The last time Georgia basketball was elevated to a level that excited the masses, it was because the program had a coach (Jim Harrick) who cheated and a son (Jim Harrick Jr.) who was a fraud professor and proved to be a similar form of college sports bacteria as his father.
It took a while for the stain of probation to fade. The Bulldogs are still trying to win by doing it the right way. But is that possible? They just fired Mark Fox, who’s as pure as they come and has openly railed against fellow college coaches who’ve sunk the sport into the pit of an FBI investigation.
“The frustrating thing is only a tiny bit of what occurs has been exposed,” Fox said Sunday.
So how hard is it to win doing it the right way?
“How hard is it?” Fox said, repeating the question, then pausing before continuing.
“It can be done. You can win doing it the right way. You have to have everything aligned to do that. But it’s impossible unless everything else is lined up for you.”
Therein lies part of the problem. Not everything has been aligned for Georgia. This shouldn’t be taken as an argument against Fox’s firing Saturday. The bottom line is his teams underachieved the last two seasons, he didn’t make the NCAA tournament enough times (twice) over his nine seasons and he didn’t win a tournament game. But there is a worthy debate as to whether Georgia has been all-in on trying to win in basketball. There’s shared blame for that.
It was a grind for Fox to get long-overdue renovations to Stegeman Coliseum. The day after his firing, he suggested he hasn’t felt fully supported by athletic director Greg McGarity since 2014. Georgia is widely considered a “football school” but that shouldn’t preclude it from being successful in basketball. That takes a commitment that often has been lacking in Athens.
Fox wanted to speak to the media Sunday because he’s just that kind of guy. He wanted a chance to publicly thank his players, friends and family. He choked up a couple of times.
But most significant was his use of the word “partnership” on a few occasions. He said he told McGarity during his exit interview that, “You need to have someone you can have a partnership with. If he can’t have it with me, then hopefully he can have it with the next coach.”
When asked how difficult it is to win clean in today’s environment: “You need a tremendous partnership with everybody who touches the program. You obviously need to have some tradition on your side and some breaks go your way and you have to have an understanding within your team how hard you’re going to have to work to do it the right way. I’m not going to say my tenure ended because everybody else is cheating. But it’s a challenging time in college basketball right now.”
And when asked if he lacked a needed partnership with McGarity, Fox said, “That’ll be a point where we agree to disagree.”
Fox was hired by former athletic director Damon Evans. In McGarity’s defense, Fox was given nine seasons and doesn’t hide from the reality that he needed to win more games. But it was clear Fox hadn’t felt supported by McGarity for years.
When Fox was asked when he felt job was in trouble, he bypassed the expected answer of “a few weeks ago,” and said: “Honestly? March of 2014. From that point forward I felt I probably wasn’t as secure as I ever want to be. But that comes with territory. At the end of the day we didn’t win enough games.”
Roll it back four seasons: Georgia went 20-14, including 12-6 in the SEC, in his fifth season in 2013-14. McGarity offered Fox a two-year contract extension. The two reportedly agreed to a contract. But the deal was not signed until a year later. It was later learned that the extension offered Fox no raise and included unusual buyout provisions. Fox could effectively walk away from the contract and owe nothing. But the coach’s buyout if he was fired was significantly reduced.
It’s clear from that point on that Fox wasn’t feeling the love. No -- that’s not why Georgia failed to make the tournament three of the next four seasons. But it’s also not a conducive atmosphere for success.
Fox wants to coach again, and he’s already had some phone calls.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.
He met with players Saturday and told them not to transfer, not to create issues for the next coach and to finish their education. “I told them I believe in them,” he said.
There’s still on a billboard on Highway 316 just outside of Athens that reads, “Commit to the G,” and pictures Fox and Yante Maten.
Georgia is now committing to somebody else. Fox would have some advice for his replacement: Make certain you get everything committed ahead of time.
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC