Loren Smith’s Sports Column: The Steg and the Coach

Published 10:07 am Tuesday, January 30, 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.