April 3rd, 2014 12:00 PM║ Posted By: John Pennington ║ Permalink
║ Schools: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Tags: CORRECTION, Georgia, NIT, recruiting, SEC
Yesterday the University of Georgia announced that it was extending the contract of head basketball coach Mark Fox. Back on New Year’s Day, most would’ve predicted Fox would be cleaning out his office this month, not putting down new carpet.
Overall, Fox is 84-76 in five years at Georgia. He’s reached one NCAA Tournament (in his second year) and his SEC record is just 40-44 overall. But his team began the 2014 season 6-6 in non-conference play. The Bulldogs were stuck in the 300s in RPI and strength of schedule. They’d already lost to Georgia Tech, Davidson, Temple, Nebraska, Colorado and George Washington. Their only victories were over Wofford, Appalachian State, Chattanooga, Lipscomb, Gardner-Webb and Western Carolina.
For a coach in a make-or-break fifth season, Fox quickly found himself with his back to the wall. And then came the turnaround that would save Georgia’s season — leading to an NIT bid — and save the coach’s job.
Fox’s team finished 12-6 in the SEC, tied with Kentucky and trailing only Florida. You might’ve heard that UK and UF will be taking part in this weekend’s Final Four. The Dawgs managed to add another victory in the SEC Tournament and one more in the NIT to max out at 20-14 on the year. That was good enough to save Fox and land him a two-year extension that will tie him to Georgia for four more seasons through 2017-18.
Now, that’s hardly a huge reward. No raise was announced. And some might say that UGA was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Athletic director Greg McGarity couldn’t very well fire a coach who finished tied with Kentucky for second place in the league, but he wasn’t ready to give Fox a lifetime contract either. So he gave him a two-year extension — which will make recruiting a tad easier — and stressed that more improvement is expected.
“The improvement our team made throughout the 2013-14 season was very encouraging, and with the loss of only one starter, the expectations for the coming season will be very high. Mark and I discussed not only this past season, but spent the majority of our time focused on the next four-year period. We discussed our recruiting plans, scheduling, academic progress and continued development of our program moving forward, and Mark fully recognizes the expectations in these key areas.”
In other words, “We want better than 20-14 overall and better than a 6-6 non-conference record.” And, “NCAAs instead of NITs, please.”
But the reality is this: McGarity has seen enough of Fox to feel that building with him is a safer bet than starting from scratch with some other up-and-comer (which is likely the exact type of coach Georgia would have had to hire). A similar scenario has played out at Tennessee this week as Vol AD Dave Hart announced that Cuonzo Martin — who turned down the Marquette job early Tuesday morning — will remain at UT with an extension and a raise (though contract details have yet to leak).
Martin has led the Vols to two NITs and the Sweet Sixteen of this year’s NCAA Tournament. While many fans have demanded that he win at the same clip as Bruce Pearl, the fact is Martin inherited a mess. He faced NCAA sanctions that impacted recruiting. He had to clean up what was a poor culture inside the program. And he had to do it all in Pearl’s shadow with fans clamoring for his return.
Hart, like McGarity, might not have absolute faith in his current head coach, but he has seen enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. Again, the message seems to be: “Tis better to build with a guy who’s got a winning record at this school than to rush out and start all over with someone who’s got a winning record at some smaller school.”
Fans want championship banners and anything less is viewed as “settling.” The truth is it takes time to build a program. Fox will be in Year Six next season and the expectations will be higher. Martin’s new contract at Tennessee should afford him a Year Five and Year Six, too.
In a league where only three coaches have been in place for more than five seasons — Billy Donovan at Florida, Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt and Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss — it’s a wise move, in our view, for schools like Georgia and Tennessee to start erring on the side of stability for a change.
(CORRECTION — Andy Kennedy was initially left off the list of coaches with five-plus years of tenure.)
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