Mark Fox succeeding in changing basketball culture at Georgia

The lower hand shows where Georgia was when Mark Fox arrived. The upper hand shows where the Bulldogs are now. (Jason Getz/AJC)

The lower hand shows where Georgia used to be. The upper hand shows where Mark Fox has brought them. (Jason Getz/AJC)

ATHENS – Not that it was some great revelation but Georgia officials were pretty up front with Mark Fox during the interview process in 2009 about the state of the basketball program. It was a mess. So in that sense, he knew he wasn’t stepping into Eden.

But have you ever booked a room in a low-budget hotel, had low expectations and when you arrived wondered if you had just missed the hurricane? That was Fox last season. He expected bad and witnessed something worse.

“I know last year I said that I wasn’t surprised with where we were because they were so honest with me when I got here,” the Bulldogs coach said Thursday. “But as I reflect, it was probably in worse shape than I wanted to admit. We’ve made progress. But there’s still days where you feel like the train ran you over.”

Possibly. But these days, that train mostly runs through Paul Hewitt’s office at Georgia Tech.

Of the two major college basketball programs in the area, only one obviously is going in the right direction. Both open conference play this weekend. The Bulldogs are being talked about as a dark horse in the SEC in only Fox’s second season. The Jackets, after non-conference losses to Kennesaw State and Siena, project as the gum under the rest of the ACC’s shoes.

Fox isn’t in a position to gloat. He is 2-0 against Tech and says, “That’s important. We didn’t come here to finish second.” But he also knows that the stated goal of having a rich basketball tradition in Athens is far down the road.

Nonetheless, the job he has done in a short time is nothing short of remarkable. He took over a wreck of a program, engineered a few upsets, put a scare into Kentucky in Lexington and finished 14-17 — a losing record, but a clear 180 for the team.

Remember where Fox started. Three players forgot their shoes on the first road trip last season. One asked the coach, “Do you really think we can win?” Others blew off tutoring sessions.

“We’ve had some academic battles, some issues in how to work and how to function as an athlete, how responsible you had to be, how much effort it took,” Fox said. “There wasn’t a winning mentality.

“I don’t want to indict [former coach] Dennis Felton. He had his own issues that he walked into here, so I have to be fair to him. But all that being said, it wasn’t in great shape. But I’m not focused on where the program was or even where it’s going to be two years from now.  I’m focused on how we’re going to get there, on the present.”

Here’s the present: The Dogs are 11-2 going into Saturday’s SEC opener against Kentucky. Their only two losses came in a tournament to Notre Dame (double overtime) and Temple when a rusty Trey Thompkins was playing his first two games following an ankle injury. Georgia has won eight straight for the first time since 2002-03. Expectations are high enough that Fox laid into his team for poor play after the last win over Eastern Kentucky. (Quoting:  “I wasn’t wowed how we played or how I coached.” If only the football coach on campus was so forthcoming after games.)

Fox said he is “making progress” in changing the basketball culture in Athens. More recruits are looking at Georgia as an option (”We’re in more races traditionally than we’ve been in.”). Fan support has been good. But his objective is to grow the program to the point that “everybody has to check the score of our game before they go to bed.”

He likes his team. He likes the chemistry. He likes the fact nobody forgets their shoes any more.

He also likes the sudden high expectations.

“It’s funny because last year I had to tell them, ‘Don’t believe anything anybody tells you when they say you’re not very good,’” Fox said.  “Now I have to tell them, ‘Don’t believe them this year, either.’ You still have to do the things that equate to winning. This is not a perception contest.”

If it was, the game is over. Fox has won.

– By Jeff Schultz

Previous posts

Aaron gets wish: Steroid users kept out of Hall of Fame

Richt’s plan for change is good, but why did it take so long?

Playoff rankings and why Falcons can get to Super Bowl

Fortunes of Georgia, Richt can turn on recruiting Crowell

Follow me on Twitter @JeffSchultzAJC; friend me at Facebook.com/JeffSchultzAJC

167 comments Add your comment

juvenal

January 6th, 2011
1:49 pm

juvenal

January 6th, 2011
1:51 pm

if a tree falls in the forest……?

A.J.

January 6th, 2011
1:51 pm

Just think how lucky we are that we didnt hire Bobby Knight now!

