In what turned out to be Mark Richt’s final season at Georgia, the Bulldogs went through a four-game span during which they: 1) lost at home to Alabama 38-10; 2) lost to a Tennessee team that had started the season 2-3 (0-2 in the SEC); 3) struggled to win a battle of field goals 9-6 over Missouri (which went 1-7 in the SEC); 4) lost to Florida 27-3.
It didn’t matter that Richt won the regular season’s final four games. Most stopped paying attention before November — the fans who buy tickets, the boosters who write checks, the athletic director who had grown weary of failed expectations. As good a coach and wonderful a person as Richt was, he had lost too many of the games that mattered most, failed to take advantage of a weak SEC East Division and failed to win the conference championship for the 10th consecutive season after winning two titles in his first five.
So he was gone.
It’s worth bringing up this topic now because some have wondered why Mark Fox, the school’s basketball coach, is not gone.
I don’t know that it’s the majority of Georgia’s fan base. Infernos on social media, message boards and sports talk radio don’t qualify as a scientific sampling. But the question of why Richt was fired and why Fox is staying is a worthy one.
I hoped to get some insight on this subject from athletic director Greg McGarity. He was the man who chose to affirm Fox’s return a week ago in strange way: With a line thrown into a statement that had been put out ostensibly to smother a report that Georgia was doing due diligence on potential replacements. But McGarity, whose relationship with the media has grown prickly over the past year, continued to deny comment on the subject late this week, even after the Dogs’ season officially ended with a first-round NIT loss to Belmont.
But back to Fox. The fact he is being retained after failing to reach the NCAA tournament despite two first-team all-SEC players (Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier) begs the question: Where exactly is the bar for Georgia basketball? Obviously, it’s not as high as Indiana’s bar. The Hoosiers fired coach Tom Crean, one year removed from a 27-8 season and a Big Ten championship. But even if Georgia isn’t Indiana, is the bar as high as it should be?
I’ve never endorsed Fox’s firing. But after only two tournament appearances (zero wins) in eight seasons, it’s clear he has to do better. Next season could be tournament-or-bust for him. As for why he is being given another season and Richt wasn’t, here are a few likely reasons:
— Georgia officials say they want to be good in basketball and can point to Florida as a blueprint for a “football” school having hoops success. But football is the engine for Georgia athletics. There is more pressure from fans, media and certainly boosters. It’s natural the athletic power brokers are going to let the head basketball coach slide on something they might not for football.
— Richt inherited a down program. (He followed Ray Goff and Jim Donnan.) But Fox inherited nuclear waste. (He followed Ron Jirsa, Jim Harrick, Dennis Felton.) The football program was stocked with talent even before Richt’s arrival. But it took Fox a while to clean things up in basketball and start moving forward in recruiting. Fox’s recruiting success doesn’t have the wow factor some want, particularly in a talent-rich state such as Georgia, but getting Norcross forward Rayshaun Hammonds and Greenville (S.C.) forward Nicolas Claxton as 2017 commits qualifies as significant progress.
— When Richt was fired, his defenders pointed to an average of nearly 9.7 wins per season, an impressive metric by most standards. But his conference records (5-3, 6-2, 5-3) and bowl destinations (Gator, Belk, Tax Slayer) in the final three years were not easily digested, especially against the backdrop of no SEC titles since 2005 and the recent stature of the East. Before this season, Fox had three consecutive 20-win seasons for only the second time in school history and this season the Dogs played Kentucky and Florida tough in three games. That doesn’t make up for the teams they should have beaten. But at least they didn’t completely face-plant like the football team when on a big stage.
— Under Richt, there were too many wait-until-next-years. Fox hasn’t had nearly that many, this easily being the worst. But … wait until next year. If Maten opts to return for his senior season, as expected, Fox could have his strongest roster ever, even with the loss of Frazier: Maten, Juwan Parker, Derek Ogbeide, Tyree Crump, Hammonds and Claxton, plus other returnees. Outside shooting could be an issue (again). But the Dogs could be/should be a tournament team, even in the unlikelihood of Maten opting for the NBA.
Barring a string of injuries, Fox will be out of excuses. At some point, Richt had to start winning more big games. Time ran out in 2015. At some point, Fox has to start making an impact in March. He’s on the clock next season.