ATHENS – Three years ago, the previous time Mark Fox got a contract extension, it was all sunshine and roses. The Georgia men’s basketball team was coming off an NCAA bid and Fox had just signed a McDonalds All-American. He was the hottest coach on campus.
“We hope Mark Fox is our coach for a long time,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said at the time.
Three years later McGarity was much more restrained as he gave Fox another contract extension. Oh, McGarity still sounded an optimistic note – but a very cautious brand of it.
Picking his words carefully, McGarity made clear that he wants to see continued improvement. No more 1-4 starts. No more home losses to Youngstown State. No more waiting till January to get going. And maybe lure in a few more big-time recruits.
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“(This) kind of puts to rest any questions when of when you’re talking to a high school prospect of, ‘Well, how long are you going to be around?” McGarity said. “So I think this kind of takes that off the table.”
A little more muted than: "I hope he's our coach for a long time."
McGarity obviously wasn’t going to divulge his private dealings with Fox, but the guess here is it went something like this last week:
McGarity: I like you, Mark. You do things the right way, and this past season was great, considering everything. So I’m giving you the extension to show that faith and help you recruit. But you’ve also gotta keep winning, and probably win more. I believe in you. But you gotta help me out here.
Fox: Got it.
That doesn’t mean it’s NCAA-or-else next season for the coach. McGarity has made clear several times that he won’t box himself into that kind of ultimatum.
“There are a lot of things that come into play,” McGarity said Wednesday to the media. “So you never go to a coach and say, this has to happen or else you’re gone. You can’t have that conversation.”
By quickly announcing the new deal, McGarity also didn’t hang his coach out to dry. Yes, perhaps he could have signaled during the season, when it was fairly obvious, that Fox would get at least a sixth year. McGarity’s explanation is he didn’t want to “mess things up” by interjecting himself. But when the season ended, it only took 11 days to make the contract extension official, and McGarity said he released the news before other details were finalized in order to help Fox on the recruiting trail.
Those accusing Georgia of settling for mediocrity by extending Fox are missing the point. The coach didn’t earn the extension because of merely reaching the NIT. There was real progress this year, and evidence that the program is truly on the upswing. That’s why Fox got extended.
Next year’s team returns guards Kenny Gaines and Charles Mann, who will be juniors and all-SEC candidates. Forward Marcus Thornton, who will be a fifth-year senior, finally showed what he can do if his knees are healthy. Brandon Morris, Nemanja Djurisic, J.J. Frazier and Juwan Parker showed they could be key pieces on a good team.
Yes, they still need a quality big man. Yes, the recruiting could improve. McGarity alluded to "misses" on the recruiting front while also pointing out it wasn't for a lack of trying by Fox and his staff.
“We need to recruit at a very high level, because you have to continually kind of restock every year,” McGarity said. “That’s a very important point, and we did talk about that as well as other things. But needless to say sometimes that is the elephant in the room. We realize what needs to be done.”
Five years ago when Georgia hired Fox as its basketball coach, it seemed an odd fit. A native of Kansas, who played at a small school in New Mexico, and was the coach at Nevada. Amount of experience in the SEC: Zero.
But in the past five years Fox has always seemed at home. He became close friends with Mark Richt, and has always understood basketball’s place at Georgia. He dressed up as a spike squad member for a football game. He has golfed with Samuel L. Jackson. He’s good with the media. He has been a willing and respected ambassador for the school and his program.
He has also run what is by all accounts a clean and stable program: No academic or behavior dismissals. No revolving door of transfers, unlike most other SEC programs. The graduation rate is improving. There have been no major arrests or rules violations.
In short, Fox has done everything he can to rightly earn a little extra rope, and he’s won just enough at Georgia, a program without much tradition or fan support.
“This was a really good year,” McGarity said. “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.”
McGarity: You’re on the right track, Mark. Now keep it going.