It’s the time of year the Lady Bulldogs can stack impressive statistic on top of impressive statistic. The Southeastern Conference tournament, which begins for Georgia today in The Arena at Gwinnett Center, has crowned the Lady Bulldogs four times. Georgia has won seven regular season conference titles, played in 23 of the 25 NCAA women’s tournaments and made five Final Four appearances.
But the number that means the most to Andy Landers is 48-of-50. That’s the number of four-year letter winners who have earned a degree in his 28 seasons as head coach, including this year’s seniors, Cori Chambers and Janese Hardrick.
While critics can point to the fact that Georgia’s resume still lacks a national title, Landers sleeps well at night knowing he’s taken care of his No. 1 priority.
“You give me a choice between having a national championship banner up there and it costing one kid in the last 28 years a degree, I don’t want the banner,” Landers said. “That just doesn’t make sense.”
Georgia plays seventh-seeded Kentucky today at 3:30 p.m. in the second round of the tournament at The Arena at Gwinnett Center. The Lady Bulldogs are 24-5 overall, 11-3 in the SEC and the No. 2 seed in the tournament. They had a bye through the first round, while Kentucky beat 10th-seeded Arkansas on Thursday.
In the most recent NCAA reporting, Georgia’s men’s basketball team ranked next-to-last in the nation with a graduation rate of nine percent, and the football team was the worst in the SEC at 41 percent.
Landers lets his potential players know from the beginning that won’t happen in his program.
“That’s the point that we elaborate on and discuss the most when we’re in their living rooms recruiting them,” he said. “I don’t want a player to come to Georgia who isn’t interested in and committed to getting a degree. For me personally, that would mean we were failures.”
Junior forward Rebecca Rowsey can attest to that.
“It’s very obvious when you play for him that that’s his top priority, even above basketball,” said Rowsey, who is majoring in microbiology and plans to go to medical school.
Rowsey has missed five games due to mononucleosis. Georgia’s team doctors have cleared her to return to play, but Landers has told her to skip today’s game and attend class in Athens because she’s already missed too much class due to her illness.
That’s typical, Rowsey said, of Landers, who puts academics before athletics not only in his words but in his actions. He has left starters at home before, he said, because they had an exam.
“We pull in to Mercer one year to play. In the van all the way down there I noticed Katie Abrahamson flipping back and forth through her notes,” Landers said. “We get out I say, ‘Hey, Katie what’s up?’ She says, ‘I’ve got a big test in history tomorrow, and I don’t feel good about it.’ I just happen to look right out over the top of the van and see the library. She’s a starter now. I said, ‘I want you to go to the library and when the game is over I’ll send a manager for you.’”
That approach has led to a 75 percent graduation rate in the NCAA’s most recent reporting.
“It’s about doing the right thing,” Landers said. “When you come to college, the right thing is going to school, going to class. The air is going to go out of the basketball at some point. That degree is going to be there forever and the quality of their life is going to be affected by that degree as much or more as the lessons learned playing basketball.
“What adults do is they go around and talk to kids about, ‘This is important, this is important, that’s important, that’s important.’ One of those things is education, but too many times we send mixed signals. ‘That’s important, but let’s go to the mall, that’s important, but you need to go to practice.’ We don’t do it that way.”
While Georgia’s athletic department recently enacted its first department-wide system for punishing athletes who miss class and study halls, Landers is way ahead of the curve. After a Lady Bulldogs first unexcused missed class, she runs two miles at 5:45 a.m. for three straight days. It gets worse from there.
“It,” All-SEC forward Tasha Humphrey said, “is just not worth it.”
The architect of the university’s new academic plan? Carla Green Williams, Georgia’s senior women’s administrator and, not coincidentally, a former Lady Bulldog player and assistant coach.