- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Athletic directors don't fire a coach during the season when things are going swimmingly within their program.
So Mark Fox fully understood that his job would not be easy when he accepted the men's basketball position at Georgia, only two months after then-AD Damon Evans fired Dennis Felton with 12 games remaining in the 2009 season.
"The perception that I had was that it was a trainwreck and that we were going to have to start over," Fox said.
By almost every measure, Fox's initial perception was correct.
Yes, Felton's team had made a surprise run to the SEC tournament title at the end of the 2008 season -- clinching Georgia's only NCAA tournament appearance in his six seasons -- but the Bulldogs finished above .500 only twice under Felton's leadership.
Yes, he managed to recruit some talented players to Athens, but regularly failed to keep them at Georgia because of academic and disciplinary issues.
The program Fox inherited certainly needed a talent infusion, but his rebuilding project went deeper than that fundamental aspect of constructing a successful team. His staff had to establish a new sense of accountability within the program -- responsibility that often was not present under Fox's predecessor, and the Bulldogs' performances on and away from the playing floor fully illuminated that problem.
"I feel like it's night and day, especially nationally, as far as being relevant," said Dustin Ware, Georgia's only four-year letterman who played under both Felton and Fox. "We definitely have a lot of respect throughout the conference and whatnot and we're still fighting hard to earn that each game and each year. The program's fine."
Georgia is without question a more competitive basketball program under Fox. The Bulldogs' issue is how they progress from respected program to one that contends for a postseason berth on a regular basis.
A disappointing season
Following Friday's loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament, the Bulldogs finished the season with a 15-17 record (5-11 SEC), dropping Fox's three-year record at Georgia to 50-46 overall and 19-29 in conference play.
Fox knew this season would be rocky after juniors Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie -- the centerpieces of last season's NCAA tournament club -- left early for the NBA. And certainly the young Bulldogs endured their share of growing pains, including the two worst SEC losses since Fox arrived: a 22-point loss at No. 22 Florida and a 30-point defeat at top-ranked Kentucky.
But there have also been signs of progress, including wins against USC, Notre Dame, Florida and a pair of victories against Mississippi State -- most recently a 71-61 triumph Thursday night in the first round of the SEC tournament.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity prefers to point to those positives rather than dwell on the rout at Kentucky when assessing the Bulldogs' overall season.
"Kentucky may be the best team in college basketball in many a year," McGarity said. "We were in the game here [a 57-44 Kentucky win] and competed hard. Some games things just don't work your way. It's hard to look at just one game. I'd rather look at Mississippi State and Tennessee and the games we won and how we played to do that -- and there were a lot of them that were close."
Indeed, Georgia has been competitive in nearly every SEC game since Fox took over -- even this season when youth and an injury to one of its only remotely experienced post players, Marcus Thornton, contributed to a 1-7 start in league play.
The Bulldogs went 5-5 after that point, however, which Fox interprets as an omen for next season, when they will lose senior guards Ware and Gerald Robinson, but will add signees Charles Mann, Kenny Gaines and Brandon Morris.
"The key for us is having a good team again," Fox said. "This was a team that was rocked by early injuries and there's not many programs that if you start in our position that that's not going to hurt you. I think the key thing is we've had some very productive underclassmen and we're adding three quality players to that, and hopefully adding some more, but now it's about this group becoming a successful unit."
Of course the most obvious way to build a more successful unit is to recruit top-level talent -- which traditionally has been an issue at Georgia.
The Bulldogs haven't officially enjoyed back-to-back winning seasons -- that is, not including the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons under Jim Harrick with 30 vacated victories because of NCAA violations -- since 1996-97 and 1997-98 when Tubby Smith and Ron Jirsa coached.
Since then, Georgia basketball has hardly been a model of stability, and that perception certainly has damaged recruiting efforts.
"We can't do anything about the history. We can't do anything about prior mistakes, prior failures," Fox said. "All we can do is build a program that is attractive to young people and their families, where they're going to be surrounded by good people, where they're going to compete at a high level, where their basketball dreams can come true and where they're going to get educated."
Fox's staff has won a handful of recruiting battles -- Thornton is a former Mr. Basketball in Georgia and freshman star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is one of the few McDonald's All-Americans ever to sign with the Bulldogs -- but they were admittedly not prepared to absorb the hit caused by Thompkins and Leslie's early departures.
Perhaps Georgia's post problems would not have been so glaring this season if Fox's staff had been able to lure more of the fertile Peach State's top high school talent to Athens, but they have not solved the longtime issue as quickly as they might have liked.
The staff's success at recruiting in-state will without question remain one of the determining factors in the program's overall health, and adding top players like uncommitted ESPNU 100 center Tony Parker (Lithonia, Ga./Miller Grove) would obviously help.
