I have to be honest…as much as I convinced myself that yesterday’s story was a meaningless plant, part of me was wondering how I’d come to terms with Frank Haith as Georgia’s next coach. No matter how I spun it, the thought was depressing.
Fortunately we don’t have to worry about making such a mistake. Mark Fox is the guy, and I have to agree with Paul here: I like it. He’s maintained a strong mid-major program, recruited well at that level, won NCAA Tournament games, and has beaten several major programs along the way.
Fox is hardly a no-name. He might be unfamiliar in these parts because, let’s face it, who in this part of the country knows anything about West Coast hoops much beyond UCLA and Gonzaga? But he’s been a candidate before for other major positions (Nebraska, for example), and he was even mentioned as a possible candidate at Arizona this week. We can’t let our own provincialism keep us from recognizing a decent coach.
The main knock against Fox seems to be recruiting – specifically, will a guy whose roots and experience don’t go much further east than Kansas be able to hit the ground running in the talent-rich state of Georgia? This is a valid concern since missing out on key in-state prospects has been a problem plaguing Georgia basketball for decades. Still, I think the concern might be overblown to some extent. Why?
- First, Fox – as an assistant and head coach – has been able to attract quality, even NBA-level, talent from several states to a mid-major program in Reno, Nevada. The conference, location, resources, and local talent base are all comparative advantages for Georgia. It will take time getting up to speed and making the connections in the area, but the skills are there.
- Second, and this is a key point many are overlooking, is that Fox won’t be the only one recruiting. Fox likely will not command the $2+ million dangled in front of Mike Anderson, so there should be more than enough room in the budget to bring on at least one proven assistant with experience and connections in this area. It couldn’t hurt to call someone like this.
Fox’s reputation unfortunately includes incidents where his temper has gotten the better of him.
It’s true that Fox’s Nevada team beat Anthony Grant and VCU head-to-head just a few months ago. It’s also true that Fox missed the last eight minutes of the game after getting tossed with his team down 60-51.
No big deal, coaches get tossed all the time. But more disturbing was a March 2007 incident in which Fox "yelled profanities and appeared ready to use force toward a police officer and game officials" after losing in the WAC tournament. Fox admitted fault and added that "I’ve got to realize when the game ends, it ends."
If you’re winning and your coach is intense, emotional, and confrontational, fans love it. He’s a fighter and driven out of his mind to win. If you’re losing, the same coach is out of control, reckless, and an embarrassment. If the coach is Bobby Knight, he’s all of those things. Fox doesn’t have Knight’s win total yet, and both Georgia and the SEC won’t have much tolerance for an explosive coach who can’t control himself. With Damon Evans’ vision of a "CEO of basketball", those rough edges are going to have to get polished up quickly.
With all but the introduction left, people are beginning to look back at the process and ask did Damon Evans accomplish what he set out to do?
I keep seeing the claim that Damon Evans vowed to "make a splash" with this hire. I’ve read Hale’s interview with Evans. I’ve seen what Evans had to say to Jeff Schultz. I definitely see evidence of Evans’ lofty goals for the program ("I want to win championships," he said. "I think we have to awake the sleeping giant."). I also see some specific things he was looking for in this coach.
Evans said he wants a coach who has experience running a major program. He wants someone who understands how athletics and academics work together. Finally, he wants someone "who can get out there and recruit players and bring some talent to the university."
So I’m looking for a CEO of basketball, someone who possesses outstanding leadership, understands the role of athletics as it relates to being at an institution of higher learning the academic component someone who is going to help our young men grow and develop athletically and academically, and someone who has a great knowledge of basketball, someone who can recruit players to this institution and, just as important, someone who can gauge the Bulldog Nation.
What I don’t see is evidence of Evans promising to make a flashy, big-name hire that makes a splash. If you can point me to it, I’d appreciate it because it seems as if everyone but me heard him say it. Of course such a hire would have been nice. A big, recognizable name would have been a clear success (as far as the process goes), but the lack of one doesn’t necessarily mean failure. If you go by what Evans actually said, we’re not that far away. One can quibble whether Fox has "experience running a major program," but you’d have that same discussion with someone like Anthony Grant.
I have a real problem with lumping Grant into the "big name" category which includes others like Capel and Anderson. Grant, though successful within his conference and respected as a recruiter for his job at Florida, is no more accomplished as a head coach (and perhaps even less so) than Fox. Grant’s advantage is his aforementioned experience recruiting in the SEC which is no small thing but also not enough to call him an obvious missed opportunity.
Regardless, Fox won’t be able to escape comparisons to Grant as long as both coach in the SEC. Fox’s performance, recruiting, and accomplishments will be measured out of the gate against Grant. Georgia’s not exactly short on rivals, but now even the Alabama game is going to carry a little extra significance.
Did Evans and those involved with the search aim high and miss? Sure. There was nothing wrong with that, and, given the outcome, it didn’t hurt to try. The commitment to the program is there, and we ended up with a quality coach.
While I agree with Evans’ goals for the program, I have my own expectations for Fox and the program. Some are longer-term, some are not. With the talent in place and only a short recruiting period left before next season, it could be another long year. I realize that. There are opportunities though for some immediate results. We eventually want Georgia men’s basketball to be a championship-level program and perform at the level of many other Georgia programs, but these are some milestones along the way.
- Assemble a staff that can recruit the state of Georgia out of the gate. With major holes at both shooting guard and small forward/wing, filling those holes is job #1 just to be competitive next season.
- Beat Tech. Let’s not forget the most important thing for a coach of any sport at Georgia. The Dawgs haven’t lost to Tech in Athens since the series went home-and-home in 1995, and I don’t plan on that changing next season.
- Embrace Georgia. Dennis Felton, right or wrong, was criticized early on for being flippant with and even standoffish to the fan base. Silly things like the lack of red in his wardrobe were pointed out. While these were trivial things (and the death of Kevin Brophy cemented him as part of the Georgia family), they served as footholds for future complaints and negativity as Felton struggled to build his program.
- Improve performance on the road. Paul’s done extensive work showing just how bad Dennis Felton’s road record was. He also points out a glimmer of hoepe by highlighting some of Fox’s bigger road wins at Nevada. The ability to win on the road is the mark of a successful and disciplined program that doesn’t need its own crowd in order to be motivated for a game.
- Drastically reduce attrition. You can’t build a program by starting over every few years. As important as recruiting is, keeping the student-athletes in school, out of trouble, and on track to graduating is just as important.
- Sustain a winning SEC record. The competition might have increased with the addition of Calipari and Grant to the league, but the SEC still offers plenty of opportunities to win games. Look…we’re not even asking for a conference title (yet). Just get us above .500 in the league and keep us there.
- Finally…make the NCAA selection show must-see TV for Georgia fans.