Fox aims to build UGA into hoops power

John Curry/Staff Loran Smith, new mug shot 

John Curry/Staff Loran Smith, new mug shot 

It’s a fact no one can deny. The overwhelming negative about Georgia basketball over the years has been that whenever a step forward has occurred, two steps backward inevitably seem to follow.

The reasons are multiple — lack of funding, an indifferent fan base, lukewarm administrative support. All of these led to poor performances on the court, which resulted in most people coming to identify Georgia basketball with inconsistency and an inability to compete successfully. After Hugh Durham’s run, which included a trip to the Final Four, Tubby Smith and Jim Harrick had brief upswings, but there generally has not been much to stimulate consistent interest.

Georgia is a great place to prove you can coach so you can then jump to a program with more tradition. Much like it was with Tubby when he bolted after two seasons for Kentucky in 1997. Harrick had the Bulldogs at a critical turning point and lost out due to self-inflicted wounds.

This is not to belabor the failings of the past but to put in perspective the challenge that awaited Mark Fox when he took over as head coach of the Georgia program in 2009. Early on, Fox realized, he had access to talent. Durham was the first to recognize you could win in Athens if you recruited the best players in the state.

Before Damon Evans hired Fox, there were rumors that Bobby Knight, late of Texas Tech, was interested in the job. Those were not rumors. Knight would have come to Georgia for one big reason: he felt that recruiting the top players in the state would give him an opportunity to win another NCAA championship. Knight found that it was difficult to recruit the best players to Lubbock, which is isolated in West Texas.

Even now, friends say Knight would like to find a place where he could make another NCAA title run. Knight believed that, with the state’s available talent, Georgia is a place where you can compete annually for championships. Fox agrees. His goal is to get the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament every year, eventually elevating his program to the Final Four.

He knows fans won’t flock to Stegeman Coliseum in December when his team is playing Charleston Southern and High Point, but he also recognizes that the place will fill up for SEC games when the Bulldogs are competitive. In Harrick’s last home game in March 2003, a big game with Florida that really meant something, ticket scalpers were as visible and active as they would be for a football game against Tennessee or Auburn at Sanford Stadium.

Fox is preoccupied with a number of immediate priorities, principally coaching his team to make a run at the SEC title — but he has an agenda that relates to long-term success. He wants kids to grow up in this state and see a consistency of success. He expects to create a program where high school players see relevancy in the Bulldog program.

“That’s what we have in football,” Fox said recently. “Kids grow up in this state and know if they come to Athens to play football, they can be successful. We want that in basketball.”

What about Georgia’s image as a football school?

“I love it,” Fox smiled. “It helps us. I don’t subscribe to the theory that you can’t be successful in both. I like being in Sanford Stadium on game day.”

The assets, which motivate him, include: commitment from the administration, an upgrade in facilities (Stegeman Coliseum has never looked as classy with its recent expansion, and nobody has a more attractive and functional practice facility now than the Bulldogs), and a “great” place to live.

“One of the best parts of the transition has been Athens. My family loves it here,” Fox said.

When Fox was hired, I called Wimp Sanderson, former Alabama coach, and asked for an evaluation.

“He’s a fine coach,” Wimp said. “Nobody will outwork him.”

I know about that. I have been trying to get him and his family over for dinner for two years.

Our welcome wagon is beginning to rust.

Loran Smith is co-host of “The Tailgate Show” and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.