Felton aims to turn around struggling Cleveland State

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58d95df642457.imageBy TOM WITHERS
AP Sports Writer

(AP) — Dennis Felton stood at a podium with Cleveland’s burgeoning skyline serving as a fitting backdrop for his new basketball home.

“This isn’t just any city,” Felton said after being introduced Monday as Cleveland State’s 15th coach. “This is a city that’s on fire.”

He meant that symbolically, of course, perhaps unaware of how sensitive locals can be after decades of jokes about the nearby Cuyahoga River, which caught fire in the 1970s.

Felton, though, was very literal when he laid out his expectations for a Vikings basketball program that has recently declined.

“We’re not interested in just winning,” said Felton, who turned around troubled programs at Western Kentucky and Georgia, leading them into the NCAA Tournament. “We want to do some outrageous things at Cleveland State.”

He said he wants the team to achieve the unexpected.

“We want to overachieve. And when you look around the landscape of college basketball, here and there are examples of somebody doing something outrageous,” Felton said.

Look no further than Gonzaga, once a rising mid-major now on its way to the Final Four.

And while Felton isn’t predicting overnight success at Cleveland State, he’s excited about the possibilities that come with his first head coaching gig since he was fired at Georgia in 2009. He spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Tulsa.

Felton, who also spent four years working in player personnel for the San Antonio Spurs, takes over at Cleveland State for Gary Waters, the winningest coach in school history who retired earlier this month after 11 seasons.

Waters sat next to Felton’s wife, Melanie, during the news conference and nodded knowingly as his successor discussed the challenges of building a winner. Felton, who has won seven conference titles as a coach, described Waters as one of his mentors.

Stung by transfer rules that have allowed some talented players to leave, the Vikings have won a combined 18 games over the past two seasons and dropped near the bottom of the Horizon League.

“We want to be a dominant program,” he said.

Felton knows something about weathering storms.

In 2008, Felton’s job at Georgia was in serious jeopardy when the sixth-ranked Bulldogs won the SEC Tournament, which was disrupted by a tornado that tore through downtown Atlanta and forced a disorienting re-scheduling of games.

“It was surreal,” said Felton, whose team had to play three games in just over 24 hours. “And it was prideful.”

Felton recalled a challenging season, when for various reasons, he was down to seven scholarship players in the tournament. The team learned at 2:30 a.m. it would play Kentucky at noon, and if Georgia advanced, it would have to play again that night. The Bulldogs beat the Wildcats in overtime, Mississippi State in the semis and then Arkansas in the final to complete a unique title run.

“We were so short-handed,” he said. “But we found a way.”

Now he’s got to find one again.