As fall ball and the first days of school start up again for the Diamond Heels, Rogers takes a look at the State of the Program with Head Coach Mike Fox.
In one of his final press conferences of the 2013 season, UNC Baseball Coach Mike Fox remarked that “the end of the year always hurts…it never gets any easier.” This wasn’t an earth-shattering quote. Anyone who has played or follows sports knows the feeling. What was interesting about Fox’s comments, however, is that they came after a win for his ball club. One might expect a different sound bite after a Super Regional that would send his team to — yet another — College World Series.
Perhaps Fox was sympathizing with the losing squad, the South Carolina Gamecocks — coached by Fox’s friend and former assistant, Chad Holbrook. There’s likely some truth to that. Having been there before, Fox was no doubt ultra-aware of the pain that comes with losing on that stage. But even Holbrook himself remarked in his postgame quotes that he already owned two national title rings and smirked, “I’m a big boy, I’ll be fine.”
Much more likely is that Coach Fox was simply offering a metaphorical glimpse of where he has taken his program — to a level where all the games at the end are big. And they can all hurt.
The roaring success of Carolina Baseball over the past decade (the winningest program over that span) can no doubt be a double-edged sword. Victory brings expectations. Success breeds demands. It’s a paradox in a way — especially for the fans. The more you win, the more it hurts when you lose. No one remembers the end of a mediocre season.
Of course, this is a dilemma any program would accept. “It’s better to have loved,” after all. But that doesn’t make it any easier. And it certainly doesn’t make it any easier on the head coach himself. Fox has produced a #1 ranked team in almost every season for seven years, and in a backwards fashion that success somehow brings as much scrutiny as it does praise. The head coach was questioned over his pitch count management last season even though he has been putting pitchers into the big leagues over the last decade seemingly at the rate Carolina Basketball sends point guards to the NBA.
Fox has even attained the status of what might be the most gratifying criticism there is for a head coach: having not won “the big one.” It’s almost flattering — the media’s way of saying you’ve become so successful that they’re going to start nitpicking everything about you just to find a story. It isn’t much different from when Tyler Hansbrough had become so unstoppable in college basketball that pundits started criticizing the prospects of his professional career that hadn’t even happened.
But if you know Coach Fox, you know this criticism means nothing to him. He’s just happy to be there — at that level. That’s all he talks about, “just be there, and we’ll have a chance.”
That kind of attitude takes discipline, which the coach has earned over a long career. He started at second base for the Tar Heels from 1976-1978 (helping his team to a College World Series) and played a year in indy pro baseball. While at UNC he even played on the jayvee basketball team.
In 1979, Fox came back to UNC as a graduate assistant, where he crossed paths with another future Tar Heel head coach, Roy Williams, who was an assistant to Dean Smith at the time. It might be from Williams where Fox learned to tune out criticism and simply coach his team.
“Mike and I have a great relationship — we both love Carolina and UNC athletics. I’ll always support and help his program.” – Roy Williams
There are a lot of similarities between the close friends: the same stubbornness, the same ferocious intensity in anything resembling a competition. Williams’ competitive fire is no secret, and there are enough stories floating around Woolen Gym of Mike Fox’s intensity in pickup basketball games to believe that at least a handful have some truth to them.
“A lot of my coaching comes from my playing days in basketball and baseball. Being undersized, I always had to be aggressive. I think a coach’s mentality always stems from his past.” – Fox
Specifically, both coaches’ programs are renowned for their relentlessly aggressive tendency to put points and runs on the scoreboard — and often lead the nation in those categories. It’s a major reason they’re both such great recruiters (Newsflash: athletes like scoring). Fox and Williams each have the same mindset in coaching: they’ll absorb a few turnovers (or throw-outs at home) if it means having a deadly offense. Fox writes notes to himself before every game based on his competition, but one is always the same: “Be aggressive.” He wants his kids pushing the envelope, and you can’t argue with the results.
“Kids want to be aggressive and run bases — we encourage that. They like to play that way, and we try to allow them some freedom in the batter’s box.” – Fox
Coach Williams’ philosophy isn’t much different, both while running his team and even when watching the Diamond Heels. “I love it when [Coach Fox's] teams take the extra base, hit and run, and put pressure on the other team’s defense,” said Williams.
The aggressive nature of Fox’s game plan invades all aspects of his coaching. Like most successful coaches, he does everything with an underlying intensity and focus. This can be off-putting to the media and pundits at time, but this attitude endears a coach to his players. And of course that is what makes a great manager and brings players to a program.
When Fox gets a runner thrown out by (mistakenly) telling him to round third base, you could argue he made a poor decision. But what does this say to the player? “My coach believes in me. He thought I could make it.”
“I think our style really loosens kids up and allows them to play better. I never want errors or outs, but once you build that trust, giving them the green light frees them up to make plays.” – Fox
Chase Jones came into UNC’s program in 2006, just when Fox was starting to take over the ACC and make Omaha his yearly vacation spot. Having had a few years to reflect on Carolina Baseball’s success since then, Jones’ comments on the state of the program had more to do with Fox and his players than on any win-loss records:
“He’s so great off the field,” Jones says. “He builds you up after a loss, and has no problem chewing you out after a win, like all the great ones. He’s always telling us: Be aggressive. Fine, get thrown out, but always be aggressive. Go for that extra base. Go for home. ”
“Coach instills confidence in his players.” – Jones
When asked about Fox and UNC Baseball finally having an ending to a season that doesn’t “hurt,” Jones said what everyone who has played on that stage knows: “It’s basically a crapshoot at that level. You hope your pitching is there, you hope your bats are there. But the real key is just being there — eventually it will happen.”
