Thursday, April 10, 2003

Felton appears to be Georgia's choice

By Keith Parsons
The Associated Press

ATLANTA - Georgia appeared poised Wednesday to hire Dennis Felton as its next basketball coach.

Although a Georgia athletic department spokesman said no announcement was scheduled, and Felton has declined interview requests the past few days, the Western Kentucky coach is believed to be the top choice to succeed Jim Harrick.

Even Western Kentucky athletic director Wood Selig acknowledged that keeping Felton would be a long shot.

"Certainly, there's a part of me that would love to see coach Felton tell Georgia, 'Thanks, I'm going to remain at Western Kentucky,"' Selig said. "But at his age and at this stage of his career, I am realistic enough to understand the long odds we are up against to keep him at Western Kentucky."

One of Felton's fellow Sun Belt Conference coaches talked as if the hiring already were a done deal.

"I think it's a great step up for Dennis," Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt said. "He's the total package. We're very, very glad to be getting rid of him."

On Tuesday, Georgia president Michael Adams told his counterpart at Western Kentucky, Gary Ransdell, that Felton was a "serious candidate." Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley also has interviewed Dana Altman of Creighton and former Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd.

Felton, 39, has a record of 90-54 with the Hilltoppers, and they've advanced to the NCAA tournament the last three seasons by sweeping the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles. They've also won 39 straight games at Diddle Arena, the longest home streak in the nation.

"He's really been able to build that program, and he's been able to maintain it, too," Nutt said. "At the mid-major level, it's so much more difficult to maintain it than it is to build it up."

Georgia, which has never been to three straight NCAA tournaments, is trying to rebuild its image after Harrick retired amid allegations of academic fraud and improper benefits to players.

"I think if he were to make a move, it would be driven predominantly by the ability to win multiple championships," Selig said of Felton. "It's not a matter of money. It's all about having greater resources for the program, and a better chance to win consistently."

Felton has had a similar impact off the court at Western Kentucky.

"He's done a fine job of motivating our student body and local community," Selig said. "We've added 16 luxury suites since he's been here, and we've increased our donor foundation by over 100 percent in new membership in the past two years."

The energy was apparent in the Sun Belt tournament final. Capacity at the Hilltoppers' arena is about 8,000, and the sold-out crowd included about 4,000 students.

Selig, who previously worked in the athletic department at Virginia, was overwhelmed.

"I've seen the Dukes and the North Carolinas and all of those hyped arenas, but I have never seen a crowd with a sense of urgency that the Diddle Arena crowd felt that night," he said.

In May 2002, Western Kentucky rewarded Felton with a contract that paid him $400,000 a year and was scheduled to run through the 2007-08 season. The deal included a $200,000 buyout clause if Felton accepted a head coaching job in the Southeastern Conference or six other major leagues. Georgia is a member of the SEC.

The contract also requires any school that hires Felton to enter a four-year home-and-home series with the Hilltoppers.

"I'm looking forward to playing Georgia over here next year," Nutt quipped, anticipating that his good friend would schedule a game in Jonesboro, Ark.

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