No surprise… not now at least. Not months into this season. Perhaps not eight years into this journey that is the Mark Fox era in Athens.
To recap: The Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in the SEC, but five other teams from the conference are going dancing instead of UGA. Georgia was one of only two teams in the league (Kentucky being the other) with multiple All-SEC first team selections, and still missed out on the NCAAs.
Those things combined and the fact that the program is missing the tournament for the sixth time in eight years seemed to be enough to shuffle the coaching deck at UGA, or at least think about it. Pat Forde reported a few days before the SEC Tournament that “Georgia is exploring its options to replace Mark Fox, according to sources.”
12 hours after the report was published UGA released a statement refuting Forde’s report - “we are NOT in the process of exploring our options to replace Mark Fox. We look forward to Mark leading our program next year,” UGA AD Greg McGarity said in a statement.
The move cements that McGarity, without question, hasn't just inherited Fox, but embraced him as the future of the program. Its a curious move to shut down any notion that Fox would be replaced considering this season's failure. McGarity’s swift backing of Fox certainly throws water on a vision of basketball mattering more at UGA in the near future.
Perhaps apathy is setting in.
Its also a very different reaction for a disappointing season than was used at the end of 2015.
The way Mark Richt was canned that winter after pretty much delivering consistency, but no championships at the end of his 15-year career in Athens made you believe that Fox would suffer the same fate.
If someone told you in 2012 that Greg McGarity would retain Mark Fox longer than Mark Richt no one would believe you. Fox is set to coach two years more than Richt under McGarity’s watch, which is another discussion for another day about what’s important and what isn’t at UGA - all coaching positions are not equal.
And the accomplishments of the basketball program under Fox haven't come close to what Richt did on the gridiron, either. After 20 years of tripping over itself, Richt led the Bulldogs to an SEC Championship in 2002. He continued being one of the top coaches in the SEC and country until he was fired in 2015 - and he should have been fired for the record. Richt’s mismanagement of quarterbacks, staff dysfunction and overall apathy screamed for change.
Fox, on the other hand, hasn’t delivered UGA an SEC title (the Dawgs last won it the regular season title in 1990 - 27 years ago), and he’s not delivered a win in the NCAA Tournament, which is the gold standard for success in the industry.
So, eight years into what has become a mature program under Fox (meaning its not brand new like what’s happened at Auburn, Alabama, Mississippi State or Tennessee) McGarity decided that either he likes what he sees, or the good outweighs the bad. Or, at least, that the bad isn’t nearly bad enough to pull the trigger on a coach who is making $2 million a year.
None of those are reassuring to those who want a basketball program in Athens that’s relevant nationally.
Mark Fox, unfortunately, isn’t “the guy” at Georgia. That doesn’t mean he can’t be successful elsewhere. That doesn’t mean he’s been an abject failure at UGA - hardly. But we’ve seen, surely eight years into this, that he’s not going to do much better than 20 wins, or much worse than about 14 losses… that’s a little worse than Hugh Durham’s average at UGA.
It should be pointed out, too, that by year eight in Athens, Durham had taken UGA to one Final Four and had another trip to the NCAAs that resulted in a win. In year nine, Durham took the Dawgs back to the NCAAs.
Here in lies McGarity’s dilemma - no one wants to hire the next Dennis Felton, but holding on too long to Fox isn’t the answer for a program that should be far exceeding what’s going on right now.
Simply put: only two NCAA appearances in eight years isn’t cutting it.
And listen to the naysayers and negative Nancys only so much when it comes to UGA basketball (or anything UGA in general). While it is true that Georgia, much like Texas, has managed to squander many of its natural advantages in athletics (tradition, money, talent-rich recruiting base) that doesn’t mean the Horns and Dawgs can’t dominate in the future. It only means they are not imagining themselves that way (which is a real problem), can’t yet figure out how to do it (that’s management) or both.
That’s why McGarity’s leadership is so critical in this area. Perhaps the UGA AD doesn’t see “the guy” out there who can lead UGA to the promise land in basketball, so he’s not willing to pull the trigger. Perhaps McGarity thinks Fox is “the guy”.
We can’t know McGarity’s reasoning for keeping Fox, but one thing is clear now: McGarity may have inherited Fox, but he’s embraced him now, and this isn't where things should be eight full years into a program’s development under a head coach.