Frank Lane

January 6th, 2011
1:59 pm

I love the quote, “this is not a perception contest.”

Eddie

January 6th, 2011
1:59 pm

Been a long time coming. After Tubby left, we’ve been just floating around the bottom. Nice to see us rising again

joe

January 6th, 2011
2:03 pm

Not sure about changing the culture, but sure hope he beats KY this weekend!

gadawgs

January 6th, 2011
2:04 pm

Love the guy. Great job coach! Kind of refreshing to hear a no BS assesment of where you are and where you are GOING to be not HOPE to be. CMF said we did not come here to finish second! Love it!!! Are YOU listening CMR? I certainly hope so.

JB

January 6th, 2011
2:04 pm

Can he coach Football also?

JB

January 6th, 2011
2:05 pm

Looking to change the culture in football also.

Hoops Fan

January 6th, 2011
2:07 pm

God Bless Mark Fox and God Bless Paul Blewitt. I hope GTU keeps Coach Hewitt forever!

Bruce Mac

January 6th, 2011
2:08 pm

I love it. GO DAWGS, fresh and honest coach with an attitude. Let the big dawg eat.

Fish Bisch

January 6th, 2011
2:08 pm

No one cares about basketball.

D A Double U G

January 6th, 2011
2:10 pm

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Even when UGA’s football team is down, and the basketball team is apparently up, I still look MUCH more forward to the next football game, rather than the next basketball game. EVen when it’s in the heart of basketball season.

Try and bring down the UGA football program all you want, ajc. But UGA fans are true and through. GO DAWGS!!!! (football, that is!)

RomeDawg

January 6th, 2011
2:12 pm

I love all the naysayers eating crow now about UGA hiring him. He is a winner, pure and simple.

gadawgs

January 6th, 2011
2:13 pm

Fish…I beg to differ. We just have not been given a reason to care about basketball until now. Coach Fox is going to make a lot more people care in the near future.

Carlton

January 6th, 2011
2:13 pm

Looks like I’ll have to brush up on my collegiate basketball since that’s the only UGA sport I’ll be watching the next few years..

juvenal

January 6th, 2011
2:14 pm

rest my case….d a like every daugs fan i know……..

BIG DAWG

January 6th, 2011
2:15 pm

I think the difference between our BB coach and our FB coach is disposition. Both are fine individuals, but I like the fact that Coach Fox will chew someone’s posterior when need be. I see Coach Richt putting his arm around the shoulder of a misbehaving player and telling him he has to change – done in a calm and nice voice. That would all be fine – if it worked! It doesn’t. Ten, ten yard wind sprints, then some other exhausting and exercise, several times a day if necessary, until lessons are learned.

Abnerish

January 6th, 2011
2:17 pm

The big issue is how UGA can keep this guy. Because that is what is needed most. We need sustained success in order to turn the program around. We started it with Tubby, but that got derailed when he went to UK. UGA cannot let the same thing happen again.

Hankie Aron

January 6th, 2011
2:17 pm

Who knows? Might hear”Stick with B-Ball” at Sanford Staduim this fall.

gadawgs

January 6th, 2011
2:17 pm

juvenal..Not all are like D A

Milos

January 6th, 2011
2:19 pm

You haven’t played a good team yet!

Hankie Aron

January 6th, 2011
2:20 pm

Most important point on here Abnerish. You have got to pay the guy before he leaves for a better basketball program.

elderdawg

January 6th, 2011
2:20 pm

I love how jerks from other schools come on here possing as dawg fans, and say basketball doesn’t matter. If they were graduates of GA they would stand behind all UGA sports. If they are UGA football fans, then they are just knuckledragging hicks that have probably never set foot in a UGA classroom.

Hankie Aron

January 6th, 2011
2:21 pm

Exactly gadawgs- D A is just passionate about football like most fans. Basketball just hasn’t been that eye catching until now.

