ATHENS -- It’s not normal for a parent of a student with “dorm issues” to call up the Georgia men’s basketball office for help. It’s also not normal for the parent to be a former head coach in the NBA Finals who is now a recognizable television analyst.
But there were Jeff Van Gundy and his daughter, Mathison, one day two summers ago. The dorm issue was fixed, so the two came by to say “thank you” and to introduce themselves. From there sprung a relationship: Mathison now works part-time in the Bulldogs’ team office, and Jeff Van Gundy and head coach Mark Fox have become good friends.
“He’s obviously a fantastic coach, but what sticks out for me is, if I had a son, he’s the exact type of guy that I would want my son to play for,” Van Gundy said.
Van Gundy has been around the team often during the past year and a half, watching practice, having film sessions with Fox, even giving players some pointers.
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Fox and Van Gundy also regularly text each other and talk on the phone. And when Van Gundy visited this past September, he watched the Georgia-South Carolina football game from Fox’s house.
“We both think about the game in the same way,” Fox said. “We have similar minds in that way, in that we’re both pretty simple: We coach, and we have our families. There’s not a whole lot of other things that we do.”
Van Gundy, 52, coached the New York Knicks from 1996-2001, reaching the NBA Finals in 1999, then coached the Houston Rockets from 2003-07. His career winning percentage was .575, reaching the playoffs nine times, including the conference finals twice.
The Van Gundy family still lives in Houston, which for some reason along with Dallas has become a hotbed for future Georgia students.
After being let go by Houston, he joined ESPN and quickly rose to become one of the top NBA game analysts for ESPN and ABC.
“It’s definitely a big deal,” Georgia senior forward Marcus Thornton said of having visits from Van Gundy, who will give bits of advice and coaching to players. “It’s definitely great having him as an outside resource.”
When Van Gundy came by to introduce himself in 2013, Fox happened to have a couple free hours, so he showed him around campus and Athens. They had lunch and talked some basketball, and from there the friendship grew.
“He has a great mix of both being demanding and compassionate with his players,” Van Gundy said of Fox. “I love how he pushes them, but there is no question that he cares about their total development. He’s just a man of integrity. So a man of integrity hires men of integrity. They just have great people in the program.”
Van Gundy opined that last season was among the best coaching jobs of Fox’s career. Georgia started out 6-6, hurt from the loss of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who now plays for the Detroit Pistons, coached by Van Gundy’s brother, Stan. But Fox coached the Bulldogs to a 20-win season and a second-place tie in the SEC with Kentucky.
“I think it says everything about their persistence last year,” Van Gundy said. “And that doesn’t happen if the leadership isn’t there.”
This season, Georgia opened with a loss at arch-rival Georgia Tech. Van Gundy was there to watch it, wearing a red Georgia sweatshirt. The day before, he was in Athens and took in a practice.
“It’s too early to evaluate,” he said when asked what he thought of the Bulldogs’ this season, but he thinks both they and the Yellow Jackets will be helped by playing each other “right off the bat.”
Earlier this fall, Stan Van Gundy invited a small group of coaches up to Detroit for an informal conference. The group included his brother, Fox and some other coaches, including Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Arizona’s Sean Miller.
“I was excited to be invited, quite frankly,” Fox said. “It was really just a think-tank session, and we just kind of brainstormed on where the game is going, and how to attack certain things, and how to stop certain things.”
The way Van Gundy talks, the rest of the room got more out of it than Georgia’s head coach.
“It was a great time for all of us to share, and certainly we all learned a lot from Mark,” Van Gundy said. “I couldn’t admire a coach more than I admire Mark. He’s everything you want in a leader of young people. I’m happy my daughter gets to work for him in his office. And I know the parents of those players are happy that they have a man of such integrity leading their own sons.”