Program building makes Fox Coach of Year
OMAHA—Chad Holbrook has been at North Carolina as a player or coach since 1990. He'll tell you it wasn't so long ago that the College World Series was just a "pipe dream" for the Tar Heels.
Sure, they got close a few times. But getting close and falling short feels light years away from walking through the front gate at Rosenblatt Stadium.
"I had an e-mail the other day from a former player who said, 'Congratulations. Back when I was playing, we were just happy to get to a super-regional. Expectations have changed,'" UNC coach Mike Fox said. "I looked at it and said, 'I guess they have.' Early on when I was here, I don't think we truly expected to do it."
The program Fox took over after the 1998 season bears little resemblance to the perennial national powerhouse North Carolina is today. The Tar Heels broke a 17-year CWS drought in 2006 and have been back to Omaha in 2007 and 2008, finishing as national runners-up twice and in third place this year. The program doesn't even look the same on a cosmetic level; UNC will move into a sparkling new $26 million stadium at the start of next year. For shepherding North Carolina through a dramatic transformation into a truly elite national power, Fox is Baseball America's 2008 College Coach of the Year.
"I don't think I dreamed that we'd go to Omaha three years in a row," Fox said. "I probably had dreams that we could get there, or at least hoped that we could. That's why you worked hard. If you don't dream you can do it, then you probably won't."
Perhaps Fox's greatest achievement has been selling that dream to the athletic department, administration and community, as well as to players past, present and future.
"Coach Fox has done a great job of leading the way and organizing our program from the inside out," said Holbrook, UNC's associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. "I mean from getting the alumni back on board to getting everybody in the university and athletic department understanding how good our program can be, instilling an attitude, a confidence level, that we weren't going to be satisfied with just being good. We wanted to be the best we could possibly be. And everybody got behind us, from former players to coaches to other people on campus. It took time—it doesn't happen overnight, obviously.
"Coach has done a great job of making people understand, making our players, our former players, our entire athletic program understand what an elite baseball program could do for our university. And he's succeeded in it. People believe him and now they see. That's been the biggest difference in the last five years, and that started at the top, with the belief and determination that Coach Fox has."
Alma Mater Makeover
Fox admits it took him a few years to get acclimated to leading a major Division I program after arriving in Chapel Hill from Division III North Carolina Wesleyan in 1998 following the departure of former UNC coach Mike Roberts. Fox had played on UNC's 1978 College World Series team, but leading his alma mater back to Omaha in the competitive college baseball climate of the 21st century was an entirely different challenge. For those first few years, Fox spent a lot of time noting how other successful programs did things, and talking to coaches around the country and on his own staff to develop his own long-term plan.
The transformation started in earnest with a commitment to landing big-ticket recruits with strong character. Going after players likely to be drafted high was a risky strategy, but it paid off in a big way in the fall of 2003, when Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard arrived in Chapel Hill as the jewels of the nation's top-ranked recruiting class. The following year's bumper crop contained program pillars Josh Horton, Andrew Carignan, Reid Fronk, Chad Flack and Rob Wooten, among others.
"I think you have to have some kids in your program that you can hold up and say, 'This is what can happen'—not just in terms of success for the team but individual success, getting a degree, having a good experience, and developing in your program," Fox said. "Maybe we've been able to do that with a few guys, so when these young kids come up you can point to a few players who have helped their team first and helped themselves second. We'd like to be in that position, where (top professional talents) say, 'I don't think that's a bad thing if I end up on campus at North Carolina.' Certainly our success has had a lot to do with that, the power of television and playing at the World Series. Until we actually got there, I think you had to do it at least one time to make it valid."
Once Flack hit that fateful walk-off homer to beat Alabama in the 2006 Tuscaloosa super-regional and send the Tar Heels to Omaha, North Carolina became a machine. Million-dollar arms began lining up to come to Chapel Hill—first Alex White, then Matt Harvey, then Tim Melville, a fourth-round pick who will require first-round money from the Royals to keep him away from UNC this fall. Fundraising for the new Boshamer Stadium reached another stratosphere, and the Tar Heels will have one of the nation's finest facilities starting next year.
They'll also have one of the nation's finest baseball teams next year, thanks to a core of returning stars like White, Harvey, Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, and a supporting cast of solid veterans and talented young players. Having such fine individuals has allowed Fox to put more trust in his players and give them more ownership over the program; Holbrook says the coaches rarely even do curfew checks on the road now because they truly trust their players. Holbrook says that's a change from years past, when the ultra-organized Fox had a larger role in every aspect of the program. Fox says managing the 2008 team was easy, because his staff is talented and dedicated and his players were self-motivated and functioned as a cohesive unit. He did not have a single meeting all season with a player to address playing time concerns or matters of ego.
Still, Fox hasn't gone completely soft in his 10th year at UNC.
"I try to have a personal relationship with all of them," he said. "It's easier said than done when you've got 35 of them. I still have to maintain that balance, because ultimately I have to make all of the decisions. So I want the kids to certainly be able to talk to me and trust me, but they also know that I'm the one that's going to hold them accountable, and I'm the one if need be is going to do the discipline thing and the playing time thing. I've never tried to be a friend to any of my players—I don't think that's our role. I wanted to be somebody they respect, first of all, and most importantly I want to be a good role model for them, the way I live my life, being a good family person. I think the older you get as a coach, the more you should probably not take yourself too seriously."
As much as Fox wants to cap UNC's impressive recent run with a national championship, he also knows it's important to keep a sense of perspective, even after a disappointing loss to Fresno State in the CWS. Ackley said Fox was upbeat in the locker room after the loss, emphasizing the body of work from the season and the contributions of the team's seniors. Fox, one of six men to lead his alma mater to Omaha as a player and coach, is just grateful to be where he is. As he said before the CWS began, he doesn't need a national title to validate his program or his career.
When the Tar Heels got back from Omaha, Fox got another e-mail—this one from an old childhood friend from Fox's days in Asheville, N.C., where Fox lived until he was 11 years old.
"I can barely remember this kid, but we lived in the same neighborhood," Fox said. "But he e-mailed me after 40 years and said, 'I'm glad you realized your dream of playing and coaching at the University of North Carolina.' How did he remember it was my dream, when I didn't even know it was my dream until about 15 years ago? I think I wanted to play basketball at North Carolina like everybody else did. I look back and think, 'Wow, did I want to do this when I was 10 years old?' It's a really neat thing, and I feel truly blessed to follow the path that I have to be here."