When you cover college sports for a living, the most memorable moments in any given year are almost always the same.
Hirings and firings. Big wins and losses. Maybe even a national championship won by one of the players or teams you cover.
This year had some of all those things, but covering one particular event and its aftermath – that being Georgia athletic director Damon Evans’ arrest and dismissal, clearing the way for Greg McGarity’s return to Athens – formed by far the most memorable subject matter of 2010 for me.
Because of the combination of the initial shock when the news broke and the tabloid-like turns the story eventually took, the Evans story includes probably the most memorable set of events I’ve covered in 10 years of newspaper work.
In fact, it would be easy to write a "five most memorable moments" column for 2010 based solely on individual stories involving Georgia’s athletic directors.
We’ll keep things simple, however, and move onto other memorable subjects from the year after Evans and McGarity.
So without further adieu, here are five stories that immediately stand out from a particularly interesting year of covering sports:
1. Damon Evans’ arrest and dismissal: I’ll never forget waking up to the news that Evans had been arrested on DUI charges in late June – hours before a lucrative new contract would kick in – and then sitting in Georgia’s Rankin Smith Academic Center later that day for a press conference where Evans addressed the situation.
To call the scene surreal would not be phrasing it strong enough. UGA coaches lined the walls, listening to his explanation that he made a mistake and that the woman who was in his car at the time of the arrest was "just a friend." Evans’ wife, Kerri, watched from the side of the room, which was particularly sad given the circumstances of the case.
Frankly it was a surprise that Evans made a public appearance so quickly, but he hoped UGA president Michael Adams would let him keep his job. Apparently he had no clue of the details that would soon be revealed in the arresting officer’s report – including that Evans had the 28-year-old passenger’s underwear in his lap and that he told the officer who he was in hopes that he’d drop him off at a motel instead of taking him to jail – which proved to be too much even for the professional spinmeisters at UGA to manage.
Adams released Evans from his duties on July 4, four days after the arrest.
2. McGarity returns: Barely a month passed before Adams made one of the most popular athletics-related moves of his tenure – bringing native Athenian, UGA grad and former athletic department employee Greg McGarity home from Florida.
McGarity had been Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley’s right-hand man for nearly 20 years, but always remained a popular figure in his hometown. His return put smiles on many old Bulldogs’ faces, which provided a striking contrast from the negativity that seemed to surround the athletic department in the time after Evans’ arrest and dismissal.
It’s far too early in McGarity’s tenure to call the hiring a success – and too much happens behind the scenes in athletics administration for most outsiders to gauge an AD’s effectiveness, anyway – but he was certainly the people’s choice.
If he can help Georgia’s teams remain competitive on the field and keep the boosters happy enough for the Athletic Association to retain the cash cow status it enjoyed in recent years, McGarity’s hiring might just be the perfect response to the embarrassment that accompanied Evans’ firing.
3. Grantham comes aboard: As with McGarity, it’s impossible to know whether Todd Grantham’s hiring will go down as a success for Georgia’s football program.
UGA football coach Mark Richt brought in the hard-nosed Dallas Cowboys assistant as the Bulldogs’ new defensive coordinator, seeking a new attitude and more effective play out of his aggressive 3-4 scheme.
The results were mostly hit-and-miss, as the Bulldogs generated more turnovers – a sore spot for Grantham’s predecessor, Willie Martinez – and had some shining moments, but they also allowed some big point totals and stunk on third down.
Perhaps a year from now we’ll be hailing the Grantham hire as a genius move if the Bulldogs bring in more players who fit the 3-4 and take a big step in Year 2 playing in a new scheme. Perhaps we won’t.
Most likely, one of those two possibilities will rank among the most memorable storylines of 2011.
4. Double dose of golf: I never really had a "bucket list" of sporting events I wanted to cover as a sports writer. The list included only one event: the Masters golf tournament.
Last year marked my first trip to Augusta National, and that might have been the most fun I’ve ever had on the job, but this year might have been just as memorable. There was the scandal surrounding Tiger Woods as he returned to golf. There was the dramatic win by Phil Mickelson, whose wife, Amy, was recovering from cancer treatment. It was a fantastic experience, and I intend to go back every year I’m allowed to return.
I was still on a golf high a few weeks later when the Nationwide Tour made its annual stop in Athens – only this time at an entirely new venue: the UGA Golf Course.
I had never covered the local Nationwide Tour event, but covering the Stadion Athens Classic at UGA was a great deal of fun. The majority of players didn’t have bad attitudes and were happy to do interviews. The tournament organizers couldn’t have been more helpful or friendly. It was a first-class event, and UGA did a great job as a first-time host.
To top it off, the championship was settled on the final hole of the tournament, with Martin Piller edging Daniel Summerhays at the wire.
Both players were such nice guys that you wished both of them could have won. Nonetheless, it was nice to see them both earn PGA Tour cards by finishing in the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour’s money list at the end of the year. Here’s hoping they make it big on the big tour and earn some big paychecks.
5. Tennis in Athens: To hear the old-timers tell it, the NCAA tennis championships in Athens were part athletic competition, part keg party complete with inordinate amounts of barking.
I learned that was true this spring when the event returned to UGA, although it’s much more difficult for fans to bring booze into the Dan Magill Tennis Complex today than it apparently was back in the good ole days. Even if the crowds weren’t quite as well-lubricated as they were back then, they were still loud and enthusiastic as Georgia’s men’s team surprised many by reaching the NCAA semifinals.
They finally ran out of gas in the final four against Tennessee, but it was a great showing by the team and their fans.
Once the team draw concluded, the singles and doubles draw started and Georgia’s Chelsey Gullickson picked up where the men’s team left off. She rolled through the doubles bracket, reaching the semifinals with partner Nadja Gilchrist, and winning the NCAA singles title in straight sets over Cal’s Jana Juricova.
Like at the Nationwide Tour event, most players in the tennis championships were willing and friendly interviews and the event itself was great fun to cover. I look forward to covering it again when the championships return to Athens.
Well there they are, my most memorable moments of the year – some bad and some good.
Here’s hoping 2011 brings just enough news to keep us busy and that next year’s top five will all be positive stories.
• David Ching is the sports editor of the Banner-Herald. Phone: (706) 208-2239. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.