September 01, 2009

In early April, two months after Georgia coach Dennis Felton had been fired and three weeks after a miserable season had reached a merciful end, the Bulldogs sat slumped at their lockers, waiting to hear from the man who had been hired to lead them. That man, Mark Fox, strolled into the room and posed a simple question: Why did you come to UGA?

One by one, the players answered. Some liked being close to home. Others said they wanted their families to see them play. And on a roster dotted with players who had few, if any, other offers from high-profile schools, some were likely allured by the grand stage of the SEC East. But Fox arrived in Athens driven by a different motivation.

"I want to win!" he shouted, nearly compelling senior Albert Jackson to jump right out of his seat. "I want to win!"

For the past few seasons in Athens, wins have been scarce. Georgia went 26-59 in the SEC regular season during Felton's 5 1/2-year run. They struggled similarly under interim head coach Pete Herrmann, going 3-9. The last time the Bulldogs were consistently winning was in 2003 -- ranked No. 21 in March of that year, Georgia suspended itself from postseason play and fired coach Jim Harrick after revelations of unethical conduct and academic fraud perpetrated by Harrick's son, assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. Eventually, after a 10-month investigation, the NCAA placed Georgia on four years' probation.

"There was a dark cloud hanging over the program at that time," says Damon Evans, who was promoted to athletic director shortly after Harrick's departure. "We didn't want to take chances. We wanted integrity."

Felton instilled integrity but won precious few games. Enter Fox, a bespectacled, loafer-wearing Midwesterner. His University of Nevada teams had gone 123-43 in five seasons and reached three NCAA tournaments, and now he was charged with awakening what he saw as a sleeping giant, the flagship university in a state with one of the country's most fertile recruiting beds.

Since 2004, the state has had eight high school players ranked among the top 10 by, more than any other state. Of those eight, not a single one has gone on to play for the Bulldogs. (Louis Williams, ranked No. 7 in the class of 2005, committed to UGA but chose to enter the NBA draft instead). For Georgia to succeed, Fox knows he must tap into that talent.

"The key to keeping kids in-state is that the program has to become relevant for them," says Fox. "They have to think, 'If I go to UGA, my dreams can come true. The tournament, championships, the NBA, everything.'"

Fox points out that he had success recruiting all over the country while at Nevada, where he had to venture far from Reno to bring in top talent, even going into SEC territory for South Carolina native Ramon Sessions, now a hot commodity on the NBA's free agent market. He also brought to Georgia former Alabama assistant Philip Pearson, who had helped sign three-star guard Senario Hillman and four-star prospect Jermareo Davidson out of Georgia's backyard to the Crimson Tide.

But Fox's first recruiting challenge at Georgia was convincing the top talent on the roster to remain in Athens. Forward Trey Thompkins, the second-leading scorer on the United States team that won gold at this summer's U19 World Championship, said he considered transferring after Felton was fired. But as he got to know Fox, Thompkins changed his mind.

"He had just set up his office and I saw his ring from the WAC championship," says Thompkins, who grew up 50 miles away from Athens in Lithonia. "I thought, I want to get one of those and have it on my mantle."

It will be a long way for Georgia to win any rings, but Fox's initial message has gotten through. Thompkins may have come to Georgia to be close to home, but now he has a reason to stay: he wants to win.

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