Cal Basketball: New Coach Mark Fox Looks to Defense for the Answer

New Cal head coach Mark Fox (left) and athletic director Jim Knowlton

Jake Curtis

Cal now has a defensive-minded head coach in both football and men’s basketball. We’ll have to see how that works out.

The football team has Justin Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator, and the basketball team now has Mark Fox, who was Georgia’s head coach from 2009 to 2018 and was officially announced as Cal head basketball coach on Monday. And although Fox was not specific about his expected style of play, he certainly suggested that defense is his first priority.

“We have to establish the defensive mindset that makes us hard to play against,” he said, “and we have some work to do there.”

(Click here for a video on Fox's expected style of play.)

Indeed, defense was the primary shortcoming during the Bears’ 8-23 season that ended with the dismissal of Wyking Jones as head coach after two seasons. The Bears were ranked 248th of 251 Division I schools in field-goal percentage defense last season. Georgia was seventh in the country in that category in Fox’s final season there in 2017-18 before he was dismissed.

“We have to find the formula for this group,” Fox said, “and I don’t know the formula for us yet.”

How long Fox expects it to take to build a winner at Cal was left unanswered, but he noted a couple of things.

“Sometimes you don’t win until you understand how you lose,” he said. “Georgia had been in last place in maybe four of the five previous years [before Fox took over], “ he said, “and we had Georgia back in the NCAA Tournament in the second season.”

Actually Georgia had been in last place in its six-team division of the Southeastern Conference all five of the seasons immediately before Fox’s arrival. The Bulldogs finished 5-11 in the SEC in Fox’s first season at Georgia and were 9-7 in his second.

“I don’t want to put a ceiling on what we can achieve [at Cal],” Fox said. “I want to get better. I want to get better right now. I want to get better next year than they were last year. And I want to keep climbing until we think maybe it’s the top.”

When Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton, who made his first hire of a Division I head coach, was asked what the realistic goals of the Cal basketball program under Fox should be, he first joked, “Was one of my options national championship?”

Despite that facetious remark, Knowlton did set the standard high when he mentioned Virginia as a comparable institution.

“I look at us and I look at what Virginia does, and there’s so many similarities, from a school, from an education; those are the things that are possible here,” Knowlton said.

Virginia has been ranked in the top six in the final AP poll five of the last six seasons, and the Cavaliers will play in the NCAA Tournament Final Four on Saturday. And how do the Cavaliers do it? Defense.

“We’re not going to turn it around in a day,” Knowlton said, “but we’re going to get better every day. We’re still building a foundation.”

Knowlton said a wide range of cadidates were considered, but he personally met with “four or five.” He said the decision to hire Fox was made on Wednesday, just three days after Jones was fired, and the athletic director said he was looking for three things:

“One, someone who does it the right way,” Knowlton said. “Two, he has to have the student-athlete at the center, and, three, I wanted someone who had been a head coach.”

The third criterion eliminated some of the people who had been considered possible candidates. Fox agreed to a five-year contract, but the financial terms of the deal are still being worked out. Fox made $1.7 million annually at Georgia, and it’s probably safe to assume Fox will be making more than the $1 million a year Jones was making, which was the lowest salary in the Pac-12.

Knowlton mentioned the academic aspect of the Fox hire.

“During his tenure, Georgia’s APR, academic progress rate, improved from 946 to 995 -- 1000 is perfect," Knowlton said. "Their graduation success rate improved from 36 percent to 100 percent.”

Knowlton said his decision regarding Jones’s future at Cal came down to a question: “How much can we move the needle in another year,” he said, “and it became obvious we weren’t going to be able to move the needle enough.” Knowlton also said Jones was never been told he would be retained, as some reports had suggested.

Fox said he had not spoken personally to any of the current players, but planned to do so after the press conference. He also said he hoped all three of the players that Cal signed in the fall would continue to agree to come to Cal, although he did not dismiss the possibility of adding a recruit.

“If we add a player, it would have to be someone who fits and could help us win,” he said.

(Click here for the reaction of point guard Paris Austin to the naming of Fox.)

There have been reports that Cal guard Darius McNeil, who had announced last week that he planned to transfer, might reconsider and return to Cal. That remains unsettled, however.

Fox and Knowlton also mentioned that plans for the construction of a practice facility is in the preliminary stages, although fund-raising for that venture is still ahead.,

Fox is new to the kind of bureaucracy at Cal that befuddles some new coaches, and he said he received plenty of advice on how to handle his new job, noting that he received about 1,200 text messages after he was hired.

“Most of the people on the outside have all of the answers and no solutions,” he said.

(Former Stanford head coach Trent Johnson reportedly will be one of Fox's assistant coaches at Cal.)

Fox is hoping he has some solutions after 13 years as a Division I head coach – four at Nevada and nine at Georgia. But he has been planning to be a coach for a long time.

Fox began his speech saying, “I grew up in a small town in Kansas . . .”

In fact, Fox grew up in Salinas, Kansas, a town with a population of about 47,000, which is about 10,000 more than inhabited that town when Fox was born. But he said Monday that he decided at the age of “10 or 11” that he wanted to be a coach. Whether he dreamed it would be in Berkeley for a team that had gone 5-31 in a major conference the past two seasons is another issue entirely.

He did say, "I believe in the commitment at Cal."

(Click here for a video of Fox's coaching influences.)

(Click here for an analysis of Cal's record on hiring basketball coaches.)

(Cal's Kristine Anigwe named second-team AP All-American.)