Like most new coaches, Mark Fox inherited a bad situation. Georgia’s basketball program had been buried by losing and scandal, recruiting was a struggle, academics were an issue and things were such a mess with on his team that two players forgot their shoes on the Bulldogs’ first road trip with him as coach.
Fox, similar to Mark Richt in football, made everything better in basketball. In the end he didn’t make it good enough.
Georgia fired Fox on Saturday, the day after Georgia was eliminated from the SEC tournament with a loss to Kentucky that effectively ended its long-shot NCAA tournament hopes. The decision was expected and could be well-supported by anybody in the, “Fire Fox,” camp, but to be honest I’m a little torn it.
This isn’t about Fox being a good guy. It’s about him truly caring about his kids and doing it right way. It’s about him understanding the mission of college athletics. Any administration hiring Fox or Richt could be comforted knowing that neither would wind up central to NCAA or FBI investigations and that they would be excellent leaders of young men.
The inherent risk in firing Fox is that while the administration is trying to send the message, “We can do better,” it runs the risk of hiring a young and up-and-coming coach who is more than willing to play in that AAU/shoe company underworld that Fox admirably avoided for the mere sake of elevating the win total. And, sorry, I just can’t get on board with that.
But there’s no question Fox needed to win more games. The Dogs underachieved last season when they failed to make the tournament with J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten. They underachieved this season when they blew several leads, came unraveled at several points of games and finished 7-11 in the SEC.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said in a statement he has “the utmost respect” for Fox, but added, “In the end, I felt like we have not reached our full potential as a basketball program. I really thought we were on the way to turning the corner this year. We just did not achieve the level of success as a program that I believe we should at the University of Georgia.”
I don’t think there’s any question Georgia toyed with the idea of making a change after last season. But when Fox’s lifeline was extended for one more season, it was clear the Bulldogs had to show significant progress on the court. I considered that not only make it to the NCAA tournament but winning at least one game.
Fox coached nine seasons. He failed to win an NCAA tournament game. He made it to the tournament only twice. The irony of his hiring is he went from a coach who was perceived as an excellent sideline leader who struggled in the early years in Athens in recruiting to one who has recruited really well in the past few years, but underachieved with the players he had.
This year’s team didn’t get better as the season went on. That’s a bad sign. Maten was the SEC’s player of the year this season, but Georgia finished only 18-15, and even that took winning two games on the conference tournament. The Bulldogs had been trending upward with three consecutive 20-plus win seasons, but Fox’s last two teams failed to make the tournament and finished only 37-30 and 16-20 in the conference.
That just is not good enough.
If Georgia is serious about competing at the national level in basketball the way it does in football, it needs to shoot high in the job search. Among the former successful head coaches available are Tom Crean (Marquette, Indiana) and Thad Matta
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a Fox supporter, said after hearing of the firing: “If somebody is looking for a coach, Mark Fox would be a great choice.”
He’s right. But Georgia can’t be faulted for believing it was time to move on.
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