Amid winning streak, a personal loss for Georgia's Fox

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 24, 2014 

Perhaps this season's most poignant moment came in the final seconds of Georgia's 70-64 overtime victory at Missouri.

As the realization of the upset victory and a job well done hit home, Georgia Coach Mark Fox sat back in his chair. His hands covered his face. He broke down in tears. His father, Raymond Fox, had died four days earlier.

"I just didn't give myself enough time to grieve," Fox said Friday in recalling the moment. "So I broke down in front of everybody. Which I was a little embarrassed about, but it happened."

No need for embarrassment. Fox and Georgia captured the hearts of basketball fans and put the games we play in perspective that Jan. 8 night.

Raymond Fox, whose death on Jan. 4 came one day before what would have been his 78th birthday, coached football and track at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. His son described him as "old school."

"There was a right way to approach games and a right way to approach practices and a right way to approach work," the Georgia coach said. "There was a certain way to dress.

"Even when he came to my games in the last decade, he'd always wear a coat and tie to the game. So he was old school."

When he was en route to a pre-game meal before Georgia played at George Washington on Jan. 3, Fox learned that his father might not live much longer.

"So the hard part for me was I couldn't talk to him, couldn't say goodbye, couldn't say I loved him," Fox said. "Couldn't do any of that."

Fox recorded a voice memo, which he sent to a brother. It was played for his father.

As Fox flew from Washington, D.C., to Kansas after the game, his father died. After consoling his mother, Fox flew to Athens, Ga., to begin preparations for the Southeastern Conference opener at Missouri.

Fox returned to Garden City, Kan., for his father's funeral service on Jan. 7, then rode a minivan 500 miles to Columbia, Mo. He arrived at about 3:30 a.m.

That helps explain the rush of emotion as the basketball game ended.

"People were great," he said of the reaction to his tears. "People were just terrific."

Fox noted the "terrific" support he received from UK Coach John Calipari.

"I didn't hear from every coach in the league," he said. "He was one of the first guys to reach out to me. I appreciated it because it was a tough thing to go through."

Actually, Calipari called twice.

"One of the things about Cal, he's a coach's coach," Fox said. "He cares about coaches."

The Missouri game began a streak that has seen Georgia begin its SEC schedule with a 4-1 record, the program's best start since 2002.

If this were a Hollywood script, Fox would cite his father's death as a rallying cry for the team.

"No, we were getting ready to play better," the Georgia coach said. "We just began to play better. It just so happens my dad died at the same time. I don't think there's a real connection there."

Maybe not. But in their last conversation, which came on Christmas Day, Raymond Fox offered some advice. "'You've got to play some damn defense,'" the son recalled his father saying. "He was right."

The Georgia coach, something of an old-school guy himself, acknowledged how his team's defense has improved.

"You know what, we have been better," he said. "A little better. Not consistently better."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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