Commentary

Fox begins to rebuild Bulldogs

Originally Published: May 22, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- During one of his first meetings with his players, new Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox was surprised by his surroundings in the team's locker room in Stegeman Coliseum.

[+] EnlargeMark Fox
Brett Davis/US PresswireMark Fox wants to turn Georgia into both a football and basketball school.

Photographs of Georgia's current players covered the walls. There were no photos of former Georgia All-American and NBA great Dominique Wilkins. Nor of current NBA players Damien Wilkins or Jarvis Hayes or of former pros Litterial Green or Shandon Anderson.

There wasn't even a photograph of Georgia's mascot, Uga.

"It's not about us," Fox told his new team. "It's about the school."

Fox might have to dig deep into Georgia's archives to find accomplishments worth commemorating.

Fox, who was hired April 3 to replace the fired Dennis Felton as Georgia's coach, inherits a program that has played in the NCAA tournament only once in the past seven seasons (and the one NCAA appearance came only after the Bulldogs won four games in three days to win an improbable SEC tournament title in 2008).

Felton was fired Jan. 29 after the Bulldogs started the 2008-09 season with a 9-11 record, and interim coach Pete Herrmann directed the team over the final 12 games. Georgia finished this past season with a 12-20 record, 3-13 against SEC foes.

If only rebuilding Georgia basketball was as simple as changing the locker room's decor, which Fox plans to do soon.

"A lot of things need attention," said Fox, who in the past five seasons led Nevada to four WAC regular-season championships and five postseason appearances, including three NCAA tournaments. "You can't get to it all in one day. But it's a great opportunity."

Fox, 40, has had plenty of time to address Georgia's problems since taking the job. His wife, Cindy, and son, Parker, 8, and daughter, Olivia, 6, will remain in Reno, Nev., until the children finish school early next month. He has spent the past seven weeks living in a hotel on the Georgia campus.

"The hardest part has been being away from my family," Fox said. "I've seen my wife a few times because she's been here looking for a home, but I haven't seen my kids. I haven't seen my kids in 24 days and that's too long."

The past two months have allowed Fox to become immersed in Georgia basketball. He attended a half-dozen Bulldog booster club meetings with football coach Mark Richt, traveling to Georgia cities such as Albany, Augusta, Macon and Rome. Fox said he was surprised by the reception he received from fans.

"I was pleasantly surprised with the interest in basketball," Fox said. "People have been very supportive. We have a great football program and that's something we should be proud of. It should help us. Schools like Oklahoma, Texas and Florida have had great basketball and football programs, and there's no reason we shouldn't do the same."

But Fox knows it won't be easy turning the Bulldogs into winners. He inherits a roster short on depth and talent. Georgia loses starting forward Terrance Woodbury, who led the team with 14 points per game and made 47 3-pointers last season. Starting guard Corey Butler, a former walk-on, also will have to be replaced.

[+] EnlargeHoward Thompkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireFox's first score was keeping Trey Thompkins in the Georgia family.

One of Fox's first tasks was persuading highly regarded sophomore Trey Thompkins to stay at Georgia. Thompkins averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds as a freshman and then considered leaving after Felton was fired.

"Trey was frustrated with their season last year," Fox said. "He's won a lot of games at a lot of places. I met with him and his family and it wasn't a tough sell. I think with having Trey up front, we know we can throw the ball inside and he can finish plays. He doesn't have to be on the block to score. He can shoot 3-pointers. I think he's got a versatile enough game that he can score for us."

But only one other returning player, sophomore guard Dustin Ware, averaged more than seven points per game last season. Junior forwards Chris Barnes and Jeremy Price and senior center Albert Jackson -- who each averaged 5.1 points or fewer last season -- have underperformed expectations so far. Guard Travis Leslie averaged 6.3 points per game as a freshman, but missed the team's final five games because of academic concerns. He is expected to rejoin the team.

"If I had a concern, it would be if we can score enough points with this group," Fox said. "We need to be better offensively. We have to shoot free throws better than we did a year ago."

Two incoming freshmen, DeMario Mayfield of Carnesville, Ga., and Vincent Williams of Homestead, Fla., might provide some help in the backcourt. Earlier this week, Tennessee State guard Gerald Robinson Jr., who averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore, announced he's transferring to Georgia. Robinson will have to sit out the 2009-10 season under NCAA transfer rules and will have two seasons of eligibility left.

Shortly after taking the Georgia job, Fox released recruit Daniel Miller of Loganville, Ga., from his national letter of intent. Miller has since signed to play for rival Georgia Tech. Sophomore guards Zac Swansey and Troy Brewer also left the program, leaving Georgia with 11 scholarship players for this coming season.

Ware, from Powder Springs, Ga., said Fox has tried to instill a positive attitude in his team, despite its apparent shortcomings.

"He came in with a winning attitude," Ware said. "He's really talking about winning and making us better. He's doing everything it takes to make us better players and a better team."

To reverse the Bulldogs' fortunes on the court, though, Fox knows he'll have to do a better job of recruiting inside the talent-rich state of Georgia, which Felton largely failed to do during his six seasons at the school.

[+] EnlargeMark Fox
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliFox was a big-time winner at Nevada with 21 victories in each of his five seasons.

Fox was a somewhat surprising choice to replace Felton because he'd spent his entire coaching career working at schools outside the South, having worked as an assistant at Washington, Kansas State and Nevada before succeeding Trent Johnson as the Wolf Pack's coach in 2004.

Georgia initially targeted Missouri's Mike Anderson as its new coach, but he signed a contract extension to stay with the Tigers. Georgia athletic director Damon Evans didn't wait long to offer the job to Fox, whose teams won at least 21 games in each of his five seasons at Nevada.

"This wasn't about winning the press conference," Evans said when Fox was introduced as Georgia's new coach. "This is about finding the right person for the University of Georgia. Too many times in this business, people make decisions based on what they might think will win a press conference or what they think is a popular decision. Mark Fox is our coach. Mark Fox is the guy I want heading up the program or he wouldn't be here right now. I feel very, very fortunate to have him as a basketball coach."

Fox has surrounded himself with assistant coaches who are familiar with recruiting the South. At Nevada, Fox recruited players from Chicago, North Carolina and South Carolina. But the Wolf Pack's roster largely consisted of players from the West Coast. Kwanza Johnson, who worked on Fox's staff for three seasons at Nevada, followed him to Georgia. Fox also hired former Alabama interim coach Philip Pearson and Virginia Tech assistant Stacey Palmore, who both recruited Georgia prospects at their former schools.

"I'm reminded everywhere I go that people want us to do a better job in Atlanta," Fox said. "Even before we came, it was something they wanted to address. Coming from a different part of the country, I wanted to hire some guys that would give us immediate connections in this part of the country. For us to build a program that will play at the highest level and can sustain that level, we're going to have to build and maintain relationships in Atlanta. But we're not just going to limit ourselves to that area. If Georgia had done that, then Dominique Wilkins doesn't play at Georgia and Litterial Green doesn't play at Georgia."

Sometime in the near future, former Georgia players such as Wilkins will be re-introduced to the Bulldogs' current players.

"He really wants to start building a sense of pride and prestige with the program," Ware said. "Georgia is a great place for sports. Obviously, the fans come out and support our football team. Even during our struggles last year, our fans came out to support us. We want to turn it around not only for us, but also for our fans, too."

Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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