ATHENS — In the spring, a player asked Mark Fox, “Do you really think we can win?” and for a moment he was stunned. No player had ever asked him that before.
In the first week of school, Fox made his team runs steps in Sanford Stadium in the heat of August, punishment for blown tutoring sessions and, he said, “being undisciplined.”
First road trip? Three players forgot their shoes.
“Three guys left their sneakers in Athens,” Fox said. “We go to practice the night before the UAB game and I’m like: What’s the deal here? It was embarrassing. We had the team manager who hadn’t traveled with us bring the shoes with him the day of the game. I was like, ‘OK, now I know why we’re having some issues here.’”
These are the little reality checks for the new Georgia basketball coach. When a program generally is synonymous with apathy and misery, interrupted by the occasional 20-win season and tornado-aided conference championship, inheriting problems are expected. You would just hope that everybody remembers their shoes and that players believe in the concept of winning basketball games as much as the coach does.
Mark Fox believes. His hope is that others soon will follow — players, fans, media. If early results are any indication, they will. The Bulldogs are only 8-8. They’re winless in three SEC games, with eighth-ranked Tennessee coming to Athens Saturday. But we’ve already seen wins over Georgia Tech and Illinois, and one of those near shock-the-world upsets at Kentucky.
Fox is doing this with a Fisher Price toolbox in a power tool world. He inherited neither players nor a winning culture in Athens. You scream, “Georgia basketball!” and if somebody appears to scream it back, it’s really only an echo in Stegeman Coliseum.
If this was all about Xs-and-Os, it would be easy. Fox handled that just fine at Nevada: 123-43 and three NCAA appearances in five seasons. He knows it’s about more than that at Georgia. He has spoken to Tubby Smith. He has spoken to Dennis Felton. He has spoken to Jim Harrick. (Fortunately, he had all of his shots first.)
Chances are, he”ll find success. He finally has what his predecessors didn’t: an apparent commitment of the athletic department to devote resources to something other than football. When “football” schools like Florida and Texas and Tennessee can win in basketball, it ends all of those it-can’t-be-done here debates.
But there is a lot baggage to overcome first. Fox’s greatest hurdle?
“The stigma,” he said. “We have to change the perception of Georgia basketball in the minds of young people — and in the minds of everybody. I expected we’d have to do that. We have to accept the term, ‘rebuilding.’ We can’t run from that term. I’ve told our team, it doesn’t have to be a two-year plan or a three-year plan. They can do it faster. We control that. My kids watch that show every Sunday night where they rebuild a house in a week ["Extreme Makeover"] . Our players have to realize, ‘They can do it faster.’”
They look at the final score. He says, “We’re making progress.”
They look at the standings, he says, “We’re 0-3, not 0-10.”
They look at the half-empty stands. He slaps them around a little.
“The kids have to understand that you don’t play hard just because the arena’s full,” he said. “This is part of the process. You have to earn their respect back. Once we get this rebuilt, there will be a home court advantage. But we have to earn that back.”
When he got the job, he asked every player why they came to Georgia. Most talked about the school, or Athens, or proximity to their home.
Only one mentioned winning basketball games.
Now when Fox recruits, he wants every player to say they’re coming to Georgia to win.
“I didn’t hear that enough when I came here,” he said.
One issue resolved.
Two, if you count that nobody has forgotten their shoes since the Alabama-Birmingham trip.