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Fox Ready to Take on the Challenge at Cal

May 21, 2019
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Growing up in the Mecca of college basketball, new Cal head coach Mark Fox had basketball in his blood from a young age. With successful programs like Kansas and Kansas State not far away, Fox had no need to allign with one particular program, instead rooting for each of the in-state programs.

“I was a basketball fan as a kid,” said Fox. “Kansas and Kansas State were both very good.

“Kansas State had Rolando Blackmon and Mike Evans and Kansas had Darnell Valentine. The Phillips 66 Game of the Week, I could never wait. The Big 8 was so good. I just loved to watch college hoops.”

“It’s a basketball state, for sure. As a child, you start playing on the driveway. You shovel the driveway so you can shoot. You shot with gloves on with days that were freezing cold. In my community, a lot of the high school kids would coach the younger kids. It was a great tradition. I feel very fortunate that’s where I grew up. It’s not where I wanted to grow old but it was a great place to grow up.”
- Fox on growing up in Kansas

Imagining growing up in Kansas conjures images of kids in crew cuts playing pickup, horse and endless hours of shooting freethrows from dawn to dusk.

“Abolutely,” said Fox. “It’s a basketball state, for sure. As a child, you start playing on the driveway. You shovel the driveway so you can shoot. You shot with gloves on with days that were freezing cold.  

“In my community, a lot of the high school kids would coach the younger kids. It was a great tradition. I feel very fortunate that’s where I grew up. It’s not where I wanted to grow old but it was a great place to grow up.”

Fox went on to play high school ball at Garden City High School and still carries his high school team laundry pin he uses as a keychain to this day.

After high school, Fox went to play at the junior college level before transferring and playing at Eastern New Mexico, graduating in 1991.

“Where I grew up, there were no summer games,” noted Fox. “Nothing organized in the summer, just pickup games on occasion. But a lot of guys were working on their farms so there weren’t that many. So no one saw you play. There was no exposure. So the only chance there was to ever get a scholarship for a lot of guys was to play at a local junior college and move on from there, which is what I did.”

Just before Fox’s arrival to Garden City Community College, point guard Keith Smart starred for the program before going on to national fame when he hit the game-winning shot for Indiana to defeat Syracuse in the 1987 national championship game.

“I would go to the junior college and play with the college guys when I was in high school and Keith and I developed a tremendous friendship that has maintained to this day, all because of pickup ball at the junior college,” said Fox. “So when he was here (coaching with the Golden State Warriors, I would come spend time with him and Coach (Don) Nelson. We’ve had a long friendship, largely because of my junior college experience.”

Fox had no illusions of NBA fame and riches and instead focused on learning the game inside and out to transition into coaching.

“I knew I wasn’t going to play in the NBA,” said Fox. “So my focus was always on coaching and learning the craft and trying to develop an expertise because there’s so much to learn.”

After his playing career ended Fox got his start coaching in the Pac-12 at Washington under Lynn Nance in 1991.

“I worked for Lynn Nance, who really understood the profession,” said Fox. “I learned from the ground up. You’re counting shoestrings, taking care of equipment, mopping up the floor, film exchange. It was terrific.”

During his time at UW, Fox and staff faced Cal and NBA Hall of Famer Jason Kidd playing Cal twice a year. HIs impressions?

“Dominating,” said Fox. “He could dominate the game without shooting. He affected the game everywhere. He’d have 7-8 steals and you’d think, ‘This guy’s amazing!’ He had a legendary career and I don’t think anyone was surprised how good a career he had after seeing him play.”

Nance was originally hired after a 61-27 run at St Marys but never gained traction in Seattle, going 50-62 in four seasons with the Huskies. After the ‘92-93 season, Fox joined Nance and staff on the chopping block.

Following his stint with UW, Fox spent a year with the Kansas program while finishing up his masters.

“Coach (Roy) Williams let me go to practice every day, which was tremendous,” said Fox. 

Fox caught on with Kansas State as an assistant the next six seasons under head coach Tom Asbury. The Wildcats had one NCAA tourney and two NIT tourney appearances in his stint there.

“That was a great six years since it was such a hard job, so every job I’ve had since then seems like it’s easy in comparison,” said Fox.

