Mike Fox takes UNC from middling program to ACC powerhouse
Mike Fox has won 582 games in his 13 seasons as head baseball coach at North Carolina, but he’d never mention a single one to his players.
For Fox, baseball’s most concrete measuring stick is more a reflection of the organization, discipline and effort put forth before the first pitch was thrown than it is a cause for celebration of the performance that came after.
Inside Boshamer Stadium, banners celebrate the four straight trips Fox and the Tar Heels made to the College World Series, and the trophy case downstairs houses a trio of ACC Coastal Division titles.
But that’s just the big picture, and Fox is a details man.
In November of 2005, some 40 months before the renovated Boshamer Stadium opened its doors, Fox sent UNC architect Mike Bunting a three-page, 1,000-word wish list for the $25 million project.
The document outlined, for example, that Fox would like the press box to seat 25 people and have two tiers, and the dugouts to be 72’ by 75’ with at least five feet of space behind the benches for cubbies and coat racks.
No, the accolades can’t nearly tell the story of how Mike Fox took a middle-of-the-pack ACC baseball program and built a powerhouse. Like the work of any good architect, you’d have to look at the blueprint.
‘EXPAND CURRENT WEIGHT ROOM BY KNOCKING OUT WALLS IN CURRENT LOCKER ROOM’
UNC’s fledgling baseball renaissance began inside its football stadium. Though Fox would one day excel as the starting second baseman on UNC’s baseball team, he found himself alone at Kenan Stadium in the fall of 1974 for the same reason he’d decided to enroll at the University to begin with — Carolina basketball.
Fox had fallen in love with the men’s team as a boy growing up in Asheville and spending his summers at UNC’s basketball camp in Chapel Hill. After a summer of waiting anxiously for his acceptance letter, Fox was determined to get as close as he could to the University’s most significant cultural contribution.
So he ran stadium stairs, sprinting up and down every night for nearly a week before JV basketball tryouts in hopes of earning the right to don the Carolina blue he’d watched his idol George Karl wear on television. At tryouts, Fox dove after loose balls and absorbed the impact of charges until JV coach Eddie Fogler had no choice but to add him to the roster.
“He played JV basketball at Carolina, and I bet more than half the people on the baseball team could beat him in basketball,” said Clay Johnson, Fox’s baseball teammate and roommate at UNC. “Mike played hard. He was a hard-nosed second baseman, and he played basketball the same way.”
More importantly, Fox’s place on the JV basketball team allowed him a spot inside the curtain of coach Dean Smith’s famously private varsity practices. It was there he first took notice of the foundation on which champions are built.
He saw the organization Smith brought to the team, how managers set out jump-ropes for players and gum for coaches the same way before each practice. Most striking to Fox was the way Smith held superstar Phil Ford to the exact same standards as the walk-ons. If one player in a group failed to complete an end-of-practice sprint within the designated time,
Smith made the whole group run again.
The lesson stuck with Fox forever: every player must be accountable for his actions to his teammates and none of them is more important than the team as a whole.
“There’s a program at this level, but I had no idea how you get to that level,” Fox said. “Then I got a chance to watch. The amount of effort and intensity and discipline and instruction and organization in those practices was like, ‘Ohhhhkay. Now I get it.’”
THE FRONT ENTRANCE MUST MAKE A STATEMENT — IT MUST MAKE A RECRUIT GO “WOW.” WE NEED TO SHOW IMMEDIATELY THAT THE UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA IS COMMITTED TO BASEBALL.
When Fox returned to his alma mater in the fall of 1998 after 15 successful seasons at Division-III North Carolina Wesleyan, the UNC baseball program was an old colonial house in an upscale neighborhood, but one in dire need of a fix-up.
UNC boasted more than a century of baseball history, including four College World Series appearances as well as five NCAA tournament berths in the 11 seasons before Fox was hired as head coach.
But despite the advantages afforded by longevity and UNC’s membership in a conference housing perennial contenders like Florida State and Clemson, the Tar Heels had never quite ascended to consistent national prominence.
