Never Too Old To Learn

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- Mild-mannered North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox admits he's had to learn to control his emotions in the clubhouse, and it has paid dividends as the Tar Heels have become one of the nation's elite programs. When UNC entered the ninth inning trailing by a run to Western Carolina on Monday, Fox was the coolest head in the dugout.

His calming influence instilled confidence in his players, and they responded by sweeping through the NCAA opening regional thanks to two thrilling come-from-behind wins; and thus punching their ticket to this weekend's Super Regional series with South Carolina.

The Tar Heels (51-12) and Gamecocks (45-18) renew NCAA playoff pleasantries for the fourth time in six years beginning Friday at Boshamer Stadium. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN beginning at 7 p.m.

When Horton, a junior, came to bat with two outs and the game on the line, he looked down the third base line and saw his coach smiling.

"I was trying to catch his eye," Fox said.

Horton (right), who would be named MVP of the tournament, proceeded to drive home the tying and winning runs, and Andrew Carignan then came on to shut down WCU and preserve Carolina's 6-5 win.

"I think it really helped Josh calm down a little bit," sophomore Tim Federowicz said regarding Fox's demeanor.

But there were times in the past Fox might have let his frustrations show. And he feels those times may have hurt his teams' chances to perform at their best.

Fox, who compiled a .792 winning percentage in 17 seasons at N.C. Wesleyan before taking over at UNC in 1999, says he's not like that now.

"Sometimes you can feel pressure, but you can't always show that pressure outwardly," Fox said. "I should have known after 20-some years in coaching how much the kids pick up. Any little quirk or body language that you give them…they just don't react very well when you raise your voice."

There have been plenty of reasons for the ninth-year Tar Heel coach and former player to get discouraged. Under his watch, Carolina has won 40 or more games all but once, including an all-time UNC best 54-15 last season.

Yet, until Carolina advanced to the final game of the College World Series in 2006, its postseason had been marred by head-scratching sub-par performances. Three times, from 2002 to 2004, UNC was ousted by USC. Each time there was build up to taking the next step, but it was only last year that the Tar Heels got over the hump.

And this season, Fox and Carolina exorcised another demon by winning the school's first ACC Tournament title since 1990.

There were times Fox worried how long it might take, and his disappointment would spill over to his players.

"It's funny to hear Ray [Tanner] talk about going to the College World Series three years in a row and how high that bar is set," Fox said. "I was just wondering what we needed to do, why can't we get that last win and what's it going to take.

"I wanted to see this program get to the next level so badly. When it wasn't happening at the pace I wanted it to, I stressed a little too much."

Then on a bus ride home following elimination in the 2005 regional at Gainesville, a freshman was busy critiquing Fox's manner of interaction with the players. When he was ready, a anxious Andrew Miller approached his coach.

Miller's message? He suggested his coach should tone down his motivational approach to one more positive.

"He was nervous," Fox said. "He said, ‘Coach, I just want to talk to you before I leave for the summer.' He told me some things from a player perspective that he thought would help our program and would help me. And, I listened, because I felt like there were some things we needed to change here. If it doesn't change from me, it's probably not going to change.

"I was brought up old school where the coaches would challenge players, and some on the team would respond to that, but that particular year the majority felt like it was the other way around."

Miller would go on to lead UNC the next season with 13-2 record and a 2.48 ERA, while becoming the Tar Heels all-time strikeout king with 325 for his career. He later became the sixth pick overall in the MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers, and then made his major league debut in Yankee Stadium on Aug. 30.

"I don't know that I took a little different approach, but I respected him for doing it," Fox said of Miller's advice. "He did it the right way. You can't send a message out there that you can't be talked to by your players."

Now Fox was never a tyrant. In fact, it's hard to imagine him any less than congenial. Fox, a 50-year-old native of Asheville, is a quintessential Southern gentleman if there ever was one. And his recruiting targets are usually portraits in integrity, which minimizes the need for Fox to exercise disciplinary measures on his team.

However he can crack the whip when absolutely necessary.

"Cuss words will do it and base-running mistakes," said Horton, describing the two things most likely to get Fox's goat.

But Horton also said the experience and maturity on this team has kept Fox's blood pressure down.

"Because we've got a lot of older guys and we try to get into each others faces before the coach has to," Horton said. "But he can get riled up."

Federowicz (right) added, "If we deserve it, he will get into our face. The one thing he does really well is tell us what he expects of us when we get here. And if we don't follow it, we know were going to get yelled at and we're going to have our differences.

"He does a great job of making sure everyone knows the standards and that you have to follow them," Federowicz continued. "Since we had such a great group of guys, we've done that and haven't really had many conflicts."

So when the Tar Heels take the field this weekend, and if they find themselves in catch-up mode at some point during the crucial series, don't expect to see Fox ranting in the dugout or losing his cool arguing a call on the field.

He has his team under control leading by example, which keeps the Tar Heels grounded even with their backs against the wall.

"I didn't used to be that way, but sometimes you have to force yourself to do things like that," Fox said. "I've had to learn to do that here. I think I've probably tried to enjoy (the game) more the last couple of years then I did the first seven."


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