“At the time, you couldn’t fly commercially into Manhattan (Kansas). It was a long drive. I think I made that long drive to Kansas City airport a couple hundred times. But at Kansas State, there was such tradition and to be able to spend a lot of time with Jack Hartman and Tex Winter (former successful KSU head coaches, with 12 Sweet 16 and two final four appearances between them) -that probably impacted my coaching more than anything. Those guys are tremendous coaches and very successful in different ways.

“That time at Kansas State shape my philosophy about how the game should be played.”

Fox got his first shot as a head coach with Nevada, taking over in 2004 after serving four seasons as an assistant, leading the Wolfpack to four first place finishes in five seasons (2nd place in his final season there) and an impressive overall record of 123-43, including two Sweet 16 appearances.

“Nevada was a magical time,” said Fox. “We had such a great partnership with the community and we had such great success because we had the most amazing young men on our team. Everyone of them have stayed in touch and I’ve got one coming to visit me tomorrow.

“The level of young men, great young competitors who were really good people, allowed us to be really successful. And I give (new Cal basketball analyst) Trent Johnson all the credit. He was the godfather of it all.”

Johnson got off to a bit of a slow start at Nevada, hovering around .500 before an NCAA run in his fourth and final year at Nevada before moving on to Stanford.

“As we worked together to win our first championship, it was all built on the right things,” said Fox. “We knew if we did things the right way, we wouldn’t only be able to win one championship but we’d win several and that’s what happened.

“All that credit should go to Coach Johnson. The foundation was as solid as a rock.”

Following his successful run at Nevada, Fox was hired by Georgia in 2009, taking over a team that had gone 12-20 the previous season, improving incrementally to 14-17.

In year two, Fox led the Bulldogs to the NCAA tourney with a 21-12 record, finishing third in the SEC East. After going 50-48 in the next three seasons, the Bulldogs were back in the tourney in 2015 with a 21-12 record, losing in the first round.

The following three seasons saw the Bulldogs go 57-44 before Fox was dismissed in 2018 following the season.

“I felt like at Georgia, we went to a couple NCAA tournaments and we rebuilt a program that had not been winning,” said Fox. “We had some success there. I remember Tubby Smith telling me he was the only coach in the history of the program that had won 20 games back-to-back. For us to do it three seasons in a row, a lot of places, that’s just expected, but there, it had never been done.

“I’m grateful for the time I had there. Those kids were great, too.  That’s one thing I love about coaching.”

“I think there’s great potential here. I think there’s tremendous opportunity for growth. And if we make strides in all the areas we need to, then there will be great sustainability.”
- Fox on building a winner at Cal

Fox is stepping into a tough situation at Cal, with the program coming off two straight eight-win seasons, including just five total victories in Pac-12 play in two years. Does he see the potential to build a winner in Berkeley?

“Oh, I think absolutely,” said Fox. “I think there’s great potential here. I think there’s tremendous opportunity for growth. And if we make strides in all the areas we need to, then there will be great sustainability. 

“I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity here. This challenge is not for everyone, though. Some would run for the hills but that’s okay. People that choose to climb, that’s who we want with us. We’ve got some climbing to do. But this is a tradition that’s had some success and we know what we have to fix and certain things that need to be developed. That’s the exciting thing that gets you up each day.”

As rough as the situation Fox inherited may be, he’s not content to call it a longterm rebuilding project.

“I think it would be unfair to our current players to say it’s going to take several years,” said Fox. “Let’s figure out how to win the next game and we’ll see where that takes us.”

As for playing style, look for the Bears to ramp up defensive intensity significantly and to play with as much tempo as they can maintain with efficient play.

“We want to play as fast as we can while still playing well,” said Fox. “We want to be hard to play against defensively. And ultimately, we want to make sure our team is complete, where some nights, our defense might win the game for us and other nights be able to say our offense did the same thing, because ultimately a complete team gives you great chances to win. We’re not there yet.”

The players response so far has encouraged Cal’s new head man, though they did see a departure of three productive players to the transfer portal in forward Justice Sueing, guard Darius McNeill and center Connor Vanover. How much of the impetus for transfer came from a difference in philosophy between the departing players and staff virtually players taking a chance to look for more exposure by taking advantage of transfer rules that allow a transferring player to change programs without a penalty isn’t clearly known. But for those remain, Fox likes what he sees.

