ATHENS — Both of these statements are true: 1) Mark Fox is a good basketball coach whose tenure at Georgia ultimately will be thought of as a net positive. 2) Unless something drastically changes for the better during the next few weeks, Georgia will be under immense pressure to move on.
This is not an endorsement of that. It’s merely an acknowledgment of what seems, as this slide continues, painfully obvious and perhaps inevitable.
It’s just not working right now for Georgia’s basketball team, which shows no signs of being able to fix things in the final few weeks. Things have unraveled, despite having one of the top players in the SEC. One certainly can argue that it’s simply time for a new voice for the program.
This is Fox’s ninth season as Georgia’s coach. In that span, the team has made two NCAA Tournament appearances, going out in the first round each time. The Bulldogs also have yet to reach an SEC Championship Game. But there has been success. Georgia has four 20-win (or more) seasons under Fox, including three straight prior to last season, when the Bulldogs won 19 games. That’s a level of sustained success that UGA rarely has had in basketball. He graduates all his players. He recruits and develops good citizens. He’s a good ambassador for the school.
But the concern of many fans is that the program has plateaued under Fox. This team might be the most talented one that Fox has had — it managed to begin the season 9-2 with wins over several teams that should make it to the NCAA Tournament — but then SEC play arrived, and the Bulldogs have been swallowed up.
Fox long has been respected in the basketball community. Several years ago, when the SEC was really struggling, a conference official sitting courtside at the SEC Tournament during a Georgia game and pointed at Fox and said, “That’s what we need more of in this league.”
This was before an influx of coaches bolstered the conference — and might end up pushing Fox out. Bruce Pearl, however he procured his players, has Auburn in the top 10. Tennessee has turned it around with Rick Barnes, who has turned out to be a revelation, not a retread. South Carolina under Frank Martin has fallen off this year but will trade several more down years for the trip to the Final Four to cap the 2016-17 season. Missouri got an instant lift upon Cuonzo Martin’s hiring. And so on.
Fox has made his own mistakes. I’ve argued in the past that he needs to construct the roster better, specifically by bringing in more 3-point shooters. (Check here for my critique after last season.)
But Fox still has done well when you consider the history and support of the program. So moving on from Fox carries immense risk. There’s no guarantee the next coach would improve the program. Truthfully, it’s a 50-50 shot. Maybe less.
I covered South Carolina a decade ago when Dave Odom, who also had success there relative to that program’s history, essentially was nudged into retirement after several down season. But South Carolina, hiring a young mid-major coach in Darrin Horn, ended up getting worse. It was looking for another coach four short years later.
The Gamecocks ended up lucking out when Martin, desperate to leave Kansas State, parachuted to South Carolina. And while it took until his fifth season, Martin took the program to a level it had only dreamed about.
Would Georgia get similarly lucky? Or would it just hire an assistant or a mid-major coach and hope it works? There’s no Kirby Smart out there, no basketball coach itching to come home to Athens. And Georgia basketball does not carry the luster in the coaching industry that Georgia football does.
Georgia could do a whole lot worse than Fox.
But, barring a big turnaround down the stretch here, Georgia leaders still might decide that the time has come to take that risk.