A year ago, Mark Fox set out on a tour of Georgia fan club meetings and had to introduce himself to a number of the red-and-black clad fans in attendance. They were there to see his counterpart, Mark Richt. Fox was an unknown quantity taking over a struggling men’s basketball program. In fact, during Fox’s first few question-and-answer sessions with fans, he wasn’t posed a single question.
This year, things are a bit different. No, Georgia didn’t make a run to the NCAA tournament, and yes, the Bulldogs still finished last in the SEC East in Fox’s first year. But the play was crisper, the games closer and the fan response was overwhelmingly improved from the previous few seasons.
So when Fox stepped to the microphone at the Macon-area Bulldog Club meeting Wednesday, he no longer had to offer an introduction. He was still the opening act for the football coach, but this year, fans were plenty excited for the opening act.
“It’s been significantly different,” Fox said. “We feel a great deal of support for basketball now. We feel an energy behind our program, and the interest is back from our fans.
“So it’s been a little different Bulldog tour this year.”
In fact, Fox arrived Wednesday with a nice added bonus. His Bulldogs were ranked No. 25 in one ESPN preseason poll — a high honor for a program that finished well below .500 last season.
For Fox, however, it wasn’t about the final record last year. It was about the improvement the team made and, more importantly, the potential for the future.
I think we’ve made progress, we have some momentum, and I think we’ve matured a great deal,” Fox said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t still mature further, but we’ve made some progress. If you’d have walked in our locker room a year ago, I’m not sure what they expected. Now, I think they feel we’re going to have a good basketball team, and their work ethic shows it.”
Of course, Fox doesn’t want anyone resting on the mild success they’ve enjoyed so far.
When the spring semester ended last week, Fox said he made a point of letting his team know they were starting fresh for the summer. That started with a new policy preventing his players from using Twitter.
On Tuesday, Trey Thompkins, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, Tweeted to his followers, “Don’t expect anymore interesting tweets from me. ... Don’t ask why but there will be NONE ANYMORE!!!”
While the Tweet provided a healthy dose of mystery among fans who assumed some internal problems meant the plug had been pulled on players’ social networking, Fox insists it’s simply a matter of keeping his team’s focus where it belongs.
“I want our players to focus on our team, and I told them I don’t want to hear a bunch of Tweets,” Fox said, “It’s about going into the offseason and getting better.”
It might seem extreme — especially from Fox, who uses Twitter himself — but it’s all part of his plan for year two of a rebuilding project that is now less about recreating a foundation and more about adding the finishing touches.
“They don’t have to accept the term rebuilding anymore, but that doesn’t mean they’re rebuilt,” Fox said. “We have a positive culture in our locker room, and it’s healthy right now. It’s easier with that established for them to show up and do what we ask them to do.”
It’s easier for Fox to show up in front of the fans these days, too.
After his address to fans Wednesday, there was no awkward silence. The questions came quickly — about recruiting and reserve point guards and the upcoming schedule. They were questions that perfectly illustrated Georgia’s most important step forward. After just a year on the job, Fox had convinced fans to care.
But the job doesn’t get easier he said. That question about the schedule was a perfect reminder. While some scheduling issues are looking up — Fox expects to move the annual Georgia Tech game to November or December, when students are still in school — the reality is that the coach is finding it harder this time around to convince other teams to come to Athens. This year, Georgia won’t be sneaking up on anyone, and no one sees the Bulldogs as a pushover.
“I think we won some games last year, and I think we have the respect of some people,” Fox said. “So I don’t think we’re going to surprise anybody.”