They were lined up to talk to Dennis Felton yesterday. As his Georgia basketball team left the court after practice at Verizon Center, there were fans who wanted autographs, camera crews who wanted a minute and old friends who just wanted to say hello.
It was all good, a homecoming for Felton, who spent most of his childhood growing up at Andrews Air Force Base (his father was in the Air Force for 27 years) and played his high school basketball at Surrattsville before graduating from Howard in 1985.
"What a difference a week makes," Felton said, smiling as he walked out of the building.
He wasn't exaggerating. A week ago, most people in college basketball thought Felton would be out of a job today, not preparing for an NCAA tournament first-round game against Xavier. But last weekend, Georgia pulled off perhaps the most remarkable four-day run in college basketball history, earning the Southeastern Conference tournament by winning three games 29 hours after a tornado that ripped through the Georgia Dome forced the Bulldogs to play two games Saturday and the championship game Sunday afternoon.
"I know what we did was miraculous," he said, poking at a Clyde's salad while strangers stopped by the table to offer more congratulations. "The nice thing about it, short term, is that this group of kids has been through so much this season, so to have this happen to them is really cool. What's nice long term is knowing that now I've got the chance to continue to try to build this thing next year and beyond."
The talk about Felton's job being in jeopardy stopped the instant the buzzer went off late Sunday afternoon at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, the Georgia Tech gym where the tournament was moved after Friday night's tornado.
"I got fired from my first job out of college," he said yesterday, laughing. "I was working for a TV production company as a gofer, running tapes and talent around town in a Horizon hatchback. I got laid off after three months because they were going bankrupt. That ended up leading to my first job in coaching. I had a friend I had known in high school who was coaching at Charles County Community College. He asked me to come out and work for him -- for $1,200 a year.
"I thought about that a lot in the last couple weeks. I thought that getting fired back then turned out to be the biggest break of my life. So, if this happened, I had to believe it would lead to good things."
It isn't going to happen now. Felton and his Bulldogs are not only one of the feel-good stories of the tournament; they are the most interesting story of the week.
Before the season, Felton threw his two best players -- Mike Mercer and Darius Brown -- off the team after they had been suspended for missing academic meetings.
"Not classes, meetings," Felton said. "Last year our athletic director put in a new rule making attendance mandatory for athletes at classes, meetings with counselors, tutoring sessions, everything. You miss five meetings, you're suspended for 10 percent of your season. Each meeting after that is 10 percent more. Mike missed eight meetings which meant a 15-game suspension. We had to make a decision to move on, to not have any doubts about who would be playing and who wouldn't."
Then came injuries: Billy Humphrey, the team's leading scorer, hurt a knee and tried to keep playing on one leg. Jeremy Jacob, a freshman expected to play serious minutes in the low post, went down for the season. Another big man, Rashad Singleton, quit the team because he wasn't happy with his playing time.