Georgia extends Mark Fox’s lifeline — the rest is up to him

A coach doesn’t need to look for signs to know if he’s in trouble. The signs are obvious. They strike him like daily paper cuts.

“You can sense the silent treatment,” Mark Fox said. “I never felt that. I never felt anybody was trying to distance themselves from me or the team.”

There was no silence Tuesday, when Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity phoned Fox before 7 a.m. to alert him about an internet story indicating the coach’s job was in peril and the school was doing background on potential replacements. There was no silence when McGarity sought to put Fox’s mind at ease and smother the rumor mill by putting out a statement punctuated by these 10 words, “We look forward to Mark leading our program next year.”

Does that leave any wiggle room?

“You’re kind of splitting hairs,” Fox said Wednesday, adding it’s “definitive to me.”

He will coach Georgia’s basketball team Thursday against Tennessee. He will coach them for as long as the Bulldogs are in this week’s SEC Tournament. He will coach them next season, barring an unforeseen U-turn by McGarity, school President Jere Morehead or any wealthy powers in the shadows.

It took a story suggesting otherwise before anybody in administration felt compelled to put the matter to rest but this is where we are now: Fox has been extended a lifeline. Let’s see what he does with it.

Let’s see if Georgia can make some noise this week, with their best player, Yante Maten, returning to the lineup (in some form) after suffering a significant knee sprain less than three weeks ago.

Let’s see what he can do next season with a strong returning cast, even with the loss of guard J.J. Frazier.

Let’s see if he can continue to improve recruiting, which he has done, even if too many of the state’s best players still leave the borders. Strong recent recruits include Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and Derek Ogbeide on the current roster, and Rayshaun Hammonds (Norcross) and Nicolas Claxton (Greenville, S.C.) coming in next year.

Harris, the Dogs’ freshman guard, said he was “excited” by the news Fox would be coming back.

“I probably would’ve cried if he wasn’t,” he said. “I know he’ll make me a better player on and off the court. I love that guy. He’s a down to earth guy and you don’t find guys like that every day. His expectations for everybody are high. His standards are high. He’s like a father figure to me.”

Which is great. But in the end, coaches are judged by wins and losses against the backdrop of expectations.

Fox strung together three straight 20-win seasons, a blue-moon kind of experience in Athens. But there were higher expectations for this season’s team than 9-9 in a relatively pedestrian SEC. If Georgia doesn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, that will make Fox two berths in eight seasons (with zero wins). He needs to do better in the future. He needs to do better next season or the lifeline may not be extended again.

There were valid arguments on both sides of the keep Fox/fire Fox debate, just as there were near the close of 2015 when people were debating Mark Richt’s future. But the signs pointing to Richt’s exit hit like a sledgehammer. McGarity rushed off the field with little comment after Georgia’s win at Georgia Tech. Neither he nor Morehead hung around for the celebration in the locker room when Richt was presented with the Governor’s Trophy. The decision had already been made. Richt was gone the next day.

Fox never felt that cold shoulder, even with so many disappointing losses this season, even with the public silence from McGarity before Wednesday morning’s phone call. The Yahoo Sports story had been posted late the night before. Fox said he hadn’t read it but was vaguely aware of it.

What did McGarity say?

“He just said, ‘I need to respond to this.’ … To be honest with you, I never felt any lack of support from him or our administration. They’ve been terrific the entire time. I never got caught up in that whole thing.

“I’m not angry at anybody. I try to let you guys do your job and let you have access and let you have opinions. We’re not going to agree with everything people say. People will make errors. That’s just part of it.”

Fox doesn’t view this week as a chance to send a signal for next year. But it couldn’t hurt. There have been too many blown leads, outcomes that could’ve flipped the focus this week and the realistic potential of March. Yes, the Dogs were jobbed by a broken clock at Texas A&M, but they also blew a nine-point lead with less than two minutes remaining. That’s clock management. That’s players making bad decisions. That’s coaching.

It hasn’t been Fox’s most enjoyable season but he has become accustomed to ups and downs.

“Two or three weeks ago, one of you guys asked me about my job; four or five days later somebody asked how close are we to being in the tournament,” he said to a group of media members. “So we go from one end of the spectrum to the other in five days. But that goes with the territory.”

It’s up to him to change the narrative.

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