But a little more than five years into his tenure as Georgia’s athletics director, Friday’s announcement served as the most visible decision of Evans’ career, and despite the rampant success in other venues, this would be the decision by which he would most likely be judged for the foreseeable future.
“People want to talk about that, I understand the significance, the importance of it,” Evans said. “But I just feel that at the end of the day we needed someone who could take us to the next level.”
The final grade for Evans’ performance during the hiring process, which officially began in January when Dennis Felton was fired, won’t be in for years to come. Fox represents a fresh start for the program, and he comes with plenty of impressive credentials.
But unlike many of the names rumored to be candidates for the job during the past two months, Fox does not bring a reputation with him to Athens that will immediately endear him to the fans or earn Evans kudos for luring a big fish to what has been a particularly small pond at Georgia.
Since Tubby Smith left Georgia for Kentucky following the 1996-97 season, Georgia’s basketball program has been marred by a debilitating scandal and plenty of bad basketball. Fox offers the potential for change, but the hire won’t bring instant credibility to the program. In fact, most of the players on the roster had to Google Fox’s name just to find out who he was.
“When I first found out, I was like 'who is this guy?'” forward Chris Barnes said. “I went and looked him up, and I was real excited about the coach."
That stands in stark contrast from the direction most people assumed the search would go.
Evans remained silent for most of the past six weeks and refused to address any individual candidates, but that didn’t stop the rumor mill from spinning at a ferocious pace.
First, word spread that college basketball’s all-time winningest coach, Bobby Knight, had interest in the job. Then came a story from FOX Sports that Georgia was willing to offer more than $2 million per year to lure Oklahoma’s Jeff Capel to Athens. Web sites reported an offer to Virginia Commonwealth head coach Anthony Grant, one of the hottest mid-major coaches in the country. A week later, ESPN reported Georgia was close to landing Mike Anderson, who had just led his Missouri team to the Elite 8. Just hours before news broke of Fox’s hiring, reports in one major newspaper said Evans planned to meet with Miami’s Frank Haith and Clemson’s Oliver Purnell while attending the Final Four in Detroit – a detail Evans jokingly derided during Friday’s news conference.
Those were the big names many fans and media outlets anticipated, but in the end, none took the bait.
Sources said Grant was turned off by the search firm Evans hired to identify candidates for the job. Anderson met with Evans, but with at least a preliminary offer in hand from Georgia, he ended up striking a new deal with his current employer. Meanwhile coaching vacancies at Kentucky, Memphis, Alabama and Arizona turned what began as a methodical search into a bit of a circus.
Through it all, however, Evans insists he stuck by his plan.
“All these jobs started opening up, and I was reading in the paper that Georgia’s in trouble now,” Evans said. “We just stayed on course, and that got us to where we wanted to be.”
The question on the minds of so many people Friday, however, was how Evans ended up at that podium at Stegeman Coliseum, sitting next to a coach from a mid-major school from the other side of the country.
As meticulous as the search had begun, the end played out in a frenzy.
Anderson agreed to stay at Missouri late Monday night. Evans interviewed several other candidates during the next two days – there were five official interviews total, Evans said – and talked to several other candidates on the phone. Thursday, Fox arrived from Reno, Nev. and interviewed with Evans, university president Michael Adams and several other school officials for about three hours. It was the first time Evans and Fox had met face to face.
A second interview with another candidate followed, but something about Fox “stuck” with Evans, he said. By 1:30, Fox was waiting at the airport to fly back to Nevada when he received a phone call from Evans with an offer. By late afternoon, a memorandum of understanding was signed and a six-year deal worth $1.3 million annually was all but official. The news conference announcing Fox’s hiring was held just 28 hours after Evans and Fox met.
“The process played out like I wanted it to,” Evans said. “We were able to maintain a certain level of confidentiality, but I also understood that when jobs were opening, I understood there might be some competition out there, but I couldn’t let that make me deviate from the course that we set. By sticking to our plan, we got Mark Fox.”
Evans may be pleased with how the search unfolded, but the resounding question among everyone from fans to media to the players after news of the hire finally broke was simple: Who is this guy?
When Felton was fired, Evans promised a hire that would recruit the state of Georgia, be a CEO of the program and would turn the also-ran Bulldogs into national contenders.
For all the potential Fox brings to the program and the track record of success he enjoyed at Nevada, he had never been beyond the Sweet 16 in the tournament and never landed a recruit from Georgia. Evans praised Fox’s leadership and personality, but when it came to touting his credentials as a CEO, Fox’s best asset was likely his wife, Cindy, who served as an assistant athletics director at Nevada.
By Friday, however, Evans was steadfast in his approval of the new coach. Fox’s resume may not fit the qualifications set forth perfectly, but that wasn’t important. Evans had his man.
“This wasn’t about winning a press conference,” Evans said. “This was about finding the right person for the University of Georgia. My job is to find the right person, and I’m sitting here extremely excited that we got to where we wanted to be.”
The question now is how much farther Fox can go.