Football is more than just a sport at the University of Georgia; it is like a cult that seduces the entire campus into a frenzy every Saturday each fall. Students and alumni alike, 92,000 of them in all, head to Sanford Stadium each Saturday to watch their beloved Bulldogs play “between the hedges.” The team has produced two national titles, 12 SEC titles, and 731 wins in its history. Recently the team has enjoyed enormous success under Coach Mark Richt (outside of this past season when the team finished with only six wins) and has recently been home to some of college football’s biggest stars including quarterback Matthew Stafford (Detroit Lions), running back Knowshon Moreno (Denver Broncos), and wide receiver A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals). With the success and popularity of football at Georgia so dominating on campus, the basketball program has struggled to make a dent in Athens.
“Georgia basketball was perceived as a second-sport on campus when I arrived (in 2008),” says Trey Thompkins, All-SEC forward this past season and recent draft pick of the Los Angeles Clippers. “It was the sport that really didn’t matter much. Georgia has always been a football school, and the basketball team definitely noticed that.”
While Thompkins says that Georgia has always been a football school, there was one time in school history where the basketball program had its moment in the sun. That time was during the 1980s when the Bulldogs featured electrifying players like Dominique Wilkins and Vern Fleming, but the periods before and after fit neatly into Thompkins’ statement: that basketball was a second-class citizen on campus.
Prior to 1978, the Bulldogs had never played a postseason game. No regular season conference titles, no conference tournaments titles, no NIT invites, and certainly no NCAA appearances. Nothing. The program was totally irrelevant until the administration at Georgia made a bold move. They convinced Florida State alum Hugh Durham to leave the head coach position at his alma mater, where he coached the Seminoles to a 230-95 record and their only Final Four appearance, to help turn around the basketball program at Georgia. Durham came into a situation that didn’t look promising but over the next 17 years he made Georgia into a basketball school.
“There is no question that football came first at Georgia when I arrived there for a number of reasons,” says Durham. “The first reason is that the team has a rich tradition. The second reason is that the program has a loyal and very deep fan base that has developed over time. The third is that the football program brought in the most money for the athletic department and allowed them to help keep Georgia successful in all other sports. Basketball was perceived as a sleeping giant because of the lack of success it had had over the years.”
Durham’s arrival on campus didn’t immediately bring attention to the basketball program. He believed the team had to win, and prove themselves to the campus and community at large before they could expect to see the fan support that football had enjoyed for so long. Durham was also lucky enough to come to Georgia during huge changes in the landscape of college basketball.
“Some things happened when I got there in 1978 that were beneficial for the basketball program,” he says. “ESPN came on board about 1979 and if I remember correctly, their inventory included a lot of college basketball games. Also around that time the NCAA Tournament was undergoing a change and the format was expanded allowing more teams to compete for the championship. That definitely had a tremendous effect on interest because now, even though we weren’t winning the conference championship or the conference tournament championship, we still had a chance to make the NCAAs.”
Those changes paved the way for the most successful three-year span in Georgia basketball history. During the 1980-81 season, the Bulldogs were led by Wilkins, Fleming, James Banks, and Terry Fair. That group led Georgia to its first ever appearance in the SEC Tournament Championship and then to the NIT, its first ever postseason invite. While the on-court success was brought on by the talent of the Bulldogs, what really started to endure fans to the team was the type of players Coach Durham had. The star players, led by The Human Highlight Film, were all brash, electrifying players who fans immediately gravitated toward.
“I think our players, the players we recruited, had a lot of confidence in their ability, and we had confidence in our abilities as coaches,” says Durham. “We felt like we were recruiting quality people and quality athletes and those guys thought it themselves that they were quality people and quality athletes, and those were some things that might be a problem in the media but the people that were involved in the program certainly didn’t feel that way. Those players were electrifying talents and they knew it, and I think that combination really created a buzz for us.”
That core group of players again led the Bulldogs to new heights in 1981-82. That season Georgia not only made the NIT but reached the Final Four, setting yet another benchmark for the program. After that season Wilkins made the decision to leave Georgia after his junior year and declare for the NBA Draft, so naturally they were not expected to do as well as they had the past two seasons. But Durham’s ’82-’83 group shocked the college basketball world. Led by Fleming, Banks, Fair, and Lamar Heard, the Bulldogs not only made their first ever NCAA Tournament, but reached the Final Four before bowing out to North Carolina State. That team is still the most successful in Georgia history.