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Players happy to pull Felton off of hot seat

POSTED: March 30, 2008 5:01 a.m.
/The Associated Press

Georgia coach Dennis Felton, left, watches as guard Zac Swansey works on his free throws Wednesday during a team practice at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

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ATHENS — Through everything, one thing is clear: Dennis Felton never joined the ranks of the doubters.

"I never lost faith in what we’re doing," Georgia’s head basketball coach said. "I never lost confidence in the direction we were going and the job the staff and I were doing in taking this program in the right direction."

Last week, that put him in the minority. As the Bulldogs prepared to play Mississippi in the first round of the SEC tournament last Thursday, Felton’s job status was on everyone’s mind, including, most notably, that of athletics director Damon Evans.

"Was it a bad feeling, an uncomfortable feeling for me?" Felton asked.

"Absolutely. "

"I’m sure it was stressful for him," said his wife, Melanie Felton.

That emotion never showed through, however, she said.

"He doesn’t give up," Melanie Felton said. "He’s not a quitter, and he loves to compete."

That trait has served him well in the past week. Seven days after being on the chopping block, Felton will lead the No. 14 seed Bulldogs (17-16) against No. 3 seed Xavier in today’s first round of the NCAA tournament at 12:20 p.m. at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. The Bulldogs achieved that unlikely goal by winning the SEC tournament in Atlanta.

"It’s nice for the coaches to do the things that you want them to do," Evans said.

"We have high expectations here, and he’s done just what we wanted. We wanted to win this tournament, and Dennis came in here and showed through all this that he can get it done."

Evans and Felton shared an emotional hug on the court after the final victory, a sure sign that things are now all smiles in Athens.

"It’s just remarkable that all the talk now is, ‘How did you do it?’" associate head coach Pete Herrmann said.

"‘How did you take care of the fatigue? What did you say to the players?’"

Today’s game will be Georgia’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament since 2002 and the program’s ninth all-time appearance.

The Bulldogs’ conference crown, just their third all-time, was no fluke, said Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey, whose team lost to the Bulldogs in the title game.

"You don’t just wake up one day and have two or three practices before a tournament and get that done," Pelphrey said. "I think they got that done with how they handled themselves over a course of time."

Felton, who is 75-79 in five years at Georgia, can spend all his energy now preparing for Xavier (27-6), which is the only Division I team in the country with six players averaging double figures. Xavier is 21-0 this season when four players score in double figures.

Felton doesn’t have to worry about his job anymore.

"I just had a hard time grasping what it was all about," Felton said of the speculation. "Whether or not we won (the SEC) tournament, I still feel the same way about what we’re doing and my ability to lead our program to where we want to be."

Florida head coach Billy Donovan never lost that faith either.

"Boy, was I really happy for him," Donovan said. "I don’t know anything about the situation of what their administration was looking at. I don’t know all the details about that, but what it really comes down to is, ‘Is Dennis Felton your guy?’ and you know what just because he won a few games, that should not change the way anybody feels about him. People should like what he’s doing."

Georgia’s players were happy to take their coach off the hot seat, several said.

"We wanted to do everything we could for Coach Felton, to help him stay," junior guard Terrance Woodbury said. "We love the guy. He’s taught us a lot as a coach and a father figure."

Senior Dave Bliss has played for the same coaching staff — Felton, Herrmann, assistant coach Mike Jones and assistant coach Desmond Oliver — his entire career.

"We’ve all done this together," Bliss said. "Really just to validate that they are doing a good job and that they never quit working even though people were getting negative about things (feels good)."

Felton has worked since he has been in Athens to instill a particular mind-set in his team, and that finally came together last weekend, he said, a fact he discussed with Herrmann on the bus ride after Georgia beat Mississippi State in the SEC semifinals.

"Not only were we winning and advancing, but we were doing it the way it’s been my experience of doing it, through tenacity, toughness, character, togetherness," Felton said. "It was all really, really hard to do but those players were believing in themselves and what we were doing enough to make enough plays to eke out all four wins. It just really started feeling familiar."

More familiar than having your job security questioned.



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