And if you know Mike Fox, you know he understands. He says it nonstop, “We just want to be there.”
Of course, this is also an aspect of coaching Roy Williams knows a thing or two about:
“I remember Coach Smith saying in 1982, ten minutes after the national championship game was over, that he didn’t think he was a better coach than he had been two and half hours ago just because we had beaten Georgetown. I made the same statement in 2005 after we beat Illinois in St. Louis. Mike Fox is a fantastic coach… He is winning so many games and I want him to keep knocking on that door for a national championship… and one of these days, he’ll win one.” – Williams
As Jones says, “Omaha is no longer the vacation spot. It’s the standard.”
CHAPEL HILL — Opening their postseason play at home, the #1 ranked and top overall seeded Tar Heels improved to 53-8 Friday night with a 6-3 win over the Golden Griffins of Canisius (42-16) in a game that was closer than the final score showed.
“It was a hard-fought win, we really had to grind — grind it out,” said UNC Coach Mike Fox after his Tar Heels advanced to the “winners” game at 6PM Saturday night against Towson.
But early on it didn’t look like Carolina was going to be challenged. Fox’s team started out hot like they have all year, leading 3-0 after only six at-bats. Outfielder Brian Holbert crushed a double down the right field line that led to his 54th and 55th RBI of the season to give UNC the quick lead.
The #1 ranked Tar Heels now own a +140 advantage in runs scored against their 2013 opponents in the first three innings.
But even though they were down four runs early, Canisius didn’t quit. “I definitely think we built confidence as the game went on,” said right fielder Ryan Coppinger.
Coppinger’s coach echoed his sentiments. “A pitch here, and at-bat there, a play there, a call there, and maybe we’re talking about a different ball game,” said head coach Mike McRae. “I just ran out of innings.”
With how McRae’s team performed against the nation’s most dominant squad in the Tar Heels, you can’t blame him for being confident. Canisius gave up early runs in the first two innings but then absolutely locked down UNC’s big-time bats — shutting Carolina out for five straight innings and retiring eight of nine batters at one point.
Facing a low scoring, 4-3, game after seven innings, the Heels needed some defense of their own. With the pressure on in the top of the eighth, Mike Fox went to his freshman phenom closer, Trent Thornton.
“I can’t remember the last time we had a freshman closer,” said Coach Fox. “He’s a special kid. He even made the dean’s list. He’s got that ‘it’ factor.”
Thornton struggled at first, and was soon facing bases loaded with only one out — with only a one run lead. But the talented right-hander with a season ERA of 1.29 would come through once again for the Heels. Thornton struck out two straight while looking — erupting with a show of emotion that really got the home crowd into the game.
“It’s fun to have pressure,” said Thornton.
Feeling the momentum switch back to the Tar Heels, superfan Tom Jensen (known by anyone who has stepped foot near Boshamer these last few years as the “Tarrr-chant guy”) knew it was time to get the crowd going.
When asked about what fan support can do for his alma mater, Jensen was all smiles. “To have a sold out crowd tonight really says something about how much the community is getting behind this team, and [the Tar Heels] deserve it. I think a lot of the great support has to do with the new stadium, and to their credit, the athletic department has really done a lot to reach out to the community. I think a lot of people just realize how special these guys are want to come out and support this team.”
Hear all of Jensen’s comments:
And with that crowd behind them, the Heels responded. Mike Zolk and Chaz Frank would both record RBIs to give their squad a comfortable 6-3 lead heading into the ninth, where Thornton would once again made quick work of the Canisius offense. The freshman struck out three straight to send the Heels into the “winners” game on Saturday.
Coach Fox on if Thornton’s success surprises him:
The win ensures that Carolina will make Sunday’s games at the very least in the double elimination format. Mike Fox’s #1 ball club will face Towson (30-28), who beat Florida Atlantic 7-2 in the early game at Boshamer Stadium on Friday afternoon.
Like Canisius, Towson will be no pushover. But as the #1 team in the country, everyone is going to give UNC their best shot — something Chaz Frank wasn’t afraid to admit in his post game comments:
“We’re the number one team and the number one seed. And we’re going to have a target on our back. We’re ready for that.”
CHAPEL HILL – It was a short night for the No. 1 Diamond Heels Sunday against Clemson at Boshamer Stadium.
Rains rolled through just before 8 p.m. in the second game between the Tigers and the Heels. Play is scheduled to resume 2:45 p.m. on Monday.
The Tar Heels held a 2-0 lead over the Tigers with two outs in the top of the third inning.
UNC registered its two runs in the second inning. Matt Roberts set-up a safety squeeze bunt to score Brian Holberton. And two batters later, Landon Lassiter sent a double inside third base to left field, scoring Mike Zolk from second base.
Sophomore Benton Moss was having an excellent night on the mound, striking out six batters through 2.2 innings.
The Heels took the first match-up on Saturday, beating Clemson 10-3. With that win UNC improved to 24-1 overall, and 8-1 in the ACC.
The third game of the series is also slated for Monday night at 6 p.m.
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