’s what I really learned from him: how to run a program from a very comprehensive standpoint.”
In the spring of 1998, just before Barnes left Clemson for the Texas job, Felton ascended to the lead chair at Western Kentucky. He took over a storied program amidst a drought of sorts, and his initial results were predictable.
His first two Hilltopper squads went a combined 24-34 but had their moments of success. The 1999 team advanced to the Sun Belt Tournament title game. The next group went 5-4 in its last nine games and finished at .500 in league play.
The 2001 campaign, during which Western equaled its victory total of the previous two seasons (24), marked the beginning of his prosperous run in Bowling Green.
Also in 2001 Felton began to broaden his coaching horizons when he served as a court coach during the USA Basketball National Team trials. That relationship continued in ‘03, when he was an assistant coach for the American team at the Junior World Championships in Thessaloniki, Greece. That squad, under head coach Ernie Kent of Oregon, won 12 of its 13 contests, including a 7-1 mark in the World tournament.
In the spring of 2005, Felton was named as an assistant coach for the U.S. team at the Under 21 World Championships in Argentina. It is considered one of the world’s most important non-Olympic basketball competitions.
Felton got his start in the coaching profession as an assistant at Oxon Hill (Md.) High School in 1984. He then became an assistant coach at Charles County Community College (now the College of Southern Maryland) in LaPlata, Md., for one season (1985-86) before moving on to Delaware.
His father’s career in the U.S. Air Force provided Felton an adventurous early childhood. Born in Tokyo, he spent his early years living in and visiting a variety of locales around the world. His family eventually moved to Clinton, Md., a suburban town in the Washington, D.C., area, a short distance from Andrews Air Force Base.
A star athlete at Surrattsville (Md.) High School in Clinton, Md., Felton played at Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Md.. He completed his athletic and academic careers at Howard University, where he was a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference All-Academic selection. He is a cum laude graduate of Howard (1985) with a degree in radio/television and film production.
Felton and his wife, Melanie, have two sons: 14-year-old Jazz and 12-year-old Nile.
Born: June 21, 1963 in Tokyo, Japan
Family: Married to the former Melanie Smith. Children: two sons, Jazz (14) and Nile (12).
High School: Surrattsville (Md.) 1981
Junior College: Prince George's (Md.) Community College (A.A. degree), 1983
College: Howard University (B.A., cum laude), 1985
Asst. Basketball Coach, Oxon Hill (Md.) High School, 1984-85
Asst. Basketball Coach, Charles County (Md.) Community College, 1985-86
Asst. Basketball Coach, University of Delaware, 1986-90 seasons
Asst. Basketball Coach, Tulane University, 1990-91 season
Asst. Basketball Coach, St. Joseph's (Pa.), 1991-92 season
Asst. Basketball Coach, Providence College, 1992-94 seasons
Asst. Basketball Coach, Clemson University, 1994-98 seasons. - Promoted to Associate Head Coach for 1997-98 season
Head Basketball Coach, Western Kentucky University, 1998-2003 seasons
Head Basketball Coach, University of Georgia, 2003 -
Assistant Basketball Coach, USA Basketball, 2003 Junior World Championships, Thessaloniki, Greece, July 10-20, 2003
Assistant Basketball Coach, USA Basketball, 2005 Under 21 World Championships, Cordoba & Mar del Plata, Argentina, August 5-14, 2005
2-year letterman at Prince George's CC (1981-83)