The side of Mark Fox, and coaching changes, the public doesn’t see

Mark Fox-UGA basketball-beat
Mark Fox was not a Georgia native and had few connections to the state, but over nine years he became ingrained in the community and the school.

ATHENS — There was a problem. It was a few years ago, when my son was just over a year old, and Mark Fox and Georgia had a scheduled media availability. I have to watch my kid, I told a team official, so I can’t come.

“Just bring him,” he replied, not hesitating.

Fox won’t mind?

“Nah,” came the answer.

A few hours later, there I was, with a stroller and a 1-year-old boy, and after interviewing Charles Mann with my son on my lap, I proceeded to a session with Fox, still holding my boy in one hand and a tape recorder in the other hand. Fox saw my son, smiled and briefly rubbed his cheek.

“I remember those days,” said Fox, a father of two, who then proceeded to take our questions about … well, who knows who the opponent was.

The following is not to say that Georgia should have retained Fox just because he was a good guy and let me bring my son to a media session. Frankly, after nine years and just two NCAA Tournament appearances, and zero wins in that tournament, it was apparent that a change was appropriate. A new voice and a fresh approach are certainly warranted.

It’s also not a cause for celebration. When a coaching change is made, it affects the careers and families of not only a head coach, but also assistant coaches, staff members and plenty of people who are paid considerably less than the head coach.

This is a side that the public rarely sees. Two years ago, while covering the dismissal of football coach Mark Richt, I got a voicemail from a staff member who was still obviously shell-shocked and unsure of his future.

“I’m just going to work,” the staffer said. “That’s all I know what to do.”

Ten years ago, while covering the somewhat-forced retirement of Dave Odom as the basketball coach at South Carolina, I ran into two of his staffers who were drinking a couple of strong ones at a local establishment, still digesting the news and unpacking what it meant for their futures. One of them saw me, shook his head and made clear he didn’t want to see a reporter.

“C’mon, Seth, this has already been a hard enough day,” he said.

I’m quoting him accurately, as those words have stuck with me for a decade.

Let’s be clear: This is the business all of them chose. They knew this kind of sudden upheaval was a part of it. And many of them, especially Fox, are well-compensated. That means you should be able to buy some thick skin.

There is another side to all of this, however, which is why many of us have a hard time celebrating when something like this happens. Was Fox a good coach? Debate if you want. Was it time for Georgia to make a change? Most would say yes.

Mark Fox dressed up as a member of the UGA spike squad for several football games. (Caitlyn Stroh/file photo)

Did Fox represent Georgia with class for nine years? That appears inarguable.

His players graduated. He ran a clean program. His players rarely appeared in the police blotter. He was generally a good ambassador for the program, whether it was schmoozing with boosters, dealing out quotes to media members or doling out advice to former players.

A few years ago, while meaning to direct message, Fox accidentally tweeted the advice he was giving to Jeremy Price, who was dealing with a coach on an overseas team who was giving him trouble. The advice was standard (just put up with it as long as you can and then move on), but it was notable that a former player, whom Fox hadn’t recruited, was seeking his advice.

Were there some players Fox wasn’t on good terms with? Probably. Did he get along with everyone in Athens? Probably not. Fox also sometimes had a tendency to play up things for drama, whether it was injuries to players, the clock fiasco last year at Texas A&M or the FBI investigation into college basketball corruption this year. Not that he’s the first coach to play things up.

As someone who covered Fox for eight of his nine years, the impression he left as a person was a good one. We had more than a few conversations that weren’t even about basketball. A few times I’ve found myself giving new parents advice about day care I received from another father, without telling the source of the advice was Mark Fox.

Fox also “got” Georgia, as one fan put it on Twitter. He knew the place of basketball here and was never resentful about it. He embraced it. He dressed up as a member of the spike squad for football games. He was in the stands at Wrigley Field last fall when Vince Dooley threw out the first pitch and didn’t advertise it. He just showed up.

Fox may well move on to another job now. He may serve as a TV analyst for a year or two, turn up as an assistant somewhere or take over a mid-major program. A few people have even suggested him as a candidate to be Georgia’s next athletic director. (Someone good with boosters who could help raise money? Check. A coach who would know intimately what Georgia coaches need to be successful? Check.)

We’ll see what future awaits for Fox and his staff. He will surely do just fine. It’s too bad it didn’t work out well for him in the end at Georgia. But there were good times, he leaves the program better than he found it and he leaves with his reputation intact.

Not every basketball coach can say that these days.

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