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Fox has found success with Carolina

11/19/2003 - Carolina Panthers

Since he is one of just five current Carolina Panthers veterans who have played for all three head coaches in the brief history of the franchise, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad has a pretty solid base for comparing and contrasting the style of John Fox to the two men who preceded him in the job, Dom Capers and George Seifert.

The assessment from Muhammad, an eight-year veteran, and a second-round choice in the '96 draft: The same in some aspects but different in, oh, so many ways.

"Most coaches have a lot of similarities, and that's just the nature of the beast, because there are some things almost everyone does the same," Muhammad said. "But (Fox) has this way of kind of cutting to the chase, you know? He's a pretty straightforward guy. There isn't a lot of tap-dancing around stuff. He breaks things down to about the simplest point you can get to, you know, and there isn't any confusion over what he wants done."

In that regard, Fox, arguably the most anonymous of any of the head coaches in the NFL who presently have their teams in first place or tied for a division lead, clearly diverges from the methods of previous Panthers sideline bosses.

Every head coach by definition must be detail oriented, but Capers was fastidious to a fault, a man obsessed with documenting nearly every breath he took and with recording all manner of minutiae in the leather diary he annually authored. Seifert fancied himself as erudite, a Renaissance Head Coach with the million-dollar vocabulary and two million-dollar paycheck, a guy who loved vacationing on his yacht and sampling fine wines.

Fox, 48, is more apt to celebrate a victory with a Michelob than a vintage Merlot and perhaps the lone contrivance surrounding him is how a coach so uncommonly astute can still manage to remain so, well, uncommonly common.

There is nothing common, of course, about the makeover he has enacted in Carolina, a franchise that went to the NFC championship game in only its second season of existence, and then went into the tank. Counting the playoffs, the Panthers won 21 games in their first two seasons, and then just 27 in the ensuing five years.

In 2001, the year before Fox arrived, Carolina won its season opener and then dropped the next 15 outings. The team is 15-11 under Fox, who clearly has resuscitated a franchise about to go comatose, and no franchise has a better record this year. Yet when Carolina travels to Texas Stadium on Sunday afternoon, for a key conference battle with the Dallas Cowboys, The Tuna will still be more heralded than The Fox.

Said strong safety Mike Minter, another of the Panthers veterans who has performed for all three Carolina head coaches: "Believe me, that kind of stuff doesn't mean very much to him, because he worries more about wins than who gets the credit for them."

Methodical in his approach to the game, particularly keen in his insights on the defensive side of the football, Fox nonetheless possesses little of the CEO veneer that defines some of his peers around the league. Since his ascent to the first head coaching job of his career at any level was anything but meteoric -- his early résumé is akin to reading travel stickers from the sample bag of a traveling salesman, with nine different stops in nine seasons, at one point -- Fox wasn't exactly reared on the star system.

Even during a successful stint as defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, a team that he helped direct to the Super Bowl in 2000, Fox wasn't much for the spotlight. New York general manager Ernie Accorsi opined that, of all the assistants with whom he has worked during his long career in the league, Fox was one of the very few he felt confident could cut it as a head coach.

That opinion wasn't exactly widespread through the league and it wasn't until following the Super Bowl appearance with the Giants that Fox began to command solid interest from owners seeking to make a coaching change. The five years Fox spent in New York helped to rehabilitate him from the one setback he had suffered in his career, when he left this post as Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator just before the start of the '96 season, under what remain mysterious circumstances.

Fox has declined to discuss the Raiders situation, which forced him to take a step-down job as a consultant with the St. Louis Rams, and Oakland officials likewise have circled the wagons on the matter. The Carolina ownership, however, and general manager Marty Hurney carefully investigated the events surrounding Fox's departure from Oakland, and obviously found them not critical enough to drop him as a head coach candidate.

"We couldn't find a reason," said one team official, "not to hire him."

That is not to say Fox was the first name on the Carolina wish list after the dismissal of Seifert following the 2001 season. The team considered Steve Spurrier, spoke with Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis, then eventually turned to Fox, with whom Hurney had a prior relationship. Nearly two seasons later the choice of Fox appears a masterstroke.

"John has a passion for the game, a high energy, and we needed that," said owner Jerry Richardson at a recent league meeting. "He's definitely brought back the excitement that our franchise and our city had lost."

There is some of the inherent slyness one might assume exists with a man of his surname but, for the most part, what you get from Fox is pretty much what you see in him at first blush. During a recent stretch in which centerpiece tailback Stephen Davis was nursing a sprained ankle, Fox coyly declined to identify the affected joint, and he only grudgingly allowed that ankles were a part of his star runner's anatomy.

In most instances, though, Fox is neither crafty nor cryptic. Fox doesn't wear the often treacherous label of "players' coach," and everyone in the Carolina locker room knows who is in charge. But he still has a way of relating that players appreciate.

"He's the boss but he can get down to your level and communicate things," said former NFL defensive end Burt Grossman, who played for Fox when the latter was a defensive coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is no (bull chips) with 'Foxy.' He's been around long enough, and been in enough situations, that he knows that won't work."

The lessons Fox assimilated in venues as disparate as Boise and Los Angeles certainly did not include any chapters about shortcuts. Then again, Fox acknowledged, a far-flung past that included 13 seasons in the NFL before he got his first head coaching gig, taught him not only humility but also inured him with the people skills he considers so critical.

"I don't care where you're coaching," explained Fox, for the second consecutive season a viable candidate for coach of the year honors, "you better be able to reach people. In any locker room, you're going to have a (diverse) group, guys from different backgrounds. If you don't find a way to reach all of them, or nearly all of them, and get them to buy into your way of doing things, your chances for success aren't very good. You've got to be able to connect with guys. It's like being a teacher. You can't make the lessons so tough that they go over everybody's head."

Hurney has taken note of Fox's penchant for teaching, for hands-on instruction when it is mandated on the practice field, and marveled at the quick results. "He would teach a rock if you let him," Hurney said. "That's just him. He's not a complicated guy in that regard."

Indeed, there is very little pretense, even less confusion, with Fox. While many of his players can't quite verbalize how it is that he can simplify the most obtuse matters, all agree that a large part of the Panthers' success is their coach's direct approach.

It's been noted before by ESPN.com that, the fewer moving parts to any machine, the less the chance for failure. Certainly the Panthers have stunned pundits by embracing a style that, on face value, appears relatively rudimentary. Carolina runs the ball well, stops the run, doesn't turn the ball over very much, is resourceful on defense. A modestly talented roster, one rebuilt with youngsters by Fox and Hurney, plays a lot of close games because that is the byproduct of the coaching design.

Fox is a disciple of the coaching axiom that, if you don't beat yourself, it will be difficult for opponents to beat you, as well.

Amid all the talk of simplicity, all the rhetoric about rudiments, Fox sometimes doesn't get credit for the sophistication of his scheming and designing. Part of the problem is that Fox resembles an Everyman. Much of it comes from the fact he looks, coming off of the field, like a guy who just played in the game.

He will scream himself hoarse during a contest, defensive end Mike Rucker allowed after a recent victory over the Tampa Bay Bucs, but he will never lose control.

"The thing is," said offensive guard Kevin Donnalley, "that you know the wheels are turning in his head. But he is in control enough that you also know the wheels won't ever come off."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Len a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.