“I think there’s a level of excitement, especially with the youth on our team,” said Fox. “Even our one senior, Paris (Austin), he has an enthusiasm that’s contagious. So those kids response to our staff and our approach coming in, that’s really been great.”

Fox noted that the staff wouldn’t use last season as a crutch but would try and draw lessons from what went wrong to put things on the right path for the program.

“We can’t erase what occurred in the last year or two,” said Fox. “It’s part of history. Our focus will be, hey, it happened. Good things happened, too. Just use it as experience to learn from as we move forward.”

One of Fox’s biggest challenges will be rebuilding the roster, which currently sits at 10 out of 13 scholarhip slots after their four 2019 commits join the team, including two international players.

Will international scouting and recruiting play a regular role in Fox and staff’s plans?

“Absolutely,” said Fox. “I think we have to cover the globe to find the best student athletes we can get to come to Cal and be legitimate students and leave here with a degree but also be legitimate players. I think we will do some international recruiting. We’ve intentionally tried to set up our staff with that in mind.”

The Bears netted a pair of international commitments in the last week with the verbals of 6’10 Prolific Prep (Napa, CA by way of Australia) forward Kuany Kuany and shooting guard Dimitrios Klonaras from Greece.

Asked his thoughts on Kuany’s commitment and signing (Klonaras announced after the interview was conducted), Fox noted:

“Kuany’s a guy who has great length and is super-athletic. He’s a really good spot-up shooter. He’s got a lot of great qualities that excite us in a young player. Physically, he’ll develop and we’ll be able to expand his skillset as he spends time in college. He’s starting from a great place.”

As for roster management, the current roster imbalance requires not utilizing all of this year’s available slots.

“We’ll add a couple more, for sure (including Klonaras),” noted Fox. “We’ll have to push a couple scholarships to the next class, though, because we only have one senior. We have to balance our classes.”

Look for that last slot to potentially filled by a transfer or grad transfer if possible to help balance the roster going forward.

This season will be Fox’s 15th season as a head coach and 27th overall.

Discussion from...

Fox Ready to Take on the Challenge at Cal

parentswerebears
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I don't know why, but this article just doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in Fox for me. Maybe because of the history of the program, maybe because he is not a super exciting guy, maybe because he has very little to work with in terms of personnel. Whatever the reason, he has a lot to prove.

I'm still just meh for Cal basketball.
RJABear
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I was relatively encouraged.

Tons of experience. Fox has been there before. He understands all aspects of running a program and seems ready to address all the details.

John Wooden famously started the first practice each year teaching the freshman how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/sports/ncaabasketball/05wizard.html

http://blog.damelionetwork.com/sports-motivational-speaker-bill-walton-learning-to-tie-shoes-was-john-wooden-success-lesson-for-life
smokeyrover
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Thanks for the story.

At this limited exposure point, Fox seems to have a better defined roster building strategy than Cuonzo or Monty did before their first seasons at Cal -- a combination of staff selection and identification of recruiting lanes that can sustain success here. He also seems well aware of what guys to avoid and certainly is more cognizant than Wyking of how a couple reach recruits can cripple an early tenure.
TheFiatLux
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RJABear said:

I was relatively encouraged.

Tons of experience. Fox has been there before. He understands all aspects of running a program and seems ready to address all the details.

John Wooden famously started the first practice each year teaching the freshman how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/sports/ncaabasketball/05wizard.html

http://blog.damelionetwork.com/sports-motivational-speaker-bill-walton-learning-to-tie-shoes-was-john-wooden-success-lesson-for-life

More quietyly, he started practice #2 by teaching them how to accept envelopes of cash from Sam Gilbert.
KoreAmBear
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parentswerebears said:

I don't know why, but this article just doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in Fox for me. Maybe because of the history of the program, maybe because he is not a super exciting guy, maybe because he has very little to work with in terms of personnel. Whatever the reason, he has a lot to prove.

I'm still just meh for Cal basketball.
Wilcox started like that, and he is building slowly but surely (except the jury is out whether he can truly build an offense).
stu
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smokeyrover said:

Thanks for the story.
+1

Much more encouraging than the team meeting fiasco.

