Richt and Fox build a Bulldog coaching bond

semerson@macon.comJuly 6, 2012 

ATHENS -- It was an early morning staff meeting at the Georgia football offices, during spring practice three years ago. Head coach Mark Richt was planning the day with his assistants, when there was an interruption.

Most of the time, fellow coaches will obey the sanctity of a staff meeting, but Mark Fox had other ideas. He had just arrived on a 5 a.m. flight from Nevada, and was going to be introduced that afternoon as Georgia’s new men’s basketball coach.

But first Fox wanted to meet the big man on campus.

“The guy who was showing me around didn’t wanna do it,” Fox said. “I forced him. We’re going to see Coach Richt first. I can’t turn this thing around without him.”

So there was Fox barreling into the staff meeting of a man he had never met. But Richt took it well, and the moment proved to be the start of a beautiful relationship.

The pair are unusually close, and talk often, whether it’s about their jobs or smaller stuff. They are bonded together by their similar job pressures. They are the two highest-paid employees at the University of Georgia, who occupy jobs that they could lose with a bad loss or two, or be feted with a great win.

So yes, they confide in each other.

“We both have tough jobs,” Richt said. “We both have jobs that not a lot of people understand unless you live it out and actually do it. It’s so hard for some people to truly understand what we go through. Sometimes I can say to things to him that maybe I can’t say to anybody else, except for maybe my wife.”

Or, as Fox puts it:

“It’s really important to have someone you can bounce things off of, can lean on, and understands the madness.”

It doesn’t always work that way between high-profile coaches at the same school. At Connecticut, for instance, men’s head basketball coach Jim Calhoun and women’s head basketball coach Geno Auriemma have been renowned for not being particularly close.

Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity, who worked for two decades at Florida, recalls good relationships between men’s head basketball coach Billy Donovan and at least two of the head football coaches during his tenure.

“Billy and Steve (Spurrier) were always on the same page with each other. Billy and Urban (Meyer) were the same way -- they were neighbors, in the same neighborhood. Probably not as much with Ron (Zook) and Billy,” McGarity said.

“It’s so critical and it’s always been that usually when things break down, people are jealous of one sport having other perhaps more access to certain things within a program.

“But you don’t see that at Georgia and we didn’t see that at Florida.”

Much in common

There are other ways Richt and Fox can bond: They both are family men. They are nine years apart in age, but are at similar places in life. McGarity said both men are “so much alike in the way they live their personal life.” The A.D. has also noticed that they have an ability to joke at each other’s expense without crossing a line.

“I don’t know, sometimes people just get along, just personalities in general will mesh,” Richt said. “I just think we’re like-minded on a lot of things.”

Lately, Richt and Fox have played their friendship for comic effect.

This spring, after a stop on their Bulldog Club speaking tour, they stopped for dinner at either a Subway or Dairy Queen -- Fox couldn’t remember which -- and Richt didn’t have any money.

“I picked up the tab, and I said: ‘When you get your new contract done, you can buy breakfast at the Waffle House or something,’ ’’ Fox said.

Sure enough, when Richt signed his new contract last month, he told the media that it meant a Waffle House trip. And about a week later, the two head coaches went, along with most of the basketball support staff.

“Let’s just say I crushed it,” Fox said. “I think we had three or four booths. We had a good celebration.”

Their eating habits have actually been a source of ribbing between the two. Richt, who can’t work out as much as he used to, is often on a diet, and he makes every effort to stick to it. Such as the time they were stranded at a small airport, which had a single vending machine. Richt bought two Twinkies, but chose to starve while Fox ate both.

“I know when (Fox) first got here, he was a big Waffle House guy,” Richt said. “And I think he thought he could eat as much of that as he wanted to without it affecting his waistline. So then his wife is getting on him a little bit.”

Helping each other

Getting along also helps occasionally on the recruiting front.

A lot of football players play basketball in high school, and at least think about walking on for hoops. (Tight end Jay Rome did just that this past season.) But more often, it’s the case that a basketball recruit could be charmed by meeting Richt.

“A lot of these kids come from multi-sport backgrounds. So they’re coming in, they know the respective coaches,” McGarity said. “There’s a lot of value in those coaches knowing a lot about each other’s programs, and about the kids and things like that.”

One time last year, when the basketball team had a game, Fox let Richt use his office to talk to recruits. But then Richt moved around furniture, including the TV, and didn’t move it back.

“So I was killing him: ‘You just come in and re-arrange everything and take over?’ ’’ Fox said.

Some of their conversations are less comic. They speak after every football game, either congratulatory or the opposite. And they talk about their similar job pressures, or any of the myriad things that high-profile coaches go through.

“Because he’ll understand, and he’ll respect the confidentiality of it,” Richt said. “I’m sure he’ll tell me some things that he might not want to tell his staff or I might not want to tell my staff. Sometimes when you’re in a leadership position, there are some things that you’re dealing with that only Fox can totally understand what I’m doing, or at least understand more than most people.”

“We stay in pretty close contact,” Fox said. “I don’t think he’s ever had to lean on me. I think I’ve had to lean on him.”

And through those conversations, Fox may see a side of Richt the public doesn’t see.

“Oh yeah. I think every coach in America is guarded in public,” Fox said. “They’re guarded with what they say and how they act. Everybody has to relax once in awhile. We enjoy the smallest of things.”

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