It has been a bad season for Georgia basketball — not bad in the historical sense, because this is a program that constantly seems stuck in that dream when you can’t run because your legs are rubbery and your shoes stick to the ground, but certainly bad when measured against expectations.
Because of that, there is a question being asked that never has been asked to this extent before by the people who matter most in Athens: Is it time for Mark Fox to go?
He is a solid coach. He is a great guy. He believes in the right things. He does right by his players. He understands the college mission, which tends to get lost these days. I’ve long admired Fox for not swimming in the sewage of AAU basketball and street agents of college recruiting that has enabled top programs to land elite talent.
Fox also did a great job cleaning up a down program and provided needed respectability that had been lost in the post-Tubby Smith era after varied reigns of terror by Ron Jirsa (couldn’t coach), Jim Harrick (used-car salesman) and Dennis Felton (overmatched). He built a program that strung together three consecutive 20-win seasons heading into this season, rarefied air in Athens, and along the way earned the respect of coaches and players.
But there’s little question that after possibly one disappointing season too many, firing Fox is on the table, and that disturbs senior guard J.J. Frazier.
“They’re not going to find better,” Frazier said.
Maybe not. It’s not uncommon for schools/teams to fire coaches and quickly realize they can’t get Candidate A, B, or C. (Before you know it, Les Miles was looking pretty good.)
This will not be an easy decision by athletic director Greg McGarity and whatever powerful voices behind the curtain weigh in.
But here’s something nobody can deny, not even the most ardent of Fox supporters: This season’s team should have been better. The Bulldogs are 15-11 overall and only 6-8 in the SEC, a conference slotted only fifth in the glowing basketball metric known as RPI — behind ACC, Big 12, Big East and Big Ten. And in this fifth-best conference, they’re in 10th place.
That’s where the whole, “But they’ve lost so many close games,” argument loses some of its sting.
They got jobbed by a bad clock at Texas A&M. But they also blew a nine-point lead at Texas A&M.
With the inside-outside game of Frazier and center Yante Maten, the Dogs should have been at least a top-four team in the conference. They’re facing cartoonish odds to make the NCAA tournament. They’ve lost Maten (knee ligament damage) for the remainder of the regular season and possibly the SEC tournament.
This is Fox’s eighth season. Recruiting has improved. With Maten presumably returning next season, Georgia could have a good team next season. But how often have we heard that? How many Georgia teams will start a season slow and the frantically try to catch up to make the tournament? How many times will wonder about Fox’s tendency not to play young players (see: Tyree Crump) or shorten his bench? How many times will Georgia lose games as opposed to win them?
There’s a saying in sports teams don’t want to be attached to: They were just good enough to lose.
This should not at all be taken as an endorsement to fire Fox. But it would be understandable if Georgia made that decision, regardless of the passionate, albeit likely orchestrated, rants of Kentucky coach John Calipari the other night.
Fox’s resume will show two tournament berths in eight seasons. Even given that he inherited the inbox from hell, McGarity will ask himself: Is that good enough? Or will he feel Fox has earned enough credit points to come back for one more season?
I suspect it may come down to how the team finishes.
McGarity deferred comment on the subject until after the season, standard operating procedure.
Fox’s public comments were predictable.
“My total focus is just trying to play well and beat Alabama,” he said. “We obviously have to re-tool our team without Yante and that’s taking (all) of our energy.”
When asked if he expected his job status to be a topic, given the circumstances, Fox said, “That comes up even when you win. Praise and criticism come from the same people. You have to treat them both the same because, ultimately, you can’t get on that roller coaster.”
Frazier, who’s down to the final few weeks of his college career, understandably is loyal to Fox.
“He’s a guy who’s dear to my heart because he took a chance on me when nobody else would,” he said. “He helped mold me into a man. I’m a guy who will always be in his debt because of what he taught me. He’s been a big part of my life.”
Frazier believes Georgia would be making a mistake if it made a coaching change. Maybe. But Fox’s team hasn’t done enough to kill the debate.