ATHENS, Ga. -- When Dennis Felton talks about his plans for the University of Georgia men's basketball team, he talks of building a program similar to Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina. "Programs that have an aura about them," Felton said. "Places that are dream programs for a lot of guys."
But this is reality for Felton in his second season at Georgia: In his team's opener last month against Western Kentucky, where Felton coached for five seasons before leaving for Athens, the Bulldogs had three walk-ons and two scholarship players on the court during the second half of their 71-61 loss.
Coach Dennis Felton (Surrattsville High, Howard University), 41, inherited a Georgia team that is in the first of four years of NCAA probation.
(John Bazemore -- AP)
The Bulldogs, in the first of four years of NCAA probation for recruiting violations, academic fraud and other improprieties committed during former coach Jim Harrick's tenure, have only seven scholarship players, six fewer than the NCAA maximum of 13. Four of the scholarship players are freshmen; the other three are in their second seasons.
"I knew we'd be starting over two years in a row," Felton said. "But believe it or not, we're in the process of building the kind of program I talk about. It takes a lot of effort and time."
Georgia was one of three programs that banned their teams from playing in the 2003 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Fresno State and St. Bonaventure also found evidence of academic fraud in their programs. Fresno State was placed on four years probation by the NCAA in September 2003; the Bonnies received three years probation.
Fresno State and St. Bonaventure also have struggled to recover from their academic scandals. The Bulldogs finished 14-15 last season -- their first losing record since 1994-95. They're 6-3 this year, having lost three in a row. The Bonnies were 7-21 last season and they're 0-10 this year after Tuesday's 71-62 loss to Northern Illinois, their 22nd loss in their last 23 games.
Under Felton, the Bulldogs have been a lot more competitive than many people expected. After losing their first two games to Western Kentucky and Nevada, the Bulldogs (6-3) have won six of their last seven, including a 100-69 win over Savannah State Tuesday night; their only loss during that stretch was an 87-49 drubbing at then-No. 4 Georgia Tech on Dec. 5. In a 78-67 victory over Bethune-Cookman College on Dec. 22, Georgia's starters scored all but 11 of the team's points and four starters each played 30 minutes or more.
"It's been a learning experience for everybody," said sophomore guard Levi Stukes, a native of Randallstown, Md., and the team's leading scorer averaging 16.9 points per game. "We're all so young. Everybody knows if we're going to win some games, we've got to play hard and nothing is going to come easy."
Felton, 41, was born in Tokyo, adopted by a military family and settled in Prince George's County when he was 13. Felton played basketball at Surrattsville High School and played pickup games with college stars Johnny Dawkins and Len Bias. Felton played two seasons at Prince George's Community College and then transferred to Howard, where he played the 1983-84 season for the Bison. Felton didn't play his senior season at Howard before graduating cum laude with a bachelor's degree in radio/television and film production.
Felton began his coaching career at Oxon Hill High and was hired as an assistant at Charles County Community College, now the College of Southern Maryland, in 1985. He worked at Delaware, Tulane and St. Joseph's before he was hired by then-Providence coach Rick Barnes in 1992. Felton worked with Barnes during the next five seasons before landing his first head-coaching job, at Western Kentucky in 1998. His first two Hilltoppers teams went 24-34, but Felton led them to three consecutive NCAA tournaments from 2001 to 2003.
When Georgia officials called him after the 2002-03 season, Felton jumped at the opportunity, even though the Bulldogs had been embroiled in controversy. Harrick's son and assistant, Jim Harrick Jr., was accused of providing former player Tony Cole with improper financial benefits. Worse, Harrick Jr. was accused of teaching a sham basketball coaching course at Georgia, in which three players were given passing grades even though they didn't attend class and didn't take the course's now-infamous final exam.
The Bulldogs, who were ranked No. 21 with a 19-8 record at the end of the 2002-03 regular season, were pulled out of the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments by university President Michael Adams and then-athletics director Vince Dooley. In August, the NCAA placed the team on probation and took away one scholarship in each of the next three years.
"People asked me, 'Why? Why would you come?' " Felton said. "There are two sides to it -- it's an incredible challenge but it's a great opportunity where you can really leave your mark and put your stamp on something special."
Felton and his staff, which includes Mike Jones, his teammate at Howard, and former Navy coach Pete Herrmann, have already left their mark on the program. Last year, with only four returning scholarship players and three healthy freshmen, they led the Bulldogs to a 16-14 record and an appearance in the National Invitation Tournament. Georgia upset Kentucky twice during the regular season, handed then-No. 3 Georgia Tech its first loss and upset rival Florida.
Last year's team was led by four seniors who struggled with Felton's strict rules after playing three seasons under Harrick. Two projected starters, guard Michael Dean and center Steve Thomas, were dismissed from the team before the first game. Felton requires his players to attend a 7:20 a.m. breakfast each day and two hours of study hall six nights per week. Players are required to wear coats and ties on the road, they can't have facial hair below their lips and everyone runs at 6 a.m. if any player is late for a meeting, study hall or practice.
"I didn't like it at first," said freshman guard Sundiata Gaines. "It's still growing on me, but I know it's the best for the professional world. These are the things that will make you go furthest in life."
Gaines, from Queens, N.Y., turned down scholarship offers from Boston College, Clemson, Pittsburgh and South Carolina to sign with the Bulldogs. Freshman guard Channing Toney, the son of former Philadelphia 76ers star Andrew Toney, also had several opportunities but signed with Georgia.
Felton already has signed five recruits for next season, including guard Louis Williams of South Gwinnett High in suburban Atlanta, who is ranked No. 2 nationally by Rivals.com, a recruiting Web site. Williams, who could opt to play in the NBA instead of college, chose the Bulldogs over North Carolina; his teammate, point guard Mike Mercer, picked Georgia over Florida and UCLA.
"Georgia took some hits, of course, with all that went down a few years ago, but Coach Felton will get it back right," said Washington Wizards forward Jarvis Hayes, who left Georgia as a junior after Harrick was fired. "He's a good recruiter, a good person and he'll be able to attract some good players down there."
Felton knows the toughest part of his rebuilding job still lies ahead. The Bulldogs have one more nonconference game, against Stetson on Friday, before opening SEC play against Tennessee on Jan. 5. Georgia might not be favored to win any of its 16 conference games.
"I'm happy with our progress," Felton said. "We're obviously doing everything we can to keep the progress moving forward and as speedy as possible. We're really, really young, but there's an earnest effort going on to grow up and develop major-level habits and winning habits. The guys in our program are shouldering the load of building the program of their dreams. They're building a legacy and building a program that guys in the future will want to crawl to."