A staunch believer in the power of first impressions, Fox started his renovation with the exterior. If the Tar Heels couldn’t perform like a first-class program overnight, they would at least make every effort to look like one.
Fox gave Boshamer a paint job and tidied up the facility. Players on the team would practice in matching outfits, tuck in their team-issued UNC polos when they traveled on road trips and keep their hair cut to a modest length and their faces unblemished by scruff or stubble.
When players interacted with adults outside the program, they were instructed to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am.”
“I’ve always been very particular about how things look and how they’re viewed, and how my players look and how they appear,” Fox said. “I’ve always looked at things like if someone was here watching us right now, what conclusion would they draw?”
In addition to looking like professionals, players were also expected to conduct themselves as such. Influenced by watching his father battle alcohol problems during his youth, Fox let his Tar Heels know he had no tolerance for players whose late-night partying prevented them from being on the field the next day nor those who didn’t keep up with their schoolwork.
During practice and games, Fox expected his players to stay focused and play with hustle while keeping mental errors to a minimum.
“I think the program is where it is because there were standards that were set when Coach Fox got here,” assistant coach Scott Jackson said. “Not only do we do it as coaches, but our players hold each other accountable. And when you start to have that, you really don’t have a lot to worry about as a coaching staff because your older players get it and they’re able to extend it to the younger players.”
COACHES OFFICES — OPPOSITE SIDE OF CLUB SUITES. OVERLOOKING FIELD. SPACIOUS ENOUGH FOR LARGE DESK, LOVE SOFA, LARGE WOODEN FILE CABINETS, TV STAND,SHELVES.
Mike Fox’s office in the new ballpark sits elevated along the third base line, a large window overlooking the field that serves as his own personal observation deck. There, he prints out his players’ exam schedules two weeks ahead of time and draws up plans for practices six months in the future.
Though the standards he holds his players to are the bedrock of the program’s success, they would be nothing but ideas were it not for his ability to keep up with so many things at once.
“Coach has his hands around everything and he knows the pulse of how our guys are playing right now, what’s going on off the field with them, who’s got two or three tests coming up this week,” Jackson said. “I don’t know if he knows whose girlfriends are mad at them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he does.”
No one is more familiar with this trait than Robert Woodard. Though Woodard would go on to be a three-time All-ACC pitcher at UNC from 2004-2007, his decorated collegiate career almost never got off the ground.
When he first got to UNC, Woodard shirked his academic responsibilities in favor of improving himself as a pitcher. But after his first semester, Fox called him into his office and gave him an ultimatum: if Woodard didn’t do better the next semester, it could be his last at Carolina.
“It was tough love at the time,” Woodard said. “Without that meeting and without him lighting that fire under me, I don’t know if I would have been able to turn it around.”
The meeting had the desired effect. Woodard made the ACC’s academic honor roll his sophomore year and returned to UNC as an assistant coach at the end of last season.
SEATING FOR 25 IN MAIN PRESS AREA, TWO TIERED, SEPARATE BOOTHS ENCLOSED, INTERNAL PA SYSTEM, ETC.
As Woodard can attest, if there’s one thing Fox’s players can be sure of, it’s that their head coach isn’t going to pad their egos.
Fox is either extremely honest or extremely blunt, depending on one’s point of view and how thick his or her skin might be. It’s something his wife Cheryl says attracted her to him, but at times Fox can be so straightforward during interviews that reporters can’t help but wonder if he’s forgotten he’s on the record. For example:
On whether there’s anything pitcher Patrick Johnson can do to perform better in the first inning of games: “Stop throwing so many balls.”
On the NCAA: “The most hypocritical organization ever.”
On senior Greg Holt’s freshman year at UNC: “He was overconfident, very cocky, overweight, talked too much, et cetera, et cetera. He was just not very well-liked.”
