By Keith Parsons
ATHENS, Ga. ? Dennis Felton kept an eye on the problems at Georgia, hoping to be entrusted with rehabilitating a men's basketball program left in disarray by Jim Harrick.
Felton will get his chance, leaving Western Kentucky on Thursday to become Georgia's coach with a five-year contract worth $700,000 annually.
"As soon as I thought there might be a chance of a coaching opportunity at Georgia, I was very interested," Felton said. "I want to have the opportunity to build one of the next great basketball programs in the country."
He led the Hilltoppers to three straight NCAA tournament appearances and was 100-54 in five seasons. Before that, Felton worked as an assistant at Providence and Clemson.
"It's a pleasure to have a happy press conference," Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley said. "We haven't one of those in a long time."
Harrick left amid accusations of academic fraud and improper benefits to players. He resigned, then announced his retirement last month, 21/2 weeks after being suspended with pay. The scandal also cost his son a job as an assistant coach and prompted the school to ban the Bulldogs from the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
An investigation is ongoing and the school could face additional sanctions.
In looking for Harrick's successor, Georgia used a search firm to run background checks. The screening including criminal records, how well candidates followed NCAA rules, and whether their educational history was accurate.
"We did an extraordinary job of due diligence in this case with all our candidates," Dooley said. "We put a good deal of emphasis on finding the right person, the right fit. He is the right person for Georgia."
Felton's Western Kentucky contract calls for a school that hires him away to agree to a four-year home-and-home series with the Hilltoppers. Felton plans to honor the agreement.
"I'm happy to play the four games," he said. "When we came up with that, we thought it was something nobody had done before. And it would be a way for me to repay Western Kentucky for giving me the opportunity. I've never forgotten how lucky I was."
Western Kentucky athletic director Wood Selig said a search for Felton's replacement started. School officials met Thursday.
"I think they're getting the next great coach," Selig said. "You hear a couple of names every year that burst on the national scene. I don't think it will be very long before Dennis Felton will be mentioned everywhere among the nation's finest men's basketball coaches."
Felton is the second black coach in any sport at Georgia, following Tubby Smith, the basketball coach now at Kentucky.
Felton planned to meet with his new players for the first time Thursday night.
Star guard Jarvis Hayes already has applied for early entry to the NBA draft, and other players have talked about transferring if Georgia is put on probation. At least two high school signees also have asked to be released from their letters of intent.
"I'm not interested in try to persuade somebody to stay," Felton said. "I'm coming into this with a lot of respect for what these players have done at Georgia. I'm interested in their interests and their welfare and what they want to get out of Georgia basketball.
"For some, that might mean the best thing is to leave the program."