ATHENS - Mark Fox began this past season on the hot seat. He enters next season with a two-year contract extension, but also renewed high expectations from his boss.
Georgia has given Fox, its head men's basketball coach since 2009, two more years on his contract, so he is now signed through the 2017-18 season. No financial details will be announced for awhile, but athletics director Greg McGarity said he and Fox had agreed to terms.
McGarity cited improvement the team made this past season: The Bulldogs went 20-14 and made the NIT despite losing star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA after last season.
But McGarity also offered an implicit demand to continue getting better. The Bulldogs return all but one starter, and McGarity said expectations for next season will be "very high."
"We competed at a high level this year. Not as high as we wanted to, but still, the record shows the performance of the team this year," McGarity said. "Now we just need to start stacking success upon success. I’m sure we’ll be picked high."
McGarity did not say the Bulldogs needed to make the NCAA tournament next year. But given what Fox has coming back, that's clearly the hope.
“I think if you ask anybody that follows our program, if you ask our team, our coaches, absolutely that’s our ultimate goal, is to get in the show. And I mean if that wasn’t our objective then why are we even playing the game?" McGarity said. "Is that the final determining factor? There are a lot of things that come into play. So you never go to a coach and say, this has to happen or else you’re gone. You can’t have that conversation. There are so many factors that go into certain decisions, and I think it pretty much handcuffs a coach too. It’s just so difficult to work in an environment if you put those type of demands before you even start the season.”
Fox's situation looked bleak early in the season, as the team started 1-4 and limped into SEC play with a 6-6 record. But a win at Missouri in the SEC opener jump-started the Bulldogs, who went on to finish 12-6 in conference play and tied for second. The only teams with equal or better SEC records, Florida and Kentucky, play in the Final Four this weekend.
Asked if there was a point this season when he decided Fox would definitely return, McGarity did not point to a specific time. He said he was like fans, going through "many highs and lows," like in every sport, and felt it best not to say anything until after the season.
“It's like football back in 2011 – we start off 0-2 and if you make your decision then you’re not taking the whole picture into account," McGarity said. "You want to see how the whole year fleshes out and you don’t make those kinds of decisions midway through the year, three-quarters of the way. You wait until the whole body of work is in place and you make decisions based on that.
"So there wasn’t a point in time until after the season until you review everything, you see who you’ve got coming back. You look at our scheduling, you look at all of those things and we feel like if we can continue to build on what we did this year and after that, build on that, I think that’s where we all want to be in this four-year period (that Fox has left on his contract now)."
Georgia is scheduled to host Colorado (an NCAA tournament team this year) and Seton Hall during nonconference play, and will play at Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs are also playing in the Preseason NIT.
The SEC schedule will feature Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas coming to Stegeman Coliseum, according to McGarity. (The schedule has not been released yet.)
Fox, who just completed his fifth season at Georgia, is 85-77, with two winning seasons. Next year's team is set to return every player except starting center Donte' Williams, and that appeared to figure into McGarity's decision as much as the five-year record.
“I think it was important for a number of reasons, because you’re on the recruiting trail and I think it was important for people to know this," McGarity said. "This was a really good year. We didn’t reach all the expectations that we wanted to from the NCAA standpoint but 20 wins, I think, sets the table for us next year and I think there’s a lot of momentum building toward that. We just thought it was the right thing to do at this point in time."
Georgia still has two scholarships available for this year's recruiting class. The team hosted center prospect Yante Maten over the weekend. Maten, a prospect from Detroit, also has offers from Indiana and Michigan State.
Recruiting has been the main criticism of Fox, both from media and fans. He signed Caldwell-Pope, who was a McDonalds All-American, but has seen other programs scoop up most high-profile in-state recruits.
“You’d have to ask Mark that question, but I’m sure there are some misses that disappoints him throughout," McGarity said. "You work so hard on certain individuals throughout the year and things don’t turn out your way, sure it gets frustrating. It’s not due to a lack of trying. I can assure you that.”
Fox earned $1.7 million this past season. The soon-to-be-former deal was signed after Fox's second season, the only one in which the coach has led the team to the NCAA tournament.
"From Day One, we have worked to establish basketball success within the SEC, academic success in the graduation of our players and developing a culture where we remain consistently successful,” Fox said in a statement. “As we move forward and continue to recruit and develop young men who can compete for championships, this is a great step to aid in the process. The next goal is to remain successful and to move that success to another level through scheduling, recruiting, the commitment of our young people and the help of our administration."