What was it like to be there – be there behind the scene as Dennis Felton guided Georgia to its first SEC Championship in 25 years? Surreal. There is no other true way to put it. A four-game winning streak by a coach and team everyone left for dead is a stretch, but the way Georgia won the SEC title was as bizarre as it was unexpected.
Here is a day-by-day look at what I experienced while Georgia made its run to the 2008 SEC Championship.
Opponent: Ole Miss
Location: Georgia Dome
Time: 9:45 PM
The dreaded late game.
Most in the press corps were trying to figure out if Damon Evans was going to fire Dennis Felton the next day if the Bulldogs lost. That, and complaints about the late start had the press corps in a tizzy before the game ever started.
“What are you hearing on this,” we all asked one another.
The consensus was that Felton had a 50/50 shot of sticking around no matter what happened. What was really the case we will never know. The momentum towards Felton being dismissed seemed to have gone away. One person close to the program said the talk “just came up out of the blue” and that “it was so strange that it happened that way.”
Folks who normally didn’t care what happened to the basketball program were suddenly interested, but for the wrong reason. They had grown impatient in the matter of one month – they wanted more.
I decided I was going to photograph Felton during the entire first half of the basketball game. With all the talk of him being fired I wanted to make sure to capture his passion on the bench at least one more time. Felton is one of the best subjects to shoot that I have been around. His face is alive. He seems to always be on the move – stomping those large dress shoes hard onto the court and moving his hands up and down to play defense the way a boxer shadow boxes.
Georgia jumped on top of the Rebels quick. Ole Miss was looking for their way into the NCAAs, but Georgia just strangled them from the start.
Meanwhile Felton was being himself – screaming encouragement from the bench. And while the story may well have been Felton had the Dawgs lost – that changed when Dave Bliss, one of Felton’s first contributors after the full effect of the sanctions hit, nailed a ten-footer with .4 seconds left to send the Dawgs home a winner – at 12:33 AM.
I interviewed Bliss one-on-one after the game. None of the rest of the Georgia media bothered to stick around because A: They didn’t even bother to cover the tournament, or B: They were way past deadline and there was no point in talking with Bliss because it wouldn’t make it into print anyway.
Bliss was happy – his parents were, too. It seemed they had come down to watch his final game(s) in Atlanta. Little did they (or any of the rest of us know) that ol’ Dave had a few more games to play – and the Dawgs had much more to get through before playing their next game.
Location: Georgia Dome
Time: 9:45 PM
The game that never happened.
The problem with the SEC Tournament is that you can get lulled to sleep during the day if you are waiting for your team to play. Had Quentin and I known what we were in store for that day were would have never started the day waiting so late to eat dinner – it was some of the last sane moments we had that weekend. We took too much time watching the bookies try to work the fans outside of Jocks and Jills. After getting to the Dome late because of the far-too-late dinner, we got ready for what would be the longest night of the weekend.
We both had friends in town watching Kentucky play. Bama and State were the game before, so we headed up to the stands to hang out before the Cats and Dawgs squared away. The game was exciting; we were teasing our buddies about Georgia upsetting the Cats. “Fear the mustache, dude – fear the mustache.” Our friends were not amused. We were teasing them, but we were serious, too. Felton had the knack for beating the Cats, and they knew it.
As is turned out, Kentucky fans got part of what they wanted that night – Felton wouldn’t lead Georgia to a victory over the Cats. Something far more sinister happened to Kentucky fans and SEC fans alike that night.
While the good-natured ribbing was going on State and Bama were headed into overtime after a furious Bulldog rally. We were watching overtime heat up when I noticed the roof of the Dome start to move in ways I’d never seen before – and I’d been in that fine facility more than I can remember. I had never, never seen the Dome’s roof dance the way it did that night.
I remember thinking to myself: “I don’t remember the forecast calling for rain.”
The sound picked up, and the dancing of the roof got fiercer. The crowd was whipping up noise, because the game was hot. I kept looking at the top of the Dome – what was going on?
Suddenly it got way too loud for me. The catwalk above the game started to sway. I didn’t know what to do, but I knew I was not going to sit and watch that roof anymore – I bolted.
We were in an area of the Dome that wasn’t too crowded, so my dash up the stairs – with Quentin right behind – was fast. He asked, “Is this the end?” But I don’t remember him saying that. I was just ready to get the hell out of there. We didn’t say “bye” to our friends – we didn’t do anything – we just left. My plan was to head back to the press box, so that we would be surrounded by concrete. It took time, but that’s where we got to. Still, Georgia Dome officials were warning us to stay as far away from the glass as possible. I was listening, but I wasn’t watching them point.