"I think you must have success in your state," McGarity said. "I know Mark would love probably to have a full roster of all Georgia young men. That's kind of the way he's starting, especially with this class coming in. It's a journey, but at the end of the day it must be built the right way.
"Having seen it happen at other schools, I think the test of time will show that those individuals that run their program the right way, that are brutally honest with everyone -- players, parents, administrators, fans -- you build up a level of trust and then you develop a reputation," added McGarity, a senior administrator at Florida when the Gators won back-to-back basketball national championships in 2006 and 2007.
The process does not end once the players sign, however. Ware is quick to point out that athletes must show the desire to help Georgia achieve the national prominence the program has rarely been able to sustain.
"Maybe there's not the type of tradition as there is at a school like Kentucky or the big-name schools and whatnot, but as a player, to be the one to set that foundation, that's something that no one can take away from you," Ware said.
"That's one of the big reasons why me and Trey and Travis and all of us committed to come here was we wanted to change things and start bringing the program back where it used to be and bring it to places where they haven't been. That was definitely a goal and the new guys coming in, that will be their goal, too."
Although Fox's rebuilding effort is obviously still in progress, he can point to numerous subtle signs that his staff's changes are taking effect.
Gone are the embarrassing off-court issues that crushed Georgia squads multiple times under Felton and Harrick. The Bulldogs also are making academic progress, although Fox stops short of bragging about the improvement.
"We've made significant progress there. We've had zero social issues," Fox said. "I don't know if you should be proud of what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to graduate your players. You're supposed to behave off the court. So am I proud of that? I'm pleased with it, but that's what we're supposed to do."
In fact, 10 Georgia basketball players have graduated since Fox became coach. Seniors Robinson and Connor Nolte are already graduates and the Bulldogs' other two seniors, Ware and Matt Bucklin, will bring the total to 12 when they graduate in the spring.
Georgia's multi-year scores on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate and Graduation Success Rate reports remain unimpressive, but the Bulldogs' GSR score -- which provides a more accurate real-time analysis of recent academic efforts -- has more than doubled since Fox took over.
"Our graduation rates were so low that it wasn't a pretty picture," McGarity said. "But there's no question that since Mark and his staff have hit the ground running, it's a good story."
It also bears mentioning that Fox's staff never lost this team, despite its massive early struggles in SEC play. Numerous coaches credited the Bulldogs for continuing to play hard well after they fell out of contention for an NCAA tournament berth.
"I told my staff that what I get impressed with other coaches is when, as the year goes on, they start adjusting to their team," Kentucky's John Calipari said late in the season. "They're playing different and he is getting results"
Despite some signs of progress, the bottom line with any athletic team is wins and losses. And by that measure, Georgia's 2011-12 season was not a success.
The steady improvement by young players like Donte Williams and Nemanja Djurisic enhanced Fox's reputation as a talent developer -- the college basketball site RealGM.com actually ranked Fox as the nation's best men's basketball coach when it comes to developing talent -- but the Bulldogs obviously don't have the depth and skill to compete consistently with the SEC's top clubs.
The Bulldogs' youth contributed heavily to this season's growing pains, but Fox views their second-half improvement as a sign that the team is heading in the right direction.
"We've just improved, but we felt like as green as we were that we would get better throughout the year and I think we have," Fox said. "You look at a lot of guys who are better individually just because they got more experience."
If that experience leads to wins next season, Fox and McGarity believe Georgia fans will respond after staying away in droves for many of the Bulldogs' home games at Stegeman Coliseum this season.
"I think our fans have proven over time -- regardless of what sport it is -- if you're a consistent winner, our fans will come," McGarity said.
No Georgia coach has been able to win consistently since Hugh Durham, who led the Bulldogs to four NCAA tournaments -- including one Final Four -- and seven NITs in 17 seasons as head coach. And it remains to be seen whether Fox will be the man who finally drags the program out of decades of mediocrity.
McGarity craves stability from his men's basketball program and says Fox can provide it -- but it is evident that the Bulldogs need to enjoy greater on-court and recruiting success for that to come to fruition by the time his contract expires in 2015-16.
Fox has taken steady steps toward developing a successful program, but time will tell if he can put together all the pieces to make himself the long-term solution to Georgia's historic challenges.
"I think that we're moving full speed ahead," McGarity said. "I know everybody is on the same page, which is good. It's healthy. We just look forward to continuing to build this program with Mark at the helm."
MARK FOX FILE
Career record: 173-89 (eight seasons)
Record at Nevada: 123-43 (five seasons)
Record at Georgia: 50-46 (three seasons)
SEC record: 19-29
SEC tournament: 3-3
NCAA tournament: 2-4 (0-1 at Georgia)
Against ranked teams (at Georgia): 6-15
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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