Mark Fox has had two winning seasons in the five years he has coached Georgia basketball. After each winning season, he has received a contract extension. The second came yesterday, adding two years to a contract that runs through 2018.
The extension itself wasn’t surprising. It’s the way colleges work. Brian Gregory has had one winning season at Georgia Tech and got a year’s extension afterward; his record over three years at Tech is 43-52. But two more years for Fox, whose record at Georgia is 85-77 and who has reached the NCAA tournament only in 2011, only fuels the disconnect with which I view this coach.
On the one hand, he’s demonstrably a deft tactician. Not many coaches could have lost the SEC’s player of the year and tied for second in the conference the next season. Then again, why was Georgia a sub-.500 team when it had the 2013 SEC player of the year? If Fox was smart enough to maximize the talents of Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines and Marcus Thornton, why did Kentavious Caldwell-Pope leave for the NBA lottery without playing on a winning team?
Also: Why does the flagship university in a state that produces so many basketball players always need to “overachieve”? Jordan McRae of Liberty County was Tennessee’s leading scorer. Langston Hall of Chamblee was Mercer’s leading scorer and the Atlantic Sun player of the year. Tekele Cotton, who was Gaines’ teammate at Whitefield Academy, started for the 34-1 Wichita State Shockers.
Virginia won the ACC and was a No. 1 NCAA seed while receiving key contributions from Malcolm Brogdon of Norcross and Greater Atlanta Christian and Evan Nolte of Milton. (FYI, Nolte’s brother Connor played at Georgia.) UCLA, which like Virginia reached the Sweet Sixteen, got key contributions from Jordan Adams of Central Gwinnett by way of Oak Hill and Tony Parker of Miller Grove. The Bulldogs tried their hardest to sign Parker, who required a year and a coaching change in Westwood to work into the Bruins’ rotation. But he chose UCLA even though Georgia needed him more.
It’s sometimes said that Fox doesn’t like to recruit from the AAU pool, but we note that Caldwell-Pope played AAU ball. So did Gaines, Mann and Thornton. Almost every player who signs with a team based in a major conference has AAU experience. (Many who sign with mid-majors do, too. Remember the supposedly starless Butler team that played for consecutive NCAA titles? Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack were AAU alums.)
The problem with Fox’s recruiting isn’t the AAU. It has to do with Fox himself. His efforts, for whatever reason, haven’t panned out. Put Nolte and Parker on the 2013-2014 Georgia Bulldogs and they’d have finished ahead of Kentucky in the SEC standings and made the NCAA field with room to spare, and here we note that neither Nolte nor Parker even started for their respective NCAA teams.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity conceded that recruiting was a factor in the extension. Said McGarity: “It 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?’ So I think this kind of takes that off the table.”
Also this: “We need to recruit at a very high level, because you have to continually kind of restock every year. That’s a very important point, and we did talk about it as well as other things. But needless to say sometimes that is the elephant in the room.”
There’s a reason Georgia went 0-4 and was beaten by an aggregate 78 points in games against the three SEC teams that made the NCAA tournament. (All three reached the Sweet Sixteen, and two are still going.) Those teams had superior manpower. John Wooden on his shrewdest day couldn’t have overridden the talent gap between Georgia and Tennessee, to say nothing of Georgia and Kentucky.
McGarity again: “We competed at a high level this year. Not as high as we wanted to, but still, the record shows the performance of the team this year. Now we just need to start stacking success upon success. I’m sure we’ll be picked high.”
And also this: “If you look at our goals as a department, that’s one of our goals – that every team competes in their national championship. Basketball should be treated just as other sports and as far as expectations.”
Sometimes, though, you wonder if the expectations for basketball aren’t more along the lines of, “Just don’t embarrass us.” Would Mark Richt have made it to Year 5 if he’d had three losing seasons in his first four? Fox just banked a second contract extension, which would suggest that Georgia is happy with him. And in some ways it should be: This season, at least the post-New Year’s part, was most heartening, and next season, for which four starters should return, figures to be even better.
But we ask again: One NCAA appearance, one NIT bid and two winning seasons in five years — is that success? And if it is, what will Georgia do if Fox’s Bulldogs actually win an NCAA game? Declare him coach for life?