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