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Five Days Later, Cal Hires Mark Fox

Analyzing Cal’s new head coach . . . and the hiring process itself

NCAA Basketball: Temple at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was fast!

When Rob and I spent last week furiously trying to briefly summarize coaches that Cal might consider, we never really envisioned that a coach would be hired and announced five days later. I’m not going back to look, but I’m pretty sure this was the quickest revenue coaching search since this website has existed.

And as I’ve thought about this hire over the weekend, I have found my Cal fan brain flying in so many different directions. I think I’ve written five or six different reaction articles trying to collect my thoughts.

This is an attempt to get everything down in a coherent manner. I suspect it will come across as scattershot. Let’s start with the simple facts.

The Resume

In nine years at the University of Georgia, Mark Fox averaged 18 wins a season and finished almost exactly .500 in SEC play (77-79). He never made an SEC tournament final appearance, and never came close to winning a regular season title. He made five postseason appearances, but three of those were the NIT and his combined record in post-season play was 2-5.

None of those wins came in the NCAA tournament, where Georgia made just two appearances during Fox’s tenure. Both times the Bulldogs earned a 10 seed. One of those appearances would likely not result in an at-large bid in 2019, with the NET ranking replacing the RPI.

OK, that’s a lot of negatives. Positives?

Well, Fox’s time at Nevada was solid, making the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons. It’s also fair to point out that Nevada’s performance declined in years 4 and 5, once Trent Johnson’s recruits graduated. Still, those results are a decade in the past and not as relevant as his years at Georgia.

More relevantly, Fox is as clean as they come in the world of modern basketball. How valuable this will be with NCAA rules coming under increasing attack from the media, the courts, and legislatures is unclear to me. Staying in compliance with a dying organization may not be of much use. But the general point that Fox cares about following the rules means something.

When Fox was fired by Georgia, he got more than a few media paeans to all of the non-basketball ways in which he ran his program. Graduating his players, mentoring his grads, staying on the good side of donors and media, etc. etc. Some of these skills are nice bonuses, others should be basic prerequisites (but are often ignored). Taken collectively you get the portrait of a genuinely kind person.

On the basketball side of the ledger, Fox is clearly competent. While his Georgia record doesn’t wow, a .500 record indicates a baseline level of know-how. More interestingly, he produced some legitimately good defenses and generally is an above average coach on that side of the ball. At Georgia, he gave away much of that advantage with consistently below average offensive production and generally mediocre recruiting. As the off-season moves along CGB will have a deeper dive into Fox’s coaching history to see what we can glean from his past.

In summary: Cal has hired a really great guy, and an evidently average basketball coach from the perspective of wins and losses.

The Process

What does Cal men’s basketball, and Cal athletics, want to be?

If the goal of Cal athletics is to provide for a positive four years of off-court develop and graduate college athletes entirely within the bounds of NCAA regulations, Mark Fox seems like a pretty excellent hire.

Generally speaking, the college revenue industry protects its own. As just one obvious example, you will never hear one of the many retired coaches who do color commentary for the Pac-12 network say a single bad word about a fellow coach. Everyone is awesome, everyone is cool, they’re a part of the team.

But again, in reading what people have to say about Mark Fox, I was struck by the breadth and depth with which people went out of their way to say nice things about him. Coaching colleagues, beat writers, on-air talent, former players . . . hell, even Georgia fans even seem to love him, and are genuinely pleased to see him get another shot as a head coach.

And that appreciation appears to go beyond just being a nice guy. To the extent that you can judge such things from a weekend of research, Fox appears to be the real deal in terms of Doing Things the Right Way.

If Cal athletics is prioritizing the holistic development of their players over winning basketball games and making money, then it’s hard to argue with this hire.

Having said all of that . . . I don’t think that’s all that Cal wants from MBB. There’s too much pressure from fans and donors to win games, too much pressure from the rest of the campus to not run a massive deficit, too much pressure from Memorial Stadium debt collectors looming in the future. And more to the point, I doubt this hire was made with the specific goal of prioritizing off-court skills ahead of on-court skills. If the goal is off court development, then go the Ivy League route.

If this hire is viewed from the prism of trying to maximize wins or maximize Cal’s future competitive ceiling, I just don’t see how you can objectively argue that this is the best choice available.

I feel like a jerk for saying this about a coach that is apparently universally beloved by everybody he crosses paths with. I don’t have any doubt that Fox will work as hard as anybody to win basketball games . . . but nine years of data is nine years of data, and I’ve learned to stop trying to reverse engineer what I want to see out of past results.

So, how to you judge this hire? Well, let’s start with how NOT to judge it.

Saying that this hire is better than where Cal was two weeks ago, or better than the hire made two years ago, is not a viable defense of any hire. It is not unrealistic to expect more than the absolute bear minimum from the Cal athletic department. Don’t give Cal a passing grade for doing better than filling out C on every line of the scan-tron.

