Fifth-year payoff goal for Fox, Georgia basketball

semerson@macon.comMarch 18, 2013 

ATHENS -- Kevin Stallings isn’t the biggest name in college basketball coaching. He has never won a national championship. He has never even been to a Final Four.

But Stallings is extremely respected around the coaching fraternity for the simple fact he has done very well at Vanderbilt. And for the purposes of the Georgia men’s basketball program, Stallings is the model for what the Bulldogs hope will happen with Mark Fox.

Through four seasons, Fox has led the Bulldogs to just one winning season. They made the NCAA tournament that year, but they didn’t win a game.

The patience level of fans being what it is these days, the grumbling has begun, centering around the idea that four years is enough time to make a judgment.

For Vanderbilt’s sake, it’s a good thing that the school didn’t make the same judgment about Stallings.

During Stallings’ first four years at Vanderbilt, the Commodores never reached the NCAAs. They were only good enough to make the NIT twice.

He was hired in 2000 after guiding a mid-major (Illinois State) to multiple NCAA tournament bids -- just like Fox did at Nevada. In Stallings’ first year, Vanderbilt won 19 games, then the win totals were 15, 17 and 11. The Commodores’ SEC record was 21-41 during those four seasons, and, in Stallings’ fourth season, Vanderbilt bottomed out at 11-18 overall and 3-13 in the SEC, finishing last in the SEC East.

But Stallings didn’t get the hook. And the next year, the Commodores exploded with a 23-10 overall record and a Sweet 16 trip. That started a run where Vanderbilt was in the NCAAs six out of nine years. Starting with Year 5 of his tenure, Stallings guided Vanderbilt to seven 20-win seasons and at least 16 wins every season.

I’m guessing Georgia would take that for the next decade, even if it means a few NCAA tournament flameouts, as has occurred under Stallings.

“I told my wife this morning that we probably ought to do a study,” Stallings said last week before the SEC tournament. “We ought to figure out how many coaches have been in the same job for 14 or 15 years in the country that hasn’t been to a Final Four, which we have not been, obviously.”

Stallings’ record his first four seasons at Vanderbilt was 62-59 overall and 21-43 in the SEC.

Fox’s record his first four seasons at Georgia is 65-63 overall and 28-37 in the SEC.

Now, all this isn’t to say that Georgia is about to take off under Fox, although it could if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope returns for his junior season. But it does bear pointing out that Georgia is hardly setting precedent by showing patience.

Certainly, the counter argument to all this is that Georgia, a flagship public school rich in basketball prospects, should shoot higher than Vanderbilt. That’s a very fair and valid point. But it should also be noted that Georgia’s basketball history and Vanderbilt’s aren’t vastly different:

• Vanderbilt has won three SEC regular-season championships, while Georgia has won one (in 1990).

• Vanderbilt has made 12 NCAA tournament appearances, with a record of 10-14. Georgia has made 10 NCAA tournament appearances, with a record of 5-9.

• Vanderbilt and Georgia have each made the NIT on 11 occasions.

• Finally, Vanderbilt’s all-time win-loss percentage is .588, and it’s .525 in SEC games. Georgia’s all-time winning percentage is .518, and it’s .405 in SEC contests.

OK, so what about Florida, the hoops program that could also serve as a model for Georgia? Another state flagship that wasn’t great at basketball until the right coach, Billy Donovan, was hired, right?

Well, yes and no.

There’s a perception that Florida was a hoops wasteland before Donovan arrived. In fact, the Gators went to the Final Four just three years before his arrival, under Lon Kruger, and an SEC regular-season championship five years before that, under Norm Sloan. That was something to build on, and Donovan built on it.

But Fox didn’t inherit a winning program at Georgia. In fact, Georgia’s all-time winning percentage prior to Fox’s arrival was .516, and in SEC play it was .403. Fox’s winning percentage at Georgia is .512, and in SEC play it is .430.

For some time, the belief here has been that Year 5 is the critical one for Fox, and it could be shaping up that way. It was for Stallings and Vanderbilt, and it worked out well.

That’s the blueprint for Georgia and Fox. Now we’ll see how closely they can follow it.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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