A Georgia grad lends his insight on Mark Fox, California's new basketball coach

Fox had a 286-176 record in 14 seasons as coach at Nevada and Georgia. He made the NCAA Tournament five times but never advanced to the Sweet 16. Fox was fired at Georgia last year after failing to reach the tournament in each of his final three seasons with the Bulldogs. (AP) (photo by Sean Rayford)

Fox had a 286-176 record in 14 seasons as coach at Nevada and Georgia. He made the NCAA Tournament five times but never advanced to the Sweet 16. Fox was fired at Georgia last year after failing to reach the tournament in each of his final three seasons with the Bulldogs. (AP) (photo by Sean Rayford)

By Peter Horn | @PeterCHorn

There’s a play that sticks out in my mind as an encapsulation of Georgia basketball under Mark Fox. One of the nameless games between two teams clawing for .500 on the SEC Network’s Tuesday evening slot, the commentators marveling at the pick and roll screens drawn up by Fox during a timeout as our Serbian power forward dribbles the ball off his knee into the fourth row of the stands. We’d go on to lose that game. Or win, it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s kind of how it always went. There were bright spots and promising years—an NCAA tournament appearance in years two and six, one legit NBA player in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a couple others who thought they were and are now bouncing around the Lithuanian D-League—but mediocrity was the mean to which we would always revert.[1] Over the years, his furious scribbling on dry-erase boards to a clearly outmatched team down 14 points with 1:26 to go took on a Sisyphean feel. At some point that boulder was Fox’s to own.

The problem was recruiting, which largely stemmed from his inability to establish in-roads with AAU programs, notably the Atlanta teams an hour away that power the national blue bloods.[2] But that’s a bit like blaming your lawyer for not paying off the judge. The intersection of AAU recruiting, apparel companies and snake oil opportunists that leach off top recruits is a sordid business that’s likely even worse than reported, and for all of Fox’s shortcomings, he ran a clean program and seemed to genuinely care about the development of his players on and off the court. Hell, if we were paying our players, it’s time to call the collections agency.

It may not be fair, but it’s hard not to judge Fox vs. his successor, Tom Crean (who allegedly is a different person than Tom Arnold).[3] Despite a rocky first year at the helm, UGA has the #9 class in the country in Crean’s first full recruiting cycle, including the nation’s top shooting guard and #2 overall player, Anthony Edwards, along with three other four stars. For comparison, Fox signed one five-star and five four-stars in nine years, and Crean’s class isn’t done. This from a guy whose main criticism was Indiana in-state recruiting.

In years past, a .551 overall record and a couple tournament berths may have been enough for a school as football-centric as UGA. But during Fox’s tenure, we saw a number of SEC programs make significant strides—seven SEC teams made the NCAA tournament in Fox’s last year— while the Georgia program treaded water. When it’s just Kentucky in the tournament, it’s one thing. When it’s half your conference, it’s another.

And thus begins the Mark Fox era at Cal. If history is any indication, the Golden Bears are getting a skilled tactician, widely regarded as one of the better X’s and O’s coaches in the game,[4] a coach who will be a tireless ambassador for the entire Cal athletic department and may just show up to a football game covered in body paint and spiked shoulder pads. A fiery leader not afraid to lose his jacket and take the occasional technical foul, and if he can figure out how to tap into the AAU recruiting pipeline with his ethics still intact, potentially one of the better all-around college basketball coaches in the game.

[1] Had UGA basketball won one more SEC game under Fox, its conference record would’ve been literally mediocre at 0.5000 (78-78).

[2] …who all seem to wear blue: UNC, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky.

[3] Allegedly.

[4] Just ask John Calipari, whose effusive praise of Fox and public calls for him to keep his job at Georgia felt a bit like a boxer lobbying to keep his bloody sparring partner in the ring.

Peter is a Georgia grad and casual-at-best Georgia basketball fan who’s lived in the Bay Area for the last six years.