“He has a funny way of motivating players,” junior catcher Jacob Stallings said. “Earlier this year he told me that the knock on me defensively was people didn’t think I was very good at blocking. So I think that was kind of his way of telling me I needed to pick it up a little bit.”
Sill, Stallings said Fox’s straightforwardness pushed him to work harder at improving his defense, adding that his coach seems to have a feel for just how much criticism each player can handle.
“I think kids appreciate that, but then the ones that aren’t very tough mentally, they walk out like a whipped puppy, ‘Well coach doesn’t think I can do this,’” Fox said. “Well, if the coach doesn’t have confidence in you, that’s because you don’t have confidence in yourself. How can we have confidence in you if you don’t have confidence in yourself? So we have to work on that part of it.”
CONCOURSE — WIDE WITH GOOD LIGHTING, HANGING MURALS OF FORMER UNC PLAYERS, ALL-AMERICANS, UNC BASEBALL HIGHLIGHTS, ETC.
The concourse that wraps around the stands behind home plate at Boshamer Stadium is nearly perfect.
The smell of popcorn permeates the promenade where fans can mingle before games, take a peek at the day’s lineup and buy everything from frozen lemonade to a UNC ballcap.
But above the walkway, there is something missing from the murals that hang from the ceiling. Though there are tributes to UNC’s six ACC Players of the Year and its two National Freshmen of the Year, there is not a single mention anywhere in the park of a national championship.
But boy, did Fox ever get close.
In the 2006 College World Series championship series against Oregon State, the Tar Heels took a 5-0 lead in what would have been a clinching game two before falling 11-7 to force an all-or-nothing third game.
What happened the next day was even more gut-wrenching. Pitcher Daniel Bard committed two errors on the same play in the fourth inning, but the most costly of UNC’s four defensive miscues waited for the eighth inning to emerge.
With the score tied at two and runners on first and second, Oregon State’s Ryan Gipson hit a grounder to Bryan Steed that should have retired the side. Instead, Steed’s throw was errant, and the Beavers scored the go-ahead run in a 3-2 victory.
The Tar Heels would go to the College World Series the next three years but never come closer to the game’s ultimate prize.
“I can’t even find a word to describe how devastated we were,” Cheryl Fox said. “We had a video of the game and we could not watch that video for months because every time we would watch it again, it was like it was ripping our hearts out because that was our game to win.”
THE PROGRAM IS ABOUT THE PLAYERS. WE MUST HAVE A ‘FLORIDA STATE LIKE’ HOME CLUBHOUSE. PLUSH WITH ALL THE EXTRAS — MINIMUM 40 EXTRALARGE LOCKERS, PERSONIZED CHAIRS, ETC.
The months that followed had an unexpected effect on the coach.
The more he was forced to talk about it with fans, friends and the media, the more Fox realized his life wouldn’t have been all that different had UNC won the title.
From then on, he decided to focus on the journey, rather than the destination. He began making a conscious effort to enjoy the company of his players more and began scheduling individual meetings with them each fall to find out more about their lives off the field and away from the classroom.
It took the most heart-breaking of defeats to learn about life what he had always known about baseball—that there’s a lot more to it than winning and losing.
“I’m trying to enjoy life a little more and not have it over a four-month period just hinge on wins and losses and let my emotions and the way I feel about myself or my life be based on the outcome of a baseball game,” Fox said. “That’s kind of silly.”
On Feb. 20, 2009, the Tar Heels re-opened their gleaming brick facility on a chilly afternoon against the Virginia Military Institute.
It had taken Fox more than three years of making calls to boosters, meeting with architects and searching for alternate practice facilities, but the Tar Heels finally had the new home he so badly desired.
Though Fox says the move has been more than worth the work he put in, he sees that day’s 13-3 victory as just one of the 48 UNC would collect along the way to the most recent of his four trips to the College World Series.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“You know it was funny because I came by here every single day so it didn’t have the wow-factor for me,” Fox said. “It’s like building a home, you know, you go by it every day, so when you finally move in, you’ve watched it grow.”