Athens – To Damon Evans’ credit, he did not introduce Georgia’s new basketball coach Friday as, “My first choice all along,” because he probably figured everybody knew otherwise.
Jeff Capel stayed at Oklahoma. Mike Anderson stayed at Missouri. Evans might have tried to sell both that Georgia was some step up, the land of great potential, the sleeping beast of the Southeast. And they probably looked at him like you would look at Mrs. Paul’s if the company suddenly decided to open a fresh seafood restaurant.
Georgia basketball has been fish sticks for too long. If this program is destined to be anything but that, it was going to take a coach whose name you didn’t have to Google to prove otherwise.
“People want the big name,” Evans said Friday after his first significant coaching hire as athletic director. “People want somebody who is going to win the press conference. I want to win basketball games. I want the person who can make that happen.”
Mark Fox wasn’t the first choice. That doesn’t mean he won’t turn out to be the perfect choice. Everything on the resume says success. He recruited from an office in the relative dead lands of Reno, yet he won 123 games with three NCAA tournament appearances in five years. He is young, smart and passionate. He is regarded highly enough in basketball circles to have been rumored for past openings at Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona State and Kansas State.
The man is so driven, he missed the birth of his daughter, Olivia (now 6) because he was trying to sign a player. He later reasoned that he had the rest of life to spend with his daughter. The guard, he’d have for only four years.
But his relative anonymity in this part of the country, his coaching roots coming in the WAC – isn’t Winnipeg in that conference? – and his lack of ties to the state’s rich recruiting base explains the absence of confetti on Broad Street.
Fox said he can’t worry about that.
“I’m just here to make sure the kids are on the same page and playing the right way,” he said. “If we do that and have success, the rest will take care of itself.”
You wanted to think, “Wow!” not ask, “Who?” But this is where Georgia is. That doesn’t necessarily project more doom. Bruce Pearl went to Tennessee. Trent Johnson went to LSU. Basketball in Knoxville and Baton Rouge are no longer afterthoughts. Or punch lines.
You wanted marquee value. You wanted somebody who would slow state recruits from running to the border. But Jeff Capel? He probably sees his next office as closer to Durham than Athens.
Results change perceptions.
“You have to make your program relevant so kids will want to play here,” he said. “We have to earn that respect.”
He believes he can win here. He has spoken to Tubby Smith and Jim Harrick. He laughed when asked if his 8-year-old son, Parker, also will teach a class on the principles of basketball.
“No. He could pass that test, though,” he said.
He can’t give a timeline for success. He’s barely seen the roster. But the ceiling? There isn’t one.
“I can’t tell you we’re going to be in the Final Four in two years,” he said. “But this is a job where you should be able to compete for a championship.”
Do that, and next time this job will be an easy sell.
Jeff Schultz, fighting to stay relevant with peeps under 40, can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Facebook, Tweeter (SchultzAJC) or carrier pigeon (make a right off 400).