Full disclosure: Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports knows his stuff. (Fuller disclosure: He’s the reason I’m in the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, an utterly unexpected honor that remains a source of continuing astonishment to yours truly.) Mr. Forde reports that Georgia is “exploring options to replace Mark Fox,” which I understand and with which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
But then we come to the heart of the matter. Writes Mr. Forde: “Among those considered likely to be on the school’s radar in event of an opening are North Carolina-Wilmington’s Kevin Keatts, East Tennessee State’s Steve Forbes, Chattanooga’s Matt McCall and Winthrop’s Pat Kelsey.”
None of those men are bad coaches. They’ve all done good work. But they’ve done it at mid-majors that aren’t exactly Wichita State or Butler. There’s no guarantee — with coaching changes, there never is — that they’d be any better than Fox has been, which is to say: Not nearly bad but not yet good enough.
That “yet” is powerful. This is Fox’s eighth season. Basketball being a sport where one player can change a program, eight years is a massive sample size. Fox’s Hounds have yet to win an NCAA tournament game; they’ve reached the Big Dance but twice. (They remain a long shot to make it this March.) He has been a bit unlucky — his best player got hurt not two minutes into the season’s biggest game, and Georgia nearly beat Kentucky anyway — but still: Eight years!
Were Georgia to fire Fox, I’d mount no impassioned defense — because there isn’t one. I would, however, ask this question: Is the next guy apt to make Georgia better? And if the candidates are Keatts, Forbes, McCall and Kelsey, I’m not sure the answer is “yes.”
Say this for Fox: He has hung around. (A cynic might say that, after North Carolina State came sniffing in 2011, he hasn’t done enough to catch another school’s eye.) If Yante Maten returns and is healthy, there’s a chance next season could be quite good. (But weren’t we saying that about this season?) As mentioned, Fox is an odd case — he’s a demonstrably clever coach who, for whatever reason, has demonstrably produced tepid results.
You’ll recall that Greg McGarity fired Mark Richt, a winner of two SEC championships, because the athletic director had lost faith that Richt would again deliver any trophies that matter. McGarity claims to hew to the standards of his mentor Jeremy Foley: He wants all his coaches to play for championships. Fox is in Year 8. That watch has been ticking so long that it needs fresh batteries.
But then we ask: Does Georgia care enough about hoops to support a championship program? It has spruced up Stegeman Coliseum about as much as the Stegasaurus can be spruced, but — apart from those times when Kentucky rolls into Athens — the place remains unfilled. Some of this has to do with the passable-but-not-surpassing teams Fox has assembled; more has to do with a chilling bit of reality: UGA fans take pride (yes, pride) in disliking the roundball sport.
I’m not sure a new coach will change that. I don’t think Fox is by any means irreplaceable. In a weird way, I think he’s the coach Georgia basketball probably deserves. I don’t have the feeling about him that I had, say, after watching Brian Gregory for four seasons at Georgia Tech — that nothing of note was going to happen on his watch. Neither, however, do I believe that 2018 seems a lead-pipe breakthrough.
If McGarity fires Fox, I’ll understand. If he keeps him, I’ll understand that, too. I think Fox should have done better by now. I also think the next guy might not do as well. For the umpteenth time: This is a weird case.
Update: McGarity has released a statement. It reads: “In response to the report by Yahoo Sports, we are NOT in the process of exploring our options to replace Mark Fox. We look forward to Mark leading our program next year and all of our efforts are centered on postseason play. It’s unfortunate we need to respond at this time, but it was necessary to quiet these unfounded rumors.”
I’m not sure that completely closes the door — “looking forward” to someone “leading the program next year” isn’t quite the same as saying, “He’s absolutely coming back.” But it’s close. And here we ask: If this was indeed a vote of confidence, what has McGarity seen of Fox (whom he inherited from Damon Evans) that makes him believe he’s worth a ninth season?
I apologize. I try very hard not to argue both sides of an issue. But this, I re-reiterate, is a tough one. There aren’t many Power 5 programs that would see a coach of such middling returns as an absolute keeper. Georgia might well be the only one.