I got some push back over the weekend for this comment on twitter:

My thinking as this coaching search began was that DeCuire was something of a baseline hire. He was a obviously solid choice because of his success at Montana, his Bay Area recruiting connections, his time as an assistant at Cal, and his support from former people and players within the program. And because Cal could at least quintuple his salary, he would almost assuredly be available for Cal to hire. Monty coming out publicly to advocate for DeCuire only further convinced me that DeCuire would take the Cal job if offered.

That doesn’t mean that I was DeCuire-or-bust. There are always other viable candidates in any coaching search, and I would expect an athletic director to have access to information that I don’t have. Which assistants at major programs are worth considering? Which coaches are looking for greener pastures? A comprehensive search would consider all options. But DeCuire’s resume, connections to Cal, and very likely availability meant that Cal should do at least as well.

Does that mean that if Cal had hired DeCuire that he would surely outperform Fox’s future record at Cal? Of course not, there’s way too much uncertainty in this business to ever make that kind of grand guarantee. But given the choice, I’d have taken the possibility that DeCuire might make a splash given the chance to coach at a power conference school over a coach who had a chance and wasn’t able to make a splash.

And just so we’re all clear on the timeline:

March 22nd: (False?) News leaks that Cal is retaining Wyking Jones
March 24th: Cal announces firing of Wyking Jones
March 27th: News breaks that Cal has hired a search firm
March 29th: Cal announces hiring of Mark Fox

That’s a coaching search done in five days, with a search firm that was probably on the job for less than five days. While it’s possible that Knowlton began the process of searching for a potential coach months ago, the fashion in which Wyking Jones’ dismissal happened doesn’t lead me to think that. Taken in totality, it’s hard to look at the timeline and conclude that a comprehensive search for a new coach was conducted.

In the end, ADs are criticized either way. Hire too fast and you’re accused of a rushed process that lacks comprehensiveness. Hire too slow and you’re accused of indecision and dithering while viable candidates get scooped up by competitors. It’s an unforgiving spot to be in. Particularly if, like Jim Knowlton, you’ve never made a revenue hire.

Ultimately, what you are judged on is results. If Mark Fox produces results similar to what he produces at Georgia, the Cal fan base that has been decimated over the last two years isn’t likely to grow.

The Future

Look, I’ll be honest: When I see how Cal fans are reacting to this news, what I see are a lot of optimistic people looking for reasons to be optimistic. Which is admirable for a number of reasons. We all want Cal to succeed, and giving up real hope for greater possibilities before a game has been played is no fun.

And I get it. As I wrote this article over the weekend, I could hear the optimistic wheels turning in my head.

“I’d gladly take a .500 conference record right now!”

“Look at those awesome years in Nevada! He’s back on the West Coast where he belongs!”

“Georgia only cares about football, just putting together an average record over there is impressive.”

But when I really analyze my optimistic hopes, what I mostly see is wishcasting, of hoping against hope, of seeing a reality that has a 10% chance of happening and turning it into a reality that’s more of a 50/50.

If I’m honest with myself, is this the type of exciting coaching hire that’s likely to result in high end California talent choosing to stay at home? Is a coach who couldn’t get over the hump at Georgia likely to reinvent himself in Berkeley now that his reputation as an average power conference coach has calcified?

It’s possible that this move works out. Maybe Fox brings in a really strong group of assistant coaches. Maybe his recruiting pitch works better out west than in the deep south. Maybe he lucks into a Jorge-Gutierrez-style recruit or two who elevate the program. Maybe the rest of the Pac-12 continues to self-immolate, and Fox is able to fill the vacuum.

As others have pointed out, Fox is now Cal’s coach, and I don’t intend to use this space to complain about the hiring process or other candidates that Cal could have reasonably attracted in the future. We will inevitably move on to looking at Fox’s past with an eye to what we might see on the court next November. We will track his progress as he builds a coaching staff and begins to recruit.

And to be clear, now that Fox is here he deserves our support. If I were him, and I tried for nine tough years to break through at Georgia, getting close a couple of times, I’d be chomping at the bit for another chance. Based on all of the testimonials from his time at Georgia, I’ll probably be a fan of his quickly, even beyond the obvious fact that I root for Cal and he’s Cal’s coach.

But analyzing how Cal’s athletic department conducts a critical hire, and analyzing whether or not that hire is likely to succeed at Cal, has always been a major part of why this website exists. Cal is asking something of all of us - donations, season tickets, or even just eyeballs that also watch commercials on the Pac-12 network. It’s worth wondering whether or not Cal has actually earned what they ask from us as fans.

Of course, maybe all that is moot. The Cal athletic department has spent most of the last decade making mistakes large and small, but I’m still a Cal fan and I will always be one. After a year away from Haas, I’ll attend a game in person at some point next year. I’ll be rooting hard for Mark Fox to make things work in his second chance.

Because I’m a Bear, and now Mark Fox is a Bear, and that’s how we’ve always done it as Bears. They say we Bears don’t quit, after all.