On Wednesday night, Georgia coach Mark Fox, after an admittedly lousy foul call against his Bulldogs, lost his flipping mind. He charged onto the court, screamed, got T'd up, screamed some more and then got himself tossed from the game. Then he got really mad.
I was sitting on the opposite side of the court from Fox and the Georgia bench, and at one point, I thought he might make it all the way over to our section, tear off his shirt and tie and begin pounding his chest. Fox, a Midwesterner not known for massive displays of public emotion, is a genial fellow, but it looked to all the world that exterior circumstances, and a sudden uptick in pressure, pushed him over the edge. On Saturday, Georgia lost a game on a ridiculous clock malfunction, and it was clear Fox wasn't over it.
Georgia has now lost two in a row, with a tricky game against Texas on Saturday before games against the three best teams in the SEC. It is possible the season is slipping away. Which means we've entered one of the more untoward, undignified aspects of college sports that nonetheless a part of any team that isn't Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas: It's time for a Coaching Death Spiral.
I have season tickets to Georgia basketball and religiously watch every game my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini, so I am, in fact, intimately witnessing two of these right now. I believe Mark Fox and John Groce are good men, and good basketball coaches, and that they deserve to keep their jobs. (Particularly because they both have excellent recruiting classes coming in next season.) But it is extremely difficult to escape the coaching death spiral. We've all seen it happen. (At Illinois, I just saw it happen with Bruce Weber.) It's difficult to come up with coaches who have been able to pull out of the spiral: Steve Alford, maybe Tom Crean (maybe). Once the spiral begins, it develops a gravity all its own. And it has definitely begun for Fox and Groce. Again: It strikes me as incredibly short-sighted for either university to fire either coach, and I suspect, considering those recruiting classes coming in, it'll require a total implosion down the stretch for any move to be made this year. But even if they survive this year, that just turns up the heat even higher next season. That's how this works. That's just another step in the Coaching Death Spiral.
Here is a step-by-step guide to the process.
1. Initial excitement and success. When Weber -- who was ultimately run out of town despite bringing the Illini within one minute of a national championship a decade ago -- first came to Illinois, he was so popular that the student section wore helmets with miniature Weber grills on top of them. Fox brought in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope; Groce won a tournament game in his first season and just missed the Sweet 16. Fan bases were energized after uninspiring tenures by previous coaches. There is always a honeymoon period. These honeymoon periods are increasingly short.
2. First seeds of doubt. At one point, these wouldn't pop up until year three, when a coach is able to finally start putting in his own system and his own recruits, but we are far more impatient now. Ask Charlie Strong about this: There were Texas boosters who are already after him midway through his first season, and by the end of the second season, he was firmly on the hot seat. At Illinois, Groce failed to make the tournament in his second season, and Weber didn't even reach the Sweet 16 after making the NCAA title game in 2005. All that optimism of the first season or two fades. No one is openly advocating against the coach. But there are starting to be murmurs. Hey, I thought this guy was the savior. Why are we not in the Final Four yet? Why is our recruiting rank so low? Well, it's probably just a blip.
3. Losing to an opponent perceived to be inferior. Every team has its doormats, and a loss to one of these teams is not only painful, it makes one question a school's place in the college sports universe. Georgia football lost at home to Vanderbilt this year, in a grand example of this. Others: Illinois losing to Northwestern; Texas losing to Kansas; Florida State loses to Georgia Tech; UCLA loses to Oregon State. This starts the exasperation in a way that's particularly damaging, because it involves nostalgia. Alumni say things like, "We never lost to Kansas when we were in school." It plays to a fundamental fear: Other people are moving forward and you are being left behind. Losing to Vanderbilt makes you worry that you are Vanderbilt. Now, oftentimes, most of the time even, fans have an unrealistic view of what should be possible. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Seth Emerson wrote a terrific piece about this very thing involving Georgia basketball.) But fans' collective delusion can take on a life of it own. Fans want a return to a theoretical, probably mythical idyllic time in the past. When that myth meets the ugly reality of life, that sense that Good Times Are Gone sets it. When you are not what you used to be, there's one person to start blaming for that: The coach.
4. Missing the tournament/playing in an inferior bowl. Not every team makes the tournament every year: Only eight teams in college basketball -- Kansas, Duke, Michigan State (in danger this year), Gonzaga, Wisconsin, VCU (also in danger this year), Cincinnati and North Carolina -- have made the past six. But fans believe the NCAA Tournament is their sacred right. When you miss it, even if it's for understandable reason, everybody freaks out.
5. The high-profile transfer/disciplinary issue. Players are always moving around to other schools and/or getting in some sort of trouble, minor or major, and when a team is winning and a coach is rolling, it's just seen as part of the business of college sports. But when your team is starting to reel, and there are more whispers about the coach, a player leaving takes on outsized importance. It's not just that the coach isn't winning enough; he's Losing Control Of The Program. (Groce faced this last year, twice, and it certainly sped up his spiral.)
6. The vote of confidence. Obligatory. The message board are full of froth and fury, and it's obvious the coach is under increasing pressure. So the athletic director comes out and says, "Nope, he's our guy, don't worry, he'll get it going." The only way this doesn't happen is if a new athletic director comes in, someone who didn't hire the coach in the first place. If this happens, the coach is probably doomed already, and probably going to be fired even faster than he ordinarily would be in this cycle.
7. The public blowup/breakdown. The pressure gets to everybody. How could it not? This might have been what happened to Fox on Wednesday night. This happened to Weber in his final year, when he broke down after a crushing loss to Purdue, throwing up his hands in despair and promptly throwing all his players under the bus. "Maybe it's my problem as a coach," he said, and you knew he was done right then and there. This is actually difficult to watch:
The flies are starting to circle at this point.
8. Everything goes off the rails. Players are of course aware of all the conversation around their coach, and they can't help but be affected by it: They're teenagers, after all. Once it starts snowballing, it doesn't matter how much talent you have. A dead team walking knows it's a dead team walking. This is the major challenge for Fox right now, a demoralized team heading into the toughest part of its schedule. It is possible that Georgia will end up losing six in a row. If it loses four in a row, the last two will just be obligatory, rote. For Strong this was the loss to Kansas; for Weber it was a blowout loss at Nebraska (in which Illini center Meyers Leonard burst into tears on the bench). By now, message boards are actively putting together wish lists for your replacements. It's a formality at this point.
9. The AD makes it official. The ax falls, almost always within days of the loss in a conference tournament and before the NIT, if the team is even lucky enough to make the NIT. Everyone's polite and thanks the coach for his time there: A good man, they all say, just not the right fit. And then they hire somebody else. And the fired coach heads elsewhere.
10. Initial excitement and success. And the cycle begins again ….
To be clear: I think Mark Fox should remain the coach at Georgia, and John Groce should remain the coach at Illinois. But it's so, so hard to pull out of the Coaching Death Spiral. I wish them both good luck. They will need it.