Georgia’s Fox still aiming for ‘the long haul’

semerson@macon.comJanuary 22, 2013 

ATHENS -- Four years ago, Mark Fox was offered a contract to lead the Georgia basketball program. According to Fox, he rejected it.

“Because it wasn’t long enough,” he said. “Because I didn’t think it was the right time frame -- not to have a good team, but to be completely rebuilt and established.”

Fox eventually signed a six-year contract to become Georgia’s head coach, and two years ago, the contract was extended one more year, through the 2014-15 season. He revealed the tidbit about rejecting the initial offer from then-athletics director Damon Evans as this year’s team is midway through a bitterly disappointing fourth season at the helm. And to Fox’s detractors, four years is plenty of time to make an evaluation.

But Fox doesn’t look at it that way.

By his line of thinking, Fox and his staff turned a moribund program (12-20 the season before he arrived) into an NCAA tournament team in the second year. But then his two best players, juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie, left for the NBA.

Two years later, the Bulldogs (7-10 entering Wednesday night’s game against Florida) are still feeling the effects.

“It’s almost like we have to rebuild it again,” said Fox, pointing out that Georgia has had just five players in program history leave early for the pros, and two of them were Thompkins and Leslie. “And that certainly set us back a little bit, and we’re having to come back. That’s made it a little more challenging. But it is what it is. We’ve gotta put together a team that can win some games.”

Fox has a 57-56 overall record in three-plus season at Georgia. Fox’s career record is 180-99, including four NCAA tournament trips -- three in five years at Nevada.

One of Fox’s biggest supporters is the coach he will square off with Wednesday night: Florida head coach Billy Donovan.

“They’ve got incredible leadership and direction with Mark there,” said Donovan, who worked with current Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity when the latter was at Florida. “There’s always going to be peaks and valleys, ups and downs. They’re playing some new faces; there’s some parts to their team that are young. But overall Mark Fox is a terrific coach, a terrific person, and regardless of their struggles, I’m not in their program to know all the ins and outs as much as Mark does -- but watching them on film, competing against their teams, they’re as well-coached and as well-prepared as any team we’ll play against.”

McGarity expressed a long-term view less than two years ago when he gave Fox the new contract, which also included a raise. At the time, McGarity cited his experience at Florida, where Donovan built the program into a national power.

“You make small steps,” McGarity said in the summer of 2011. “I think Mark knows it’s a long journey, and we hope he’s our coach for a long, long time.”

This year, Georgia is playing a very young team. The only upperclassmen receiving significant playing time are senior center John Florveus, senior guard Vincent Williams and junior forward Donte’ Williams.

So if the team’s top player, sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, returns next season, Georgia will have the core of its team back.

Of course, the current core is struggling. But with time, Fox thinks he can get the Bulldogs back to where he had them two seasons ago.

“Oh, I don’t worry about the outside (opinion). I’ve gotta do what’s best for this team and this program in the long haul,” Fox said. “And that’s all I’ll ever do. I’ll worry about the student-athlete and do what’s best for our team. I don’t pay attention to anyone on the outside. ... Everyone has all the answers and no solutions. And you can’t please everybody. I’m gonna do what’s right.

“We got it squared away once. We can do it again.”

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