Rebounding Dawg

January 6th, 2011
2:21 pm

I’m excited by the direction of the basketball program, but some of the victories this year against lesser opponents have been far too close. That said, I think when this team figures it out and finds a way to “click”, they are going to be very good. By SEC tourney time, this should be a very tough team to beat.

gadawgs

January 6th, 2011
2:22 pm

A successful hoops program can only benefit our football program. The more our name is out there on a POSITIVE note (and basketball is a major sport) not a negative one is only going to help recruiting. Why because perception is everything to these kids and they want to be associated with a winner. Also, maybe CMF will be the one that CMR is STUDYING. Hope so.

Hankie Aron

January 6th, 2011
2:22 pm

I am proud of all the UGA athletics and academia. Of course football is my favorite like everybody else

Hankie Aron

January 6th, 2011
2:23 pm

Couldn’t have said it better gadawgs

athensdawg

January 6th, 2011
2:24 pm

just hope we can keep this guy.

GTBob

January 6th, 2011
2:25 pm

I like Mark Fox but I think this years record is a little misleading. He is 11-2 but who is their best win against? UAB by 2 points? They have struggled against other terrible teams also like Mercer, Manhattan, and GT. The SEC schedule should be more telling although the SEC is pretty weak this year. I would still rather have him then Hewitt but then again, id rather have a random high school coach then Hewitt.

Paul (You doesn't have to call me Johnson).

January 6th, 2011
2:25 pm

UGA has a Basketball team that the Football team can be proud of!

D A Double U G

January 6th, 2011
2:27 pm

I forgot…..

All you armchair UGA fans who have never stepped foot in a classroom or donated a dime to the athletic cause, think I am suppose to flail my arms around and stomp my feet, while cursing the football program in which I love, because we have hit a rough patch the last couple of seasons.

So sorry. Let me run to my personal blog and write a story about how Mark Richt is soft, and will never win another game in his carer, and why the UGA football program should be exiled to Conference USA for all of time.

Forget the fact that I proudly graduated from the University of Georgia, and have been a VERY proud season ticket holder and Hartman Fund contributor for 7 years now. I should stop finding joy in commuting out to the most beautiful campus in the world 6 or 7 Saturdays every fall to enjoy the fellowship of fellow alums and family. I should probably stop getting goosebumps every time I hear the lone bugler start the Battle Hymn of the Bulldawg Nation. The feeling I get when Larry Munson’s voice reads the monologue during the Battle Hymn should go away as well.

Forget the fact that I have pride in something that has been held so dear to mine, my wife, my father and his father’s heart since birth.

ALL of this should just go away because of 2 subpar seasons, only considered subpar because of the SUCCESS the program has had for the previous 8 years.

I give in. I will turn in my G gear, cancel my season tickets, and dedicate more time to going on the ajc blogs, written by journalists(sic) who have absolutely ZERO understanding what it means to be a Georgia Bulldawg, and only want to bash them because they know it generates more blog hits, upping the cost of advertising.

Is that what every Dawg fan/student/alumni should say????? Not happening.

DawginLex

January 6th, 2011
2:27 pm

I expect Saturday’s game to be close for awhile. Hopefully, the Steg will be full.

But make no mistake, UK is loaded and talent usually wins.

UK 68
UGA 60

juvenal

January 6th, 2011
2:28 pm

gadawgs, talking %, & there are a lot of you, so even a small is a big #, just don’t recall actually knowing one that went unless when a student..omni was always packed, though, i liked that format……Mr. Schultz, think drad will pull the trigger after chan is paid off?

sam

January 6th, 2011
2:29 pm

Fire Paul blewitt!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Josh Smith For 3

January 6th, 2011
2:29 pm

+1 gadawgs

Aside from the miraculous SEC tournament run a few years ago, there hasn’t been anything worth watching in UGA basketball for a while. I’m glad to see that Fox is moving this entire program in the right direction.

Sandman053

January 6th, 2011
2:31 pm

D.A. I agree with your statement 100%, I am not giving up on these Dawgs this year. Football will take care of itself. I remember Zook getting run out of G-ville, the Holtz experiment in Columbia, Chizik getting booed at the airport, and Bama had what? 3 coaches in three months? It is the nature of the beast and it has been announced that Richt will be the coach next year. So be it. Now go out all you so-called fans and suppport him. If not, fine, my season tickets will be much better than last year if you are going to “withold your donations” (which I doubt.)