When we got back to film an update for the website, glass was everywhere on the second floor lobby and workers were cleaning it up. It made it seem like the storm wasn’t that bad. We only knew what we knew – we hadn’t been outside to see how bad it really was.
Looking back, I can’t believe State and Bama were allowed to continue their contest. That was a horrible decision – it was not safe.
Meanwhile, Georgia was in its locker room anticipating playing Kentucky. It never happened.
Georgia’s cheerleaders were getting ready to take the court when they were called back. Someone talked some sense into the powers that be – the game was to be cancelled.
We talked with Felton and tried to figure out what was going on, but that was just before midnight. He politicked to get the conference to move the tournament schedule around – it didn’t happen. There was no way Felton could have anticipated what was coming over the next 48 hours.
Something else was going on – Josh Kendall could tell that too many things were strange about the night. Sure, what appeared to be a tornado hit the Dome, but other things made it seem like the venue was about to change. None of the teams were allowed out of the Dome. Their buses were blocked in, we were told, by debris from the storm. None of us had been outside to see what was going on, and TV sets were focused on the radar – not downtown, which had damage you would not believe. Meanwhile the TV crew working the game was moving around furiously – packing up cameras and moving scaffolding. Clearly the game was being moved, but the SEC was saying nothing. A Raycom official told an Associated Press friend of mine that they were leaving and headed to Georgia Tech’s campus. She asked him not to print it – he didn’t.
Damon Evans would walk by. He would go into a room. He would leave that room. He would walk by again. He would walk into another room. He was all over the place like the rest of us.
By 1 AM Josh confirmed that the game was being moved. “I’ve been told they are going to Tech, but it may just be the teams and the officials,” he said. “No fans? What about us?” I asked. He shrugged his shoulders – he doubted it.
Writers from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution were running around like mad. It was a news story for all of us, but this was their town to be sure – they had to get the story out about downtown and the Dome.
Allegedly this was happening, or that was happening. I was seriously doubting we were going to see Kentucky play Georgia at all. Sharing the conference title was being floated – it was shot down soon thereafter.
Charles Bloom, an associate commissioner at the SEC, told Josh: “I don’t know when we are going to decide, but if I were you I would go home because we won’t know anytime soon.” Charles was right for sure.
The SEC was meeting with Georgia and Kentucky officials. They were on the phone with Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi State officials, too. According to one SEC official, it was the City of Atlanta who stepped in and started squashing plans on playing the games at the Dome as well as halting traffic in an out of the Dome.
Not knowing any of that at the time, at 1:50 AM Quentin and I punted and headed back to the hotel.
4:40 AM: I woke up and saw the red light blinking on my Blackberry – Georgia had e-mailed me letting me know that media was going to be permitted to the game, but that only family of the players were allowed – no fans. The game was at Georgia Tech, which was what most of us thought would happen, and it was at noon.
Location: Georgia Tech
That’s a lot of family members.
I don’t like events at Georgia Tech. There are obvious reasons, but for the most part it is hard to work there because everything is so tight. I knew the entire event was going to be crazy because it seems Georgia Tech does a mediocre enough job with scheduled events, much less something like this.
We decided to get there early. When we arrived Kentucky folks were crawling all over the campus, but none of them seemed to be allowed into the gym. Most were walking back to their cars.
There was no press row. Quentin decided to take up shop on the front row. SEC signs pointing you to where you needed to go were everywhere. It was clear Tech wasn’t going to turn on the air conditioning to where it was needed – and they certainly were not going to have their wireless Internet signal powerful enough to handle the press in the building.
With all that aside, Georgia’s crowd was about one quarter that of Kentucky’s. There was way too much blue in the facility for only family and friends to have been invited. As it turned out, and was not made clear to us at the time, the conference had allocated 400 tickets to each school, but the Cats seemed to have more than 400.
The bands were playing and the cheerleaders were jumping up and down. The game was still on, but the atmosphere was a little different. There was way too much yellow around, and empty seats for days.
Georgia jumped on the Cats early, too. We all thought there was a good shot Georgia could beat Kentucky, because they played them tough both times, and the circumstances were just so much different than in those two games. I guess I just thought Georgia was mentally tougher – indeed they were.
Going into the tournament, everyone was saying Georgia had nothing to lose. But if you think about it, they were the one team with the most to lose: their coach, their season – it was all on the line from day one. They knew what they had to do. There was no conserving energy for the NCAAs – they were not headed there unless they won it all.
After Kentucky tied the game to send it to overtime an SEC official said to me, “I think that’s it. They can’t win this in overtime.”
