Fox erases off-court problems, brings team closer together

Before Georgia could thrive on the basketball court, the Bulldogs needed to learn how to function better off it.

Georgia’s Trey Thompkins (33), Gerald Robinson (22), Travis Leslie (1) and Jeremy Price will face Washington on Friday in the NCAA tournament.
David Manning

That message was delivered soon after new coach Mark Fox was hired in April 2009, taking over a team that had finished last in the SEC East five of the previous six years.

“He came in and emphasized winners win and losers have issues,” senior center Jeremy Price said Wednesday. “We want to be an issue-free team. That was about the first thing he said when he came in, and nobody understood what he meant by that until a couple days later. We bought into what he was saying.”

Georgia’s top two returning scorers, Takais Brown and Mike Mercer, were dismissed for disciplinary reasons before they could play in 2007. Before the 2008 season, Billy Humphrey, the leading returning scorer, was booted from the team after his third arrest in a year. Other players dealt with academic issues.

“When he first got here, we were a team full of problems,” junior forward Trey Thompkins said. “We had little things, as far as academics and taking care of things off the court. Coach Fox came in and helped us fix it.”

The payoff now in Fox’s second season is that the Bulldogs (21-11) received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002.

Georgia departed by bus Wednesday afternoon for Charlotte, N.C., where it plays Washington on Friday night.

“They trusted the process,” Fox said. “They have really bought into a way of functioning. (The NCAA tournament) was a reward for that.”

Fox took over a team that went 12-20 in 2008-09 after Georgia fired Dennis Felton midway through the season.

Out of 74 NCAA Division I teams that lost at least 20 games that season, Georgia is one of only three that have rebounded all the way to the NCAA tournament

The others are Indiana State, which went 11-21 two years ago and won the Missouri Valley tournament this year, and Bucknell, winners of the Patriot League tournament after going 7-23 two years ago. Both are No. 14 seeds this year.

Two teams that lost 20 games last year are in this year’s tournament – Penn State and Arkansas-Little Rock.

Fox has helped make Georgia “relevant again in March,” athletic director Greg McGarity said.

The Bulldogs got to the NCAA tournament in 2008 after an unexpected run to the SEC tournament title, but could not build on it the following season.

“Check our record, we’ve been fifth or sixth in the SEC East for the last seven years,” McGarity said. “I think if you had said coming in that you would be in the NCAA tournament Year 2, I think you’d probably cash that check right now, but I think that’s a stretch.”

After all, McGarity points out, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings – completing his 12th season with the Commodores – never finished above .500 in the SEC in his first four seasons.

Stallings got to the NCAA tournament in his fifth season in Nashville and has made four more trips.

“To do it right, it takes a long time to develop and patience is key because you don’t want to cut corners,” said McGarity, who became AD at Georgia in September after seeing basketball success at Florida when he was senior administrator there. “You want to build your program with a strong foundation, you want to recruit the state hard and I think those are the things Mark has done.”

To help build that foundation, Fox drove his point home to his players with what he called a “tour of the football stadium.”

“He made us run that stadium,” Thompkins said. “That was enough for all of us to wake up. At that point, everybody had little mishaps and it just led to be so much between 13 guys that he took us to the stadium and we ran all of our problems off.”

Said Fox: “I think that’s one of the big reasons they’ve earned their way into the tournament.”

McGarity said talks of a contract extension with Fox, whose current deal runs through 2015, won’t come until after the season.

“I’ll just say this: Mark and I we talk often and we talk about a lot of things,” McGarity said. “Without going into great detail, there’s certain things you need to do to be proactive and not reactive.”

Under Fox, the Bulldogs kept off-court distractions to a minimum and achieved the goal of reaching the tournament.

“Now, instead of selling a vision, we can sell the accomplishment,” Fox said. “It’s a real step forward for us and now we need to try and build on it.”

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