Whirlwind opportunity: New UGA head coach hits ground running

ATHENS — Aside from the accent and minimal knowledge of his roster, Mark Fox looked every bit the part of the new Georgia head basketball coach Friday. He wore a gray suit with a red-and-black tie and a Bulldogs pin on his lapel. He spoke with excitement about the future and was candid about the present.

Although he had met athletics director Damon Evans just a day earlier for the first time, he had been preparing for his new job much longer than that.

“I can remember a conversation with a search firm a few years ago and I declined a chance to pursue a job,” Fox said. “The gentleman asked why, and I said, ‘It’s not like it’s Georgia.’ ”

Fox was introduced as Georgia’s new head basketball coach Friday after a search that lasted more than two months. In the end, however, the process of bringing the former Nevada head coach to Athens took little more than a few hours, and Fox said he couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity.

“I have really in the last two days not slept much because of my excitement,” he said.

In truth, Fox hasn’t had much time to sleep.

He flew to Atlanta from Reno, Nev., on Wednesday evening, arrived in Atlanta Thursday morning and met with Evans to interview for the job just a few hours later. After the interview, he returned to the airport to catch a flight back to Nevada, but he received a call from Evans with a job offer just an hour before boarding the plane. By Thursday night he had accepted an offer, agreeing to a six-year deal worth $1.3 million annually.

Evans said the official contract has not been signed, but the two have a memorandum of understanding.

After Georgia fired Dennis Felton in January, the school embarked on an extensive search process in which several big-name candidates rumored for the job. Evans said he had serious conversations with seven candidates, but in the end, Evans said it was obvious that Fox was the right man for the job.

“We made a commitment that we were going to go through this and not rush to judgment on any particular candidate until we went through the entire process,” Evans said. “Once we finished that process, Mark just stuck in my mind, and sometimes you just go with that gut feeling.”

Fox comes to Georgia following a five-year tenure as head coach at Nevada, where he accumulated a record of 123-43 with three NCAA tournament appearances.

Fox has also sent five players from the mid-major program on to the NBA, a selling point he said should help in securing more talent from the state’s fertile recruiting base.

The job won’t be simple, however. Fox inherits a team that finished last in the SEC East in 2008-09 and will enter next season with just one senior on his roster. Two other players have already announced their intention to transfer since the season ended, and Fox knows he’ll have a late start on landing any recruits for next season.

“Winning is a process,” Fox said. “I want to be able to coach and compete at the highest level, but we’re going to have to go through a process to get there.”

The process begins immediately, Fox said. He met with his players at 6:30 Friday morning and he said he planned to begin evaluating his roster Friday afternoon. The quick plunge into the task at hand fits his personality, he said.

Fox’s wife, Cindy, and his two young children were on hand for his introduction Friday, but the coach admitted he missed seeing his daughter’s birth because of a recruiting visit. It’s not something he’s proud of, he said, but it’s indicative of his passion for his work.

“There’s really only two things I spend time on, and that’s my team and my family,” Fox said.

Prior to coaching at Nevada, Fox was an assistant at Washington and Kansas State, and while he has landed several recruits over the years from the southern region of the country, he said he intends to hire at least one assistant with a better first-hand understanding of the local talent base.

Fox said he won’t rush to assemble his staff, but he did announce he would be bringing assistant coach Kwanza Johnson with him from Nevada. Johnson played under former Georgia head basketball coach Tubby Smith at Tulsa during his playing career.

While Fox said he plans to hit the recruiting trail quickly, he has also put some limitations on the type of players he wants to bring to Georgia. He said he would not attempt to bring any players currently committed to Nevada, and he was adamant that he wouldn’t sacrifice potentially valuable scholarships next year to fill out the roster immediately.

“We have to get kids and watch some tape and see what they’re capable of,” Fox said. “We may not be able to play exactly like we want to play until we get the roster we need. Certainly I think we do have some issues we’re going to need to address.”

Success may not be just around the corner for Georgia, but Evans said he would not have hired Fox unless he was confident that the long-term prognosis for the program was bright under Fox’s leadership.

“We’re about transforming and building Georgia basketball into a national power,” Evans said, “and Mark Fox is the right man for this incredible opportunity.”

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