SMITH COLUMN: The Steg & the Coach

Published 3:16 pm Thursday, February 1, 2024

The Steg in winter is now the place to be unless you have a fireplace, firewood, and a TV in your den. Even if all of that is at your fingertips, you are missing something if you don’t find your way into Georgia’s aging basketball arena and become immersed into the environment that the soft-spoken Mike White has wrought.

The long season is far from over, and heartbreak could find its way into the mix. The ever-present fickleness of sports often brings about, but as a bearded Bulldog basketball aficionado said aloud with poignant enthusiasm in the VIP lounge which accommodates the most substantial UGA supporters, “We got us a basketball coach.”

Seasoned observers give the coach high marks, and passionate fans have joined in. One thing about fans — while they may not know as much as they sometimes think they do, they certainly pick up on selfless attitude and redeeming hustle and second effort. They recognize competitors who have heart that is deep and abiding.

Mike White has a team that constantly fights and scraps for the ball and is as unselfish as I can remember in Stegeman. Expertly utilizing the portal, he has literally cobbled together a team which believes, plays unselfishly, and is developing a standard that should bring Georgia basketball dividends for the future. The “White mantra,” however, is to engender lofty results here and now. Get into the SEC tournament, make it to the regionals and on to the big dance. To win a championship, first you must think big.

The Bulldog coach reflects humility, intensity, and intellect. With him there is an unfailing underscoring of fundamentals. Central to his modus operandi is to give defense the highest priority.

Some of playing good defense is attitude, wanting to be good when the competition has the ball. Make the rubber burn. Defensive savvy defines championship teams. 

This team will get in your face, this team will go after loose balls like an otter diving for a muskrat. They make mistakes, hard not to in heated competition, but some of the plethora of miscues is a result of trying so hard. They go all out to position themselves to score a basket, make a steal on defense, block a shot, deliver a timely assist. Some of their faux pas’ result from being the epitome of “Charlie Hustle.”

The packed house saw that against LSU recently. Give the fans credit. They did their part. They came, hoping to be emotionally fulfilled in a big conference game. Games like that will bring them back. Again, and again. 

Georgia may not have the firepower and depth to win against the best teams in the league as it was when they visited Rupp Arena in Lexington in the last fortnight, but the LSU outing brings about confidence that they know they can win big games. For a Mike White coached team to win a big game is certainly not an anomaly.

I enjoy watching this man do his thing on the court. He is not given to histrionics. He has electric enthusiasm that confirms he has enduring competitive passion. The teacher in him wants his teams to conserve energy, maximize effort, play under control, and play defense. Take percentage shots, hustle on both ends of the court and play defense. 

In his first year in Athens, he realized early on what needed “fixing.” It went beyond personnel. Bring about game action encroachment with the students. Get them closer to the scene and make them part of it. Get them involved, impact the environment around the visitor’s bench.

He does not want the confines of Stegeman to be the least bit friendly to anyone wearing opponents’ colors. This is not to suggest he would want the atmosphere to be hostile with anything demeaning and unsportsmanlike  —but make it an uncomfortable place to play if you are not wearing red and black.

As a former SEC player and coach, he visited Stegeman many times over the years. It was a place with a benign atmosphere. There was no home court advantage. That has long been a tradition here. When Hugh Durham, the winningest coach in Georgia basketball history, explored an opportunity to take over in Athens, he had to insist that he would not take the job if there would not be seats on the floor. He wanted his constituency to have the opportunity to frustrate the opposition.

The Steg now is so tight and cozy with abundant, flashing neon all about the building, a crowd that is on top of the action with capability to cause a deafening din as it did with 2.3 seconds left in the game against LSU. Mike White, an especial coach, has an athletic director whose full support he can count on.  He is a teacher who is also a promoter, an indefatigable worker, a fine recruiter and is bringing defining moments to Georgia basketball, which the program has sorely needed for some time.