But down two, and little time remaining, Zac Swansey and company raced down the court. Sawnsey was only in the game because point guard Sundiata Gaines fouled out with 1:33 left in regulation. Swansey twirled off the defender in front of him, and threw up what had to be considered a well-shot prayer. It hit. A panic hit the gym – this was the craziest thing anyone had seen.
After that shot, no matter what Evans must have thought about the Felton situation, I felt there was no way he could have been fired. I thought it was going to be hard to do so after the Ole Miss win. Basketball is about tournaments, and no matter what happened in the regular season, Dennis Felton’s team was performing for sure now.
We did the press conference. It was hot in the gym, and the Internet was still in and out. There were no TVs in the gym, so we decided to head to out to eat since Georgia was going to be playing late again. This time the Varsity was our destination because I knew the ACC games would be on. Before we left out the gym door Josh stopped us and said there was yet another tornado system headed for downtown. Quentin wanted to leave quick, so we did. Clemson beat Duke while we ate, and I asked him the last time Georgia had beaten Kentucky and Clemson beaten Duke on the same day… probably never. It was great.
Opponent: Mississippi State
Location: Georgia Tech
Time: 8:45 PM
Georgia had to figure out a way to win two games in a day - they were the only team who was forced to do so. No matter what the story was about Georgia now. The Dawgs had upset Kentucky after surviving a tornado - even that was huge.
I remember the scattering about in the top of Georgia Tech's gym. That facility is not a very large one, and it takes nearly no time to get from the bottom to the top, which is where everyone was set up. I remember people looking worn out. I could only imagine what the team was going through. By this point, too, Dennis Felton had almost certainly lost his voice - or at least it seemed to be fading. After we got back from eating at the Varsity everyone was just trying to figure out what was next. I remember thinking to myself that Georgia could win the SEC if Arkansas beat Tennessee. I knew that the Dawgs simply could not stick with the Vols. They were one of two teams (Florida) I really thuoght Georgia could not beat. We sat there - at the top of the gym - watching Arkansas and the Vols run up and down the floor. They looked like NBA teams compared to the way Georgia played. When the Hogs knocked off Tennessee I knew Georgia had their shot. All they had to do was beat State, which they did.
Location: Georgia Tech
Time: 2:00 PM
Man I am tired.
By the time Sunday rolled around it really seemed possible – Georgia could make it to the NCAAs. Several of us were saying: “Man, this is not supposed to be happening.” My overwhelming feeling was tiredness. I could only image what Georgia’s team felt like. The Dawgs had just been through a tornado and won two games in one day.
Even with all of that plain for everyone to see, no one was doubting the Dawgs anymore. Folks were trying to figure out where they would be shipped out to play. I actually didn’t have time to think about that as I got to the gym right when the game started. Only at Tech would the rules for parking change the last day of an event.
Georgia took another hard-charging lead, and kept it up through the half. Their ten-point halftime lead was the cushion they needed to keep the Hogs at bay. As the game wound down I had to figure out how to shoot the team cutting down the nets. I figured the post game would be crazy, but much like the Sugar Bowl from a few months before, it was an unbearably slow trophy presentation.
That gave me time to get into the crowd. I stood on top of some seats. I learned a long time ago that getting away from the crowd of photographers for trophy presentations is often the way to work things – the shots, like those from the Sugar – turned out pretty good.
Soon after the trophy was presented to Felton and his Dawgs, the team gathered at mid court to watch exactly where they were headed. The team was milling around talking with reporters, family and friends about the amazing accomplishment. Then CBS gave Felton and company a heads up – they would be selected as one of the final participants in the tournament. “Not Uconn,” Gaines said out loud. “San Diego? That would be nice,” another Dawg said. The list kept going and going… finally the Dawgs were picked.
The team exploded – cheering and yelling. Felton couldn’t see the jumbo screen at Tech well enough to see where and who Georgia was playing. His eyes seemed upset, but he was actually squinting to see what was going on.
Georgia had pulled it off – from worst to first in four days, as one sign in the crowd put it.
As we left Georgia Tech we passed by the operations part of Georgia Tech’s basketball facility. Two basketball nets were sitting in a clear bag. They were replacements for the nets the Dawgs had just cut down. As we walked by one Tech official complained to another: “We can’t even use these things – they won’t fit on our rims.”
Those pesky Techsters never would have thought Georgia, hated Georgia, “To Hell with” Georgia would have had the ultimate last laugh ever: cutting down the nets on their arch rival’s court, and supplying them with “unusable” nets as a replacement.
Georgia couldn’t help the Yellow Jackets put the nets up, but they can give them a seminar on how to cut them down.