When Mark Fox agreed to come to Georgia in 2009 — accepting a position he considered his “dream” job — he didn’t completely realize what he was getting into.
It’s one thing to understand the challenges of taking over a scar-covered basketball program at a school with a football mindset. It’s quite another when the Georgia’s school’s president, then Michael Adams, gives you a cold slap of reality before the first practice.
“Our president at the time sat me down after I took the job and said, ‘This is going to take you over a decade,’” Fox said Tuesday. “And I looked at him (thinking), ‘Are you serious?’ He said, ‘This is going to take you 10 to 12 years.’ He said, ‘You’re just not going to be able to fix it that fast.’ We probably had deeper-seeded problems than maybe I understood at the time. That first trip we had guys who forget their shoes or their uniforms because they hadn’t been used to doing things and taking ownership of their own successes. That’s not to be critical of the previous staff, but you have to educate kids in every area of their life.”
This could/should be the best Bulldogs’ team during his eight-year tenure. It probably needs to be. Last year’s 20-14/non-NCAA tournament season leaned toward disappointing, given the presence of two senior guards, Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann.
The Bulldogs’ current non-conference record of 5-3 isn’t overwhelming, but the roster’s talent and depth, led by forward Yante Maten and guard J.J. Frazier, should enable them to finish strong in the SEC and make the tournament, which is not the normal March occurrence in Athens.
Fox, speaking on a variety of topics Tuesday on the “We Never Played The Game” podcast , has had winning records in the SEC and 20-win seasons three consecutive years. But he probably needs to get back to the NCAA tournament this season to validate the overall improvements he has made in the program, from academics to recruiting to, yes, educating college athletes on the benefits of packing their shoes for road trips.
Fox said he never believed Adams’ “10 to 12 years” projection. But when when asked if the job has been more difficult than he anticipated after coming from Nevada, he acknowledged, “It probably has been every bit as challenging as I thought, and there’s probably been days when I had to remind myself, ‘Hey, this was the job that you dreamed of having.’ It’s a hard job, but that’s what gets you up early, that’s what invigorates you every day, and it’s what makes it rewarding. … We needed to find success in a lot of areas. We had a nine percent graduation rate. That’s hard to sell in a home. It’s hard to tell mom or grandma, ‘We’re going to educate your child’ when we weren’t really doing it.”
Fox’s key chain is an oversized safety pin. It’s the laundry pin he was given in high school back in his hometown of Garden City, Kan. The pin was used to clip together his basketball shorts and sweats before being washed.
“I’ve used this as my key chain since I left because it really keeps me grounded to my roots and I don’t want to forget where I came from,” he said.
He embraced his state’s basketball tradition, but never saw himself living on a farm. So he moved, eventually landing head coaching jobs at Nevada and Georgia.
This isn’t hoops central. Georgia isn’t Kansas or Indiana or North Carolina or Kentucky. Fox has to work harder to get players and even make people believe success is possible. That’s not easy at a place where the last successful head coach (Jim Harrick) had to lie and cheat to get there.
Mark Fox has led the Bulldogs to postseason play (NCAA and NIT twice each) four times in the past seven seasons. JOHN BAZEMORE / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Fox has a reputation as a strong bench coach, but he has avoided getting into the gutter of recruiting, costing him players. His decision not to play the dirty AAU game (kickbacks, favors, payoffs) is supported by Georgia’s athletic administration, and he has made progress. Consider the recent signings of Rayshaun Hammonds and Nicolas Claxton, as well as current freshmen Jordan Harris and Tyree Crump.
“This is too great of a university for me to stain it because when it happens it’s too hard to overcome. It just buries your program,” Fox said.
Georgia won’t be a one-and-done factory like Kentucky. But that doesn’t mean the Dogs can’t get to a high level, contend and stay there. Fox pointed to Brad Stevens taking Butler to consecutive Final Fours and Notre Dame’s Mike Brey reaching the Elite Eight the past two seasons as blueprints for Georgia.
“I believe it can happen,” he said.
Stegeman Coliseum had an exterior makeover recently and will have interior renovations next summer that include new seats and a video board.
“By the end of next summer, it will look like a totally new building,” Fox said.
Now all Georgia needs is the product to match this season’s expectations.
“I don’t think anybody rises to low expectations,” he said. “Now we’ve built things in the program to where people have expectations.”
Worth noting: It has been less than a decade.
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