ATHENS – Mark Fox and his staff were back at work Monday, watching film, practicing and preparing for the SEC Tournament. In the Georgia men’s basketball practice facility, a large picture of Fox remained on the wall in the far corner.
“In fairness to our players, we’re just trying to get them to win the next game,” Fox said during a Monday appearance on the SEC teleconference, when he was asked about his job status. “This is about their season, and I think that anything more than that would be undue pressure for them and unfair pressure for them.”
This very well could be Fox’s final week as Georgia’s basketball coach. It’s hard not to read the tea leaves.
Tea leaf 1: Last week, 5-star point guard recruit Ashton Hagans de-committed, making it known that the uncertainty over Fox’s future was a reason. Hagans’ camp made it clear that a re-commitment probably would be in order if Fox were to be retained. But Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity did not respond to a request for comment about Fox’s status, and there was no indication that anyone at UGA reached out to Hagans or his camp to offer any assurances.
Tea leaf 2: Two weeks ago, amid the festering FBI investigation of recruiting corruption in NCAA basketball, McGarity responded to a reporter’s inquiry to praise Fox: “We are very proud of the way Mark Fox continually represents the University and Athletic Association.” But McGarity did not respond to the second part of the question, which was about the status of Fox’s future.
Tea leaf 3: Fox has seemed downcast during the past month, even after some wins. And he hasn’t tweeted since Feb. 10, ending a routine of tweeting “Go Dawgs” the day of every game. Is it possible he already has an inkling of what’s to come?
There were calls from fans to let Fox go during the season. The UGA administration disagreed, and understandably, considering that for a time Georgia was still contending for an NCAA Tournament berth. Even when two losses to finish the season ended those chances, the Bulldogs enter the SEC Tournament with the improbable but technical chance to make it by winning the whole thing.
Ten years ago, that’s what Georgia did in the infamous tornado tournament, saving then-head coach Dennis Felton’s job in the process. Less than a year later, with the Bulldogs struggling again, the administration fired Felton mid-season rather than risk a similar scenario.
There was never any indication the current administration felt that way about Fox. If there was a way for him to win out and save his job, they were going to give him that chance.
That doesn’t mean that a process couldn’t be going on behind the scenes to gauge the interest of potential candidates. That’s what search firms are paid to do.
How did it come to this? This has been a disappointing season, perhaps the most disappointing of Fox’s tenure. But it’s more for how it happened.
Georgia was picked to finish eighth in the SEC preseason poll. Those may have been modest expectations, but if Georgia had done that, it would be entering the week in good position for an NCAA bid: The Bulldogs did well in nonconference play, earning wins over St. Mary’s and Marquette, and were off to an 11-3 start.
But then came an awful January and February, with eight losses in 10 games. The Bulldogs threatened to pull out of it with wins over Florida and Tennessee – and then with another win over Florida two weeks ago – but the hole was too big. They are 16-14 overall and 7-11 in the SEC.
After the regular season ended Saturday night in Tennessee, with yet another loss in which Georgia couldn’t hold a lead, Fox pointed the finger at himself.
“I told the team it’s not their fault,” Fox told the UGA radio crew in his postgame interview. “They gave good effort. Let me take full responsibility for us being 7-11. That’s all on my shoulders.”