DawginLex

January 6th, 2011
2:32 pm

JSS,

Don’t rag on the SEC east yet. Vandy is getting better and UT only plays well against good teams. florida is getting better too. There are 5 SEC east teams in the top 60 of the RPI(UGA is 56).

The west is a trainwreck except for maybe MSU now that Sidney is back.

Georgia should win at least 8 conference games. I think 10 will get them a NCAA bid which is what fox REALLY needs to happen.

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ajc sports editor, Daniel Beaird and others. Daniel Beaird said: Can football culture change too? RT @JeffSchultzAJC: Fox succeeding in changing basketball culture at UGA. #Dawgs #UGA http://bit.ly/hD5mka [...]

Hunting Dawg

January 6th, 2011
2:33 pm

Agree with you elderdawg, the other day I was cheering on the UGA Bass fishing team! I support all UGA Athletics even the ice hockey team!

KevinM

January 6th, 2011
2:34 pm

You’re as good as your record….the Dogs have reeled off 8 straight and are feeling confident. They have some depth in the post, and they have 2 All-SEC preseason selections. Its not necessarily what you do against a certain team, it’s about consistency….win your home games and steal a couple on the road..that gets you to 10-6 in the SEC and sets you for a chance to win the SEC Tournament.
Coach Fox has brought confidence to the program.

I hope his recruiting picks up at the same time.

Sandman053

January 6th, 2011
2:34 pm

@ hunting dawg: what is up with the ice hocley team? Do we have one or is that something that folks want? I thought it was pretty neat when I saw their stand at the bookstore. Ice Dawgs! Great stuff!

UGABugKiller

January 6th, 2011
2:36 pm

Everything is on the up and up with Georgia Basketball.

We have practice facilities to match Kentucky and Arkansas. We have an arena that’s been renovated and looks amazing from the outside for the first time, well, ever… while inside, the concourses are as wide a pro arena and the inner bowl is still as intimate (and loud when full) as ever.

What you REALLY should have said, Jeff, is how the Georgia Basketball program hasn’t just passed the Bug basketball program on the ladder, but how Mark Fox has passed Mark RICHT and the Georgia football program.

People have hope and expectations now for Georgia basketball.

People have expectations for Georgia football, too, but NO hope that Richt can meet or exceed them.

JTDawg

January 6th, 2011
2:38 pm

I watched UGA’s tv games this season, and watched two of KY’s. We barely beat tiny teams, so I’ll be suprised if we beat them Sat . . .unless, unless Fox isn’t showing everything he has. UGA will be better later in the year, when thompkins is 100%.

But there’s no denying Fox is an excellent coach. We’ll see how good he is next year without Thompkins and Leslie.

Go Dawgs!

JTDawg

January 6th, 2011
2:39 pm

Sad, but true, Bugkiller.

Dawg Boy

January 6th, 2011
2:39 pm

It’s nice to see an article about UGA that is positive for once! Sure the football team is struggling, but it is still great to be a Georgia Bulldawg! Here is another article I found a little uplifting- except it’s about the football team.

http://www.dudeyoucrazy.net/cfb/dude-you-crazy-originals/january-2011/01-05-2011

D A Double U G

January 6th, 2011
2:40 pm

Now that I’ve had my football rant, I will acknowledge this is about Mark Fox and the hoop-dawgs….

I hope as much as any true Dawg fan that we beat Kentucky this Saturday. But, it’s basketball. There will not be 1/3rd of the disappointment felt if we lose that would be felt after any football loss.

If we win this game, perhaps we will see interest in the program and cause increase. Then we will be able to hear disgruntled Tech fans tell us we do not deserve the success because we haven’t been there for the basketball team through thick and thin.

So it’s kind of a lose/lose situation if you ask me.

How many days until G-Day??

DawginOH

January 6th, 2011
2:41 pm

Congrats to CMF for all his remarkable accomplishments! Keep it up, Coach!

Abnerish

January 6th, 2011
2:44 pm

I wish it was only about the money. For some reason, these coaches think it is great to work at places that other coaches made great. IF Mark is as smart as I think he is, he will learn from Tubby and the great mistake he made and stay at UGA and make a legacy for himself, a la Donovan. Of course, I am getting a bit ahead of myself, but I think it is pretty clear from watching his team play that this guy can coach.