Mark Fox Retrospective: Failing to meet low expectations
Jim Knowlton's first major hire failed, but the problem is that failure was easy to predict.
Way back in 2019, after Cal fired Wyking Jones, I wrote a retrospective of Wyking’s two years in charge that included chats between myself and Reef bemoaning the decision to hire the inexperienced, unproven Jones as head coach. The whole thrust of the article was that anybody reasonably familiar with college basketball could have predicted what would ensue on the court.
When Jim Knowlton quickly turned around and hired Mark Fox to replace Jones, Reef and I were not quite as pessimistic as we were about Jones, but we were confident that this hire would not return Cal basketball to Pac-12 contention:
Well, here we are. I predicted Fox would be fired in three years. Reef went with five. The correct answer ended up being 4 years. The wisdom of crowds strikes again.
To be clear, I am not a genius* or soothsayer. Reef and I are just dedicated fans who have logged many hours of basketball and have access to some basic information that any competent Athletic Director or search firm should have access to. In the immediate aftermath of Fox’s hiring, I asked the following rhetorical questions:
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?
The rhetorical answer at the time was ‘no.’ The actual answer, after four seasons of on-court results, is no.
Why was Reef not optimistic about the hire? Because he reviewed film:
Why was I not optimistic about the hire? Because I subscribe to Kenpom**:
But if Fox is going to surpass his Georgia performance, he’s going to have to be a better offensive coach. Maybe that means he needs to recruit better. Maybe that means that he needs to reconsider his offensive concepts and strategy. Maybe both.
And because I can find historic data from recruiting sites:
I think it’s hard to reach any conclusion other than that Fox needs to recruit better at Cal than he did at Georgia. Doing so, considering Cal’s damaged reputation and Fox’s thin ties to California as a recruiter, may well be a very challenging ask.
To be fair to Jim Knowlton, neither myself nor Reef thought that Mark Fox would, after four years, have a record of 38-87 (17-61), with two 10th place and two 12th place finishes in the Pac-12. We both thought the most likely result is that Fox would rebuild Cal towards the middle of the Pac-12 and then plateau. Maybe make an NIT or two. A bunch of .500 seasons. That level of performance would have been largely in line with Fox’s nine years at Georgia.
But the downside risk I was concerned about was twofold:
That Fox, already a mediocre recruiter, would struggle even more to bring in talent to a program that had fallen so far. As it turns out, that was exactly what ended up happening.
That Fox, already a coach with an old school reputation, would not update his coaching with the times and be even further behind the strategic/schematic curve at Cal.
Whether we’re talking about recruiting high school freshmen, recruiting JCs, recruiting through the transfer portal, or recruiting to convince players already on Cal’s roster to stay, Mark Fox struggled. Monty Bowser was Fox’s only 4 star recruit. Fox never secured a commitment from a top 100 player. Fox never secured a high impact player from the transfer portal. Cal’s best player transferred away three times in Fox’s tenure.
It was this failure to recruit and retain players that made the difference between Fox putting up a mediocre record similar to his Georgia years, and what Cal ended up getting over 4 seasons.
And on the strategic/schematic front, Fox’s insistence on running a painfully slow offense and inability to scheme decent shots for his team was ample evidence that his time away from basketball hadn’t led to any kind of reevaluation of his preferred, outdated offensive system.
Ultimately though, I don’t want to focus on Mark Fox and his limitations as a high level basketball coach. I have no doubt that he tried his hardest. As far as I can tell, his players liked him as a person and he tried to do his best on their behalf. Injury excuses aside, he was willing to take responsibility for what happened on court, even if he ultimately didn’t have what it took to win games.
No, instead the focus needs to turn to Cal’s administration. If part-timers and amateurs like us can pretty quickly determine that a major hire is very unlikely to succeed, why did Jim Knowlton hire Mark Fox?
I can make guesses. Lack of experience with revenue hires. Affinity bias. Lack of institutional courage. Regardless of the exact reason, the results are something that Jim Knowlton has to answer for. Other oddities that Jim Knowlton has to answer for:
Handing Fox a one year extension that added ~two million to the buy-out Cal must now pay.
Not firing Fox at the end of the 2021-22 season when it was painfully clear that this was not going to be a successful coaching tenure.
*Reef was a genius though
**Jim, I know I’ve had my share of criticisms, but for the good of Cal’s basketball future I am willing to share my Kenpom login info with you.
Following Wyking Jones’ firing, I wrote this:
Simply put, being a Cal men’s basketball fan for the last two years hasn’t been fun, and that’s left a hole in my Cal fan heart. While the athletic department tries to rebuild what has been lost over the last two years, my hope is that we all start to rebuild our own Cal MBB community . . . It’s time to flush all of the anguish, toxicity, and unhappiness out of our system. Here’s to feeling optimistic for the first time in years. See you all at Haas next November.
To the extent that any anguish, toxicity, or unhappiness has been eliminated, it has been exchanged for indifference, and the hole in my heart grows larger each year.
We are now six years removed from the last Cal MBB team that was reasonably competitive within the Pac-12. The fan base has been destroyed, and the ground upon which a new fan base might grow has been burned and salted. Whether through incompetence or neglect, there is significant doubt about whether or not Cal could successfully attract a coach good enough to overcome the institutional
In order to improve, Jim Knowlton and Cal will need to hire the right coach. In order to improve, Jim Knowlton and Cal will need to convince donors to contribute to an athletic director that hasn’t proven himself worthy of investment.
I’ve heard rumblings that Cal’s donors will have much more say in the hiring process this time around. I’m not close enough to the situation to know how the process is going to work, but I’m willing to cling to any hope that the process will be different.
This hire is a chance to get Cal fans to pay attention again, to begin the long, difficult process of rebuilding the team and rebuilding the fan base.
It’s time to find out if Cal has learned anything from the last 6 years.