ATHENS -- Mark Fox still has a copy of the first paycheck he received from the University of Washington. The sentimental value far outweighs what it was monetarily.
“I think I earned about $8 a month after rent,” Fox said.
He could smile while he said that, considering he’s a millionaire these days as the head coach of the Georgia men’s basketball team. The Bulldogs left Wednesday for their first NCAA tournament trip under Fox, which will be against ... Washington, the same school that gave Fox his start in coaching.
As they got on the bus for a three-hour drive to Charlotte, N.C., Fox took with him the memories of how far he’d come -- as well as what it has taken to get the Bulldogs to this point in just two years.
When he arrived in April of 2009, the Bulldogs had finished last or second-to-last in the SEC East for six straight seasons. They made it seven straight in Fox’s first season.
But the Bulldogs started the turnaround even in that first year. It wasn’t just some closer-than-expected losses, including at Kentucky. It was the straightening out of discipline, academics and other things that Fox found lacking.
In the most famous episode, a fed-up Fox hauled the entire team to Sanford Stadium for a long punishment run. They ran all the steps.
It wasn’t that Dennis Felton, the previous head coach, wasn’t a disciplinarian. But the team Felton left -- including top recruits Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie -- apparently needed a new voice and had some locker room issues.
“When he first got here, we were a team full of problems,” Thompkins said. “We had little things as far as academics, taking care of stuff off the court. Coach Fox made us help us fix it.”
And how did Fox do that?
“He made us run that stadium. That was enough to make us all wake up,” Thompkins said. “Everybody at that point had a little mishap. And it just led to mean so much stuff between 13 guys. He took us to the stadium and we ran all our problems off.”
Fox also had the value of experience to fall back on. The Bulldogs had making the NCAA tournament as a goal. Well, Fox had made it three times as the head coach at Nevada, once even as an at-large and twice advanced past the first round.
Like most coaches, especially those that didn’t play at a major power, Fox had to pay his dues. It started in 1991 at Washington, after Fox finished his playing career at Eastern New Mexico.
Fox spent two seasons with the Huskies, meeting his wife Cindy in the process. He started out as what was then called a restricted-earnings coach, limited to $12,000 per year. Later in the decade the NCAA lost a lawsuit about the financial limits of the position, and Fox was one of the many coaches who received a cut of the settlement.
“You have no money, you’re living in a metro area. You’re basically building debt because you’re so underpaid,” Fox said. “And that’s why they lost the lawsuit years later. I think that experience, I learned a great deal in my two years there. I learned an immense amount about this profession.”
He also learned what it was like to be on a staff that was fired, when head coach Lynn Nance was let go. It wouldn’t be the first time for Fox.
From there Fox went to Kansas for a year as a graduate student with no formal tie to the program. But then-head coach Roy Williams let him study practice, and he and the Jayhawks’ third assistant lived on the cheap.
“We looked for the cheapest beer-and-pizza night all around Lawrence,” Fox said.
He hooked on at Kansas State a year later, spending six seasons there. But the staff was fired again in 2000, and then Fox went to Nevada to serve on the staff with Trent Johnson, whom Fox had also met at Washington. It was Johnson who introduced Fox to his future wife.
Johnson, with Fox as his aide, helped build Nevada into a mid-major power. Fox took over when Johnson left for Stanford, then left after five seasons for Georgia, joining Johnson -- now at LSU -- in the SEC.
Last season had its rough moments, and this year didn’t go without drama either. The Bulldogs entered Selection Sunday unsure if they were going to make it, two days after blowing yet another big second-half lead, this time in the SEC tournament.
When he was asked Wednesday about the inability to close out teams, Fox bristled. He brought up the past.
“You’re talking about a group of players, OK, that in that locker room they had done nothing but finish in last place. Not one guy on my team has not finished in last place until this year,” he said. “And you don’t go from that position to succeeding in every close moment, overnight. And we needed lots of experiences, good and bad, to grow. What I’m proud of is we kept fighting forward, as they say, and earned our way into the tournament.”