On the Mark: Richt, Fox enjoying time together this spring

ATHENS — Mark Richt admits he’s a bit jealous.

Around campus, there’s no doubt which coach is king at Georgia. As new men’s basketball coach Mark Fox joked, there’s only one Mark in town, and it isn’t him. But as the two have gotten to know each other during the past two months, Richt has found plenty to like — and even envy — about his lesser-known colleague.

For one, Fox is a savant when it comes to putting names with faces. He only arrived in Athens in April, and he has already run circles around Richt when it comes to remembering the names of people around campus.

“He’s calling out names, and I’ve been here eight years and I’m trying to remember who’s who,” Richt said.

Then there’s Fox’s metabolism. All good road trips include a healthy dose of junk food, but as the two coaches have made the rounds at Bulldog Club meetings throughout the state, Richt has been amazed at Fox’s ability to consume cupcakes and Twinkies without concern for dietary restrictions.

“He lives vicariously through me because he buys all the junk food and knows I’m going to eat it,” Fox said.

More than anything, however, Richt simply has been impressed by the passion Fox has for his work. Fox hardly enjoys the same celebrity of his football counterpart, but when it comes to winning, both coaches have a similar outlook.

“It’s a tough business, and I think that Coach Richt, he’s a good man, he’s done a great job on the field, a great job off the field, and I just look forward to working with him,” Fox said.

The first order of business for both coaches this spring has been politicking with fans.

For the past month-and-a-half, Richt and Fox have traveled around the state to Bulldog Club meetings, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with thousands of fans — most of whom greet Fox with polite hellos and greet Richt as if they’d stumbled upon Elvis Presley, alive and well and sporting a Georgia polo shirt.

For Fox, it has been an instant introduction into the world of the Georgia athletics, where football is king, and everyone else is more of an opening act. But he’s not complaining. In fact, he has embraced the role.

It’s a lesson Fox learned in his first coaching job. He was an assistant at Washington in 1991, and the Huskies’ football team was zeroing in on a national championship and a perfect 12-0 season. Don James was the team’s coach at the time, and his office was just a few doors down from Fox’s. The two quickly became friends, and while they coached different sports, Fox found there was a lot he could learn from James.

“His office was probably 20 steps from mine,” Fox said. “We had a great relationship. I learned a great deal from him, and I’ve always felt like coaches from any sport can help each other.”

So when Fox arrived at Georgia, even before the news conference in which he was introduced as the Bulldogs’ coach, his first order of business was to meet Richt and his staff. Fox knew the football program’s tradition, and it’s one he hopes to emulate.

“We can’t model ourselves exactly after our football program because they have so much of a richer tradition than our basketball program has,” Fox said. “But there are certain things you can see in any successful program how they function, and there are some common threads.”

From the Bulldog Club meetings to last week’s SEC spring meetings in Florida, the two coaches have teamed up for numerous engagements, traversing the Southeast on an extended road trip that has provided the two coaches with plenty of opportunities to bond since that initial meeting.

“I’m glad we hit it the time we did,” Richt said. “We’ve just had a lot of time to sit down and be together. We’ve just hit it off real good.”

Georgia’s football team is coming off a 10-win season and a bowl victory. The basketball team finished with the worst record in the SEC East. The two coaches have vastly different jobs and expectations for their coming seasons, but they’ve still found plenty to talk about.

Richt and his staff have shared insight about high school coaches in the area to give Fox a leg up in recruiting.

Having come from Nevada, Fox wasn’t quite sure what to expect from fans in Georgia. The basketball program was so bad last year that he knew the sales pitch aimed at convincing reluctant fans to give the team another chance would be a tough one. Richt offered support and advice on how best to approach the hordes of fans who remained skeptical about the program’s future.

Life in Athens hasn’t exactly been easy for Fox so far. His wife and children are still in Nevada, finishing out the school year. They have visited just once since Fox was hired. The rest of the time, the new coach has been busy with the job of completely revamping the program. Richt has been able to commiserate.

Of course, it’s not all business.

On the trip to Destin, Fla., Richt spent time diagramming plays he used to run while an assistant at Florida State, recounting tales of the old days for Fox. In the lobby of the hotel where the conference’s meetings were taking place, the two shared a few laughs while perusing the comics in the newspaper. Both coaches can appreciate the importance of finding an escape from the daily stresses of life in the SEC.

“All coaches share a lot of things in common that you can’t with other people,” Fox said. “I think you enjoy conversing about those things, but we also can laugh about simple things.”

While the past two months have served as an excellent bonding experience for Georgia’s two most prominent staff members, there are still boundaries. While Fox’s first job taught him the value of insight from fellow coaches, Richt’s early career helped him understand where the role of advisor needs to end.

When Richt was hired in 2001, the long shadow of legendary head coach Vince Dooley still hung over the program. Dooley’s legacy as a national championship winner was the standard by which Richt would be judged, but the former coach was also the man doing the judging. Dooley was the school’s athletics director, and there were plenty of occasions in which the new football coach wanted some words of wisdom from the old one. Dooley always tried to help but was purposeful in keeping his distance.

“I might have a question or whatever, and (Dooley) would say, ‘Well, back in the day, I did this, but you’re the head coach. You decide. It’s your job,’ ” Richt said.

That’s the same approach Richt has tried to take during his time with Fox.

“I’m not giving any advice.” Richt said. “He’s the guy, and he’s got to put his print on the program.”

That doesn’t mean that Richt doesn’t want to see the basketball program succeed. He may be the big man on campus, but he’s hardly concerned with hogging the spotlight.

Richt addressed the basketball team last season before a home game against Florida. The Bulldogs were mired in an 11-game losing streak, one of the longest in school history.

With Richt’s words in mind, the team took the court and played some of its most inspired basketball of the season, defeating the Gators by two points for its first SEC win of the year. Richt doesn’t take much credit for the victory, he said, but he’s glad it meant something to the players.

With Fox in charge of the program now, things are a bit different. The slate has been wiped clean, and it’s now Fox’s job to convince his players that they can succeed.

But the path to a championship is a long and arduous one — something Richt knows well. So while he’s not sure how much inspiration he can provide the basketball team along the way, he has relished the chance to offer a few words of encouragement to Fox for the past few weeks.

After all, that’s what friends are for.

“I think our football program has as much pride in our university as anybody,” Fox said. “They’re not just worried about football. They’re concerned about everybody.”

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