So this is Year 8 of the Mark Fox Era at Georgia.
It shouldn’t have turned out this way. Not in Mark Fox’s 8th year. Not in a year where all the handicaps and transgressions of prior regimes were no longer relevant. After all – this was now two presidential terms worth of program ownership – nearly 3000 days of driving the Georgia Bulldog basketball bus down the college hoops’ highway, and the patience shown by the UGA athletic administration in leader Mark Fox was supposed to pay off. Not in a year where the bulk of the prior year’s 20 win team returned – buoyed by an influx of talent many felt would make an immediate impact. No – Year 8 was going to be radically different.
Georgia – bolstered by experience (senior point guard JJ Frazier and junior big man Yante Maten were all SEC preseason second teamers) and multiple complimentary pieces had expectations of a top 4-5 league finish being predicted by league coaches and media. The AD praised the depth of the roster. Mark Fox – who often tempers expectations – spoke of taking the next step as a program. Preseason magazines and publications proclaimed 2016-2017 would be Mark Fox and UGA’s breakout year – including The Sporting News, which pegged UGA at 21 in their preseason rankings. A summer trip to Spain added practices and time to blend together schemes and rotations. The table seemed set for sure.
But then something happened. Mark Fox – as he often does – got in the way. Instead of showing up on the first tee at the country club with a new wardrobe, a fancy new set of clubs and a sharp new short game, he arrived at the city municipal links with a tattered bag, old, grooveless irons and worn out jeans. If this was the high school prom – Fox seemingly failed to pick up his date because he forgot to gas up the car and buy a corsage in time. If this was church on Easter Sunday – he interpreted the 8:30 mass start time as an evening service and missed it all. And the Bulldog faithful are clearly losing patience and becoming frustrated. Year 8’s likely NIT bid just doesn’t cut it.
Should we be surprised? No, I don’t think so. I was not. The former Nevada mentor – taking away his first three years with the Wolfpack where he benefited from Trent Johnson’s players – comes in at a whopping 18-13 Win/Loss average – exactly where this year’s team landed prior to the SEC tournament and NIT game(s?). In a vacuum, this average would have alumni and fans craving more, indeed expecting a change at the top.
But the UGA faithful shouldn’t expect it with Fox. The Georgia basketball head man has a habit of getting in his own way more often than not; Fox has failed to significantly improve the program, at least in terms of wins, as an aggregate two games over .500 overall SEC record over his 8 seasons demonstrates. The minor improvements in recruiting (including two extremely skilled guards added to the program this past fall and a talented 4 star forward in the next class) – have resulted in a wider array of difficult decisions for the coach to stew over. And, when not paralyzed by the options, he will either overthink (resting players an extra 30 seconds before a TV time out, only to see game action not stop and his team lose momentum) or make puzzling strategic decisions (long scoring drought games, like Marquette, without letting true scorer Tyree Crump see the floor for meaningful minutes). And if you’re looking for halftime adjustments – look at the opposing team’s bench, not at UGA’s. (See December’s visit to the Detroit suburbs and the Dogs second half performance as evidence). Since opening SEC play, and including the Texas game, the regular season saw the opposition win the first four minutes of the second half 12 times – so much for effective chalk talk and halftime adjustments.
Make no mistake about it – Fox has improved the UGA men’s basketball program during his tenure. Critics and fans alike debate how much. Players graduate and rarely get in trouble; UGA has won more games than in the recent past. Fox’s teams are known for defense and for fighting like a cornered badger when the chips are down; Fox’s teams clearly play hard and never quit. And those pluses provide a solid foundation from which to argue Mark Fox’s merits as a coach.
However, the program was moribund under Dennis Felton. That is not a fair comparison. Should a coach be judged in comparison with the worst the program has ever been, or should he be judged by what could be, given the advantages and disadvantages of the position? Jim Harrick succeeded, Tubby Smith succeeded, Hugh Durham succeeded more often than not. Fox’s zero NCAA tournament wins, in just two NCAA appearances, in 8 seasons is pedestrian (or worse). A couple of NIT appearances, including blowout losses in round 2 to mid-majors La Tech and St. Mary’s, provide further ammunition for the critics (as do the postseason-less years with the best player recruited by Fox, Kentavious Caldwell Pope).
It looks like year 9 will happen for Fox in the Classic City. Greg McGarity stated as much on March 7, 2017, when rumors leaked that a change was being contemplated. He said, “We are NOT in the process of exploring our options to replace Mark Fox. We look forward to Mark leading our program next year and all of our efforts are centered on postseason play.” McGarity also took the unusual step of meeting with the team to assure them Fox was in no danger. The Atlanta media – never shy to jump into a coaching change argument – appears flummoxed by the question of Fox’s tenure in Athens. One respected AJC columnist, Mark Bradley, even argued UGA should stay the course for now, as there would be no guarantee UGA could hire anyone better than Fox. That same writer called Fox “a demonstrably clever coach who, for whatever reason, has demonstrably produced tepid results” – citing UGA as a “weird case”. Further, Bradley called Fox, “the coach Georgia basketball probably deserves” because “UGA fans take pride (yes, pride) in disliking the roundball sport.” Another gem from Bradley was the question, “Does Georgia care enough about hoops to support a championship program?”
In response, I point out that Bradley is making the same stale argument so many have made – essentially that UGA is a football school, doesn’t care about being competitive in basketball, won’t spend the money to be good (Mark Fox’s salary and a state of the art practice facility to the contrary), and basically, the fans should just shut up and take it. To this I respond that perhaps he and others have forgotten how well the fans supported Harrick’s teams and Tubby’s teams. Stegeman was packed for nearly every SEC game and every other meaningful game. Don’t give me this crap about UGA not deserving a good basketball team. Is the mark of a “deserving fanbase” one that continues to put up with mediocrity without voicing any displeasure?
As for his observations of Fox, does such a “clever” coach who yields “tepid results” exist? Isn’t this the equivalent of saying the bakery on the corner has a great baker, even though he always burns the bread…or a family doctor who does everything correctly, except make people feel better? Maybe someone should define for me exactly what makes a “good coach.” I always thought the most important job of a coach was to win games. In today’s NCAA landscape, does an 18-15 average record over 8 seasons define a good coach to UGA fans? I would hope not.