The progression of Georgia basketball thus far under head coach Dennis Felton closely resembles the one he forged at his first head coaching post.
Early on-court results at Western Kentucky, where he took over in 1998, weren't favorable. The first two seasons there produced little forward movement in the Hilltoppers' Won/Lost ledger. In fact, his second team posted fewer wins than his inaugural squad.
Felton's third team at Western, however, took a giant leap ahead, 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 two years of his tenure. The depth and breadth of Felton's rebuilding task at Georgia will certainly make a championship in 2006 a tall order. However, the foundation for future success appears to have been laid.
Two years after Felton became the 20th head coach in the history of basketball at Georgia, his determination hasn't wavered. His goal has always remained thusly: to build the Bulldogs into "the next great basketball program in the country."
Indeed, it took Felton some time to right the wayward ship that was WKU basketball. Once the rudder steadied, however, the Hilltopper program became the best team in the Sun Belt Conference three years running.
In 2003 Felton became 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 since 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. To boot, Felton bequeathed the nation's longest home-court winning streak when he left for Athens.
Felton is 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.
Though just two years into his term at Georgia, already it appears that his attention to the players' academic performance is paying dividends.
"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."
"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."
Coach Dennis Felton, on academic achievement
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, Clemson in 1996, lost to Georgia in the West Regional first round. The next year the Tigers went 21-8 and reached the 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."
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 surburban 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: 11-year-old Jazz and eight-year-old Nile.
Born: June 21, 1963 in Tokyo, Japan
Family: Married to the former Melanie Smith. Children: two sons, Jazz (11) and Nile (8).
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)
1-year letterman at Howard (1983-84)
2002 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year
2001 National Assn. of Basketball Coaches District 7 Coach of the Year