ATHENS, Ga. — Dennis Felton didn’t wait long to introduce Georgia players to a new tradition in his first full day as Georgia’s coach.
Felton met with returning players for a 7:30 a.m. team breakfast Friday in what is expected to become a ritual on weekdays. Following the breakfast, Felton held individual meetings with players later in the morning.
“My number one priority is to start developing relationships with our players and the players who have committed to attending the university,’’ Felton said when introduced as Georgia’s coach at Thursday night’s press conference.
“I will move as quickly as I possibly can because those relationships mean everything to what we’re trying to do here.’’ Felton, called a “tough disciplinarian’’ by Sun Belt Conference commissioner
Wright Waters, will have other new rules for the Georgia players. One example: At Western Kentucky, Felton’s players were required to wear suits and ties when traveling on road trips.
At Georgia, Felton inherits a shell-shocked group of players who may still be bitter about the university’s decision to pull the team out of the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments after evidence of academic fraud and unethical conduct was confirmed.
The returning players and signees also are wary about the immediate future of the program as the NCAA investigates charges of academic and financial benefits to players in the program.
Jarvis Hayes has entered the NBA draft, though he has not hired an agent and so could still return for his senior season. His twin brother, Jonas Hayes, has said he is uncertain if he will return for his senior season because he will graduate this summer.
Another player who would be a senior next season, Damien Wilkins, has said he will transfer if the team is placed on NCAA sanctions that would allow him to become immediately eligible at another school.
“We’re fine, we’re starting a new relationship, but really I’d like to do it without the media,’’ Wilkins said Friday when asked about his meetings with Felton.
Meanwhile, two starters — Rashad Wright and Chris Daniels — were suspended by athletic director Vince Dooley for their roles in the academic fraud in a P.E. class taught by former Georgia assistant Jim Harrick Jr. Wright and Daniels have been told they will be able to return to the team next season.
Felton says he is aware the returning players have been stung by the developments and some signees have been considering their options to attend other schools.
“I can’t imagine the trauma they’ve been through the last several weeks, and there’s no doubt I’m very sensitive to the insecurities that accompanies all of that,’’ Felton said.
Added Felton: “That’s what we have. We’re going to deal with it head-on and move on.’’
Felton, 39, has agreed to a five-year contract with Georgia after posting a record of 100-54 in five years at Western Kentucky.
Felton said he plans to bring his staff of assistants from Western Kentucky, though his top assistant, Pete Herrmann, could move up as Hilltoppers’ new head coach.
Ken McDonald, Felton’s top recruiter, is 32 and worked with Felton when both were assistants at Clemson. McDonald completed his playing career at Providence the year Felton was hired as an assistant by then-Providence coach Rick Barnes.
When Felton was hired as the head coach at Western Kentucky, he brought McDonald with him from Clemson.
Bert Tucker, 31, is a native of Salem, N.H., who joined Felton’s staff at Western Kentucky as a graduate assistant in 1999 before becoming a full-time assistant the following year.
Before moving to Western Kentucky, Tucker was 41-22 in two seasons as the head coach at Newbury Junior College in Brookline, Mass.
While Felton awaits the arrivals of McDonald and Tucker and, possibly Herrmann, to arrive from Bowling Green, Ky., he is working with the holdovers from former Georgia coach Jim Harrick’s staff — James Holland and Jeff Dunlap, who are under contract until June.
If Herrmann is hired as the head coach at Western Kentucky, it is possible Holland or Dunlap could be candidates to remain on the Georgia staff. Holland was interviewed for the head job following Harrick’s resignation.