ATHENS — Mark Fox spoke a little truth Sunday.
Georgia’s recently ousted basketball coach, who chooses his words as if pouring them out of measuring cup, had a message for whoever ultimately ends up being the Bulldogs’ next coach.
Fox advised his successor that he or she “needs to have a partnership” with the school’s athletic director.
“If it can’t happen with me, then hopefully it will happen with the next coach,” he said at his outgoing news conference Sunday at the Stegeman Training Facility.
The obvious inference there is that Fox didn’t feel like he had such a relationship with Greg McGarity. So reporters drilled down on the point Fox raised.
“That’ll probably be a point where we agree to disagree,” Fox said when asked to elaborate. “[McGarity] just asked me if there was something I could tell him that would help him moving forward, and I just said, ‘You need to have a partnership with somebody. You need to have someone who you can have a great partnership with.’ That’s really the only thing I left with him. I don’t have any ill will toward anybody; I really don’t. I just think that’s important for this program to be able to take the next step.”
Coming from the mouth of Fox, that was a relative rip job.
To date, almost everything he has said about Georgia, and Georgia about him, has been like some kind of mutual admiration society. In their joint statements released Saturday confirming multiple reports that Fox had been dismissed after nine years as the Bulldogs’ coach, McGarity professed the “utmost respect” for Fox and admired his professionalism. Fox in turn stated how much he enjoyed his time at Georgia, how grateful he was for the opportunity and how disappointed he was that he couldn’t deliver what the school wanted.
The reality seems to be that the two parties never worked in lockstep. That was revealed again later Sunday in Fox’s 21-minute news conference when he answered a question about when he first felt his job might be in jeopardy.
It wasn’t January or February, as the reporter seemed to be fishing.
“In March of 2014,” Fox revealed.
That might seem odd on the surface, seeing how Georgia won 20 games that season and finished in a tie for second in the conference that season. Looking back, however, that was a contract year for Fox, and it didn’t go particularly well for him.
Sure, Fox ultimately got the two-year extension he sought, but his new deal came with some new language. Namely, Fox’s liquidated-damages clause (or amount of money he’d receive if he left) was eliminated. Conversely, Georgia wouldn’t have to pay him as much if it chose to fire him. According to the previous contract, UGA would have had to pay Fox 100 percent of the remaining compensation. That would be reduced to 25 percent.
That contract was presented to Fox and his people in March of 2014. He didn’t sign it until March of 2015. In between, the two parties did not talk.
Eventually everything got worked out, and Fox continued to do good work. He won 21 games and took Georgia to the NCAAs in 2015 and won another 20 in 2016. But the Bulldogs were left out of the NCAA again and had to settle for the NIT despite having a pair of first-team All-SEC players on the roster in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten.
After missing the NCAA Tournament the next two seasons, as well, McGarity and the Bulldogs decided they’d seen enough and should move on. So now they are, and they’ll pay Fox $1.2 million for the two years remaining on his contract. He would’ve made $4 million in the same period had he remained the coach.
Obviously, Fox disagreed with the decision, but not defiantly so.
“I obviously thought we were continuing to make progress,” he said, with his wife Cindy and teenage children Olivia and Parker watching from the back of the room. “I wasn’t pleased that we missed the tournament this year. That was my responsibility and I’ll take that. It comes with the territory. There were a lot of things we felt good about, but I’m not going to spend a lot of time looking backward.”
And that’s that. Fox walked out of the Stegeman Training Facility with his family and hopped into his big black Ford pickup and drove off.
The whole scene Sunday was similar to the one that played out in the same room a little more than two years ago when football coach Mark Richt was granted an exit news conference after his dismissal. The primary difference this time was McGarity didn’t share the podium.
As it turned out, Richt was already holding an offer to become Miami’s coach at the time of his presser, which had included Georgia’s announcement that it had offered Richt the opportunity to stay on in an administrative capacity. Richt was hired by the Hurricanes by the end of the week for the same salary Georgia had been paying him.
Likewise, Fox said he already has been contacted with other coaching opportunities. He said he’d likely take one eventually.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s coaching search will get underway immediately. The Bulldogs will start conducting interviews in Atlanta on Monday morning and former Ohio State coach Thad Matta is first up.
No doubt, Matta and many of those other candidates will be reaching out to get Fox’s thoughts on the job. That’s standard operating procedure. It would be interesting to know what Fox might say in private to another coach.
Alas, we’ll never know.