Quote:

Fox seems to have a better defined roster building strategy than Cuonzo or Monty did before their first seasons at Ca
To me Fox's efforts are looking better than what our last 3 coaches managed in year zero. And he has accomplished this after 2 terrible seasons and a load of drama.

However the true test will be in subsequent seasons when we're competing for top recruits. Also I hope his attention to strategy carries over to teaching skills and devising schemes.
TheFiatLux
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smokeyrover said:

Thanks for the story.

At this limited exposure point, Fox seems to have a better defined roster building strategy than Cuonzo or Monty did before their first seasons at Cal -- a combination of staff selection and identification of recruiting lanes that can sustain success here. He also seems well aware of what guys to avoid and certainly is more cognizant than Wyking of how a couple reach recruits can cripple an early tenure.
Monty was / is a HoF coach who in his first year at Cal took us to the tourney and in his second year we won our only conference title in the last 60 years. I think he knew what he was doing.
oskidunker
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Ya think?
Last year is over,” Fox said. “Today we start to fight forward. We build for greater days.”
calgo430
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i think we need shooters who can make 3's
BearSD
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RJABear said:

I was relatively encouraged.

Tons of experience. Fox has been there before. He understands all aspects of running a program and seems ready to address all the details.

John Wooden famously started the first practice each year teaching the freshman how to put on their socks and tie their shoes.
https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/05/sports/ncaabasketball/05wizard.html

http://blog.damelionetwork.com/sports-motivational-speaker-bill-walton-learning-to-tie-shoes-was-john-wooden-success-lesson-for-life

Ha ha.

You know who else does something like that? Mack Brown.

http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/26753859/mack-brown-back-unc-run-program

Quote:

Brown's rulebook is thin, but what's inside is strictly enforced.

Late for a meeting? Get locked out of the meeting room.

Want to wear a hat inside the building? Just be sure to take it off when you meet a visitor. After years of banning the color due to its ties to rival NC State, red is welcome in the building again. But when it's time to dress for practice, there's a mannequin in the locker room dressed each day by staff. The players have to match it down to the smallest detail. Socks pulled up, the right color sneakers on, thigh pads tucked under their shorts. Any deviation earns Brown's ire -- directed at both the player and his position coach.
BearForce1
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Quote:

Will international scouting and recruiting play a regular role in Fox and staff's plans?

"Absolutely," said Fox. "I think we have to cover the globe to find the best student athletes we can get to come to Cal and be legitimate students and leave here with a degree but also be legitimate players. I think we will do some international recruiting. We've intentionally tried to set up our staff with that in mind."
This was the most encouraging part of the article for me. IMHO, our best bet for sustained success is to leverage the internationally strong "Berkeley" brand and target 4 year players who can win with experience and team chemistry even if less talented than one-and-done types. Basically Wisconsin but with international players...
socaliganbear
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This post was as uninspiring as the coach we hired. Fortunately for Fox, I highly doubt the expectation is much more than mediocrity. He'll do just fine.
calumnus
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BearForce1 said:

Quote:

Will international scouting and recruiting play a regular role in Fox and staff's plans?

"Absolutely," said Fox. "I think we have to cover the globe to find the best student athletes we can get to come to Cal and be legitimate students and leave here with a degree but also be legitimate players. I think we will do some international recruiting. We've intentionally tried to set up our staff with that in mind."
This was the most encouraging part of the article for me. IMHO, our best bet for sustained success is to leverage the internationally strong "Berkeley" brand and target 4 year players who can win with experience and team chemistry even if less talented than one-and-done types. Basically Wisconsin but with international players...


I think international players should be one leg of the stool, but we still need to be in it for the best players from California as well (and as in the past, top players nationwide who might be attracted to "Berkeley" and all that it entails).
Bear19
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TheFiatLux said:

More quietyly, he started practice #2 by teaching them how to accept envelopes of cash from Sam Gilbert.
Had Wooden coached in the Internet era, it's unlikely that he would have enjoyed the free pass that the basketball press is still hell-bent to give him, completely ignoring the abject cheating that his teams enjoyed. Just Google "Sam Gilbert and UCLA basketball" to get a clinic on how coaches like Wooden cheat.
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