Georgia leadership has no other option unless Mark Fox’s team wins SEC Tournament

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Mark Fox's tenure as Georgia's men's basketball coach will end at nine years unless the 12th-seeded Bulldogs can somehow win the SEC Tournament this week in St. Louis.

ATHENS ― Mark Fox said and did all the right things after Georgia basketball’s game against Tennessee on Saturday had concluded. He talked about how proud he was of the effort his team put forth and said he was looking forward to the SEC Tournament and the new opportunities that event will bring.

Fox said all that, but his body language said something different. He looked whipped. He looked drained. His words didn’t come with much fire and conviction.

And that’s understandable, because the writing is on the wall, and it’s about to be on the bottom of a piece of paper in the form of a separation agreement. Unless the Bulldogs win the SEC Tournament in St. Louis this week and earn the automatic NCAA Tournament bid that comes with it, the Fox Era at Georgia likely will come to an end.

That would’ve been the case whether or not the Bulldogs (16-14, 7-11 SEC) pulled off the upset in Knoxville on Saturday. But the fact that they didn’t ― and the fact that the 66-61 loss to Tennessee pretty much followed to the letter the script we’ve witnessed from Georgia often this season and in seasons past ― only justified all the moves that are about to be made by UGA’s leadership. Some are already being made.

And that’s too bad, because Fox is a good man, a good coach and an excellent administrator. He runs a tight ship, doesn’t cut corners and comports himself with distinction. But the bottom-line charge of any coach at UGA ― even in men’s basketball ― is to compete for championships and qualify regularly for NCAA postseason play. The Bulldogs simply haven’t done that.

I don’t know whether athletic director Greg McGarity has told Fox that this was an NCAA Tournament-or-bust season for him, but I suspect he has. There might have been more recent discussions, based on Fox’s demeanor.

Not surprisingly, McGarity won’t discuss the issue with reporters at the moment. The Bulldogs are about to embark on their next journey, which is the SEC Tournament. That they will enter as the No. 12 seed and play Wednesday is central to discussion.

Georgia was picked to finish eighth in the league in the preseason. That it ended up in the bottom third while Auburn and Tennessee ― which were predicted to finish ninth and 13th, respectively ― sit atop the conference further jeopardizes Fox’s standing.

Of course, anything can happen in a tournament situation. I witnessed that when Dennis Felton’s Bulldogs entered the 2008 SEC Tournament as the sixth seed from the Eastern Division and a tornado hit the Georgia Dome. Georgia wound up winning the championship over Arkansas in a title game played at Georgia Tech’s Alexander Memorial Coliseum. I know for a fact that Felton was going to be fired had the Bulldogs not won the tournament, and he was before the next season entered February.

But at this point, we know how McGarity operates. We have plenty to go on. He has overseen 10 head coaching changes during his eight-year tenure as Georgia’s athletic director. In virtually every case, McGarity strongly communicated at the end of the previous season what the expectations were going to be for the next one.

And in Fox’s case in particular, McGarity has been communicating a clear and consistent refrain, both privately and publicly. Consider his comments at the conclusion of the 2015-16 season, when the Bulldogs won 20 games but came up short of the NCAA Tournament and had to settle for an NIT bid.

“We’d like to be in the show [aka NCAA Tournament] and then move forward in the show,” McGarity said. “If you asked every player, I’d be stunned if they didn’t say expectations are going to be high next year.”

They were, and Georgia didn’t meet them again. J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten were unable to lift the Bulldogs past a first-round exit in the NIT. And now, short of earning the automatic berth that comes from winning the SEC Tournament, Georgia is looking at an NIT bid for the third consecutive year since McGarity made that statement.

And now, to achieve McGarity’s well-communicated objective, the Bulldogs have to first face a Vanderbilt team that beat them 81-66 in the regular season and win a total of five games in five days to qualify for the big tournament. Not impossible, as Felton and his team proved, but it’s almost next to it considering the overall strength of the SEC in 2018.

I had the misfortune of asking Fox, for whom I have a great deal of respect, if he felt as if he were coaching for his job in the coming days in St. Louis. He answered as one might expect.

“Well, really all we’re doing, in fairness to our players, we’re just trying to get them to win the next game,” Fox said. “This is about their season, and I think any more than that would be undue pressure for them and unfair pressure for them. So we’re going to do our best to try to get Georgia a win on Wednesday. And, if we can do that, we’ll try to do the same thing on Thursday. And that’s really the honest way we’re approaching it.”

That’s the thing about Fox. He always says the right thing. You also have to admire this about him. His teams play hard, whether it’s for him or just for Georgia.

I can’t begin to tell you what a gargantuan challenge was before the Bulldogs when they tipped off in Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday. It was a sold-out crowd of more than 22,000, and those fans were frothing at the mouth over the prospect of the Vols winning their first SEC championship since 2008. It would’ve been easy for Georgia to go through the motions and then get back on the bus.

Yet there were the Bulldogs, leading by double digits in the first half, by 8 at halftime and by 4 with less than 3 minutes to play.

Yet they lost by 5. The Vols scored the last 9 points of the game, helped by 3 Georgia turnovers. And that was that.

And, so, that’s that for Fox. He knew it. You could tell. Barring an SEC Tournament championship, Georgia will be conducting its first coaching search in men’s basketball in nine years.

McGarity appears to have knocked it out of the park in football by hiring Kirby Smart. This hire promises to be even harder, with all the fear and uncertainty in college basketball at the moment.

But don’t expect Fox to remain out of work long. He’ll land on his feet, for sure.

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