Coaching Management, 14.7, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1407/qafox.htm
For University of North Carolina Head Coach Mike Fox, 2006 was a dream season. Along with posting a school-record 54 wins, the Tar Heels reached the NCAA Division I College World Series finals, losing to Oregon State University in three games.
A second baseman on North Carolinaís 1978 CWS team, Fox is one of 10 men to have both played and coached in the tournament. As a student-athlete, Fox also played two years on the North Carolina j.v. basketball team, getting an up-close look at the legendary Dean Smithís coaching philosophy.
Under Fox, UNC has qualified for the NCAA Division I playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons. During that time, the 50-year-old North Carolina native has reached the 100- and 200-win benchmarks faster than any other baseball coach in school history.
Fox got his first coaching experience as a graduate assistant for the Tar Heels in 1979, before becoming Head Coach at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C. In 1982, he was hired as Head Coach at North Carolina Wesleyan College, and in 1985, he also became the schoolís athletic director. In 16 years as the baseball coach at N.C. Wesleyan, Fox reached the Division III playoffs 14 times, winning a national championship in 1989, and posted a career winning percentage of .792ósecond among active Division III coaches when he left for Chapel Hill.
In this interview, Fox talks about his coaching philosophy, what heís learned from being an athletic director, and dealing with the emotional roller coaster that was UNCís 2006 CWS run.
CM: What was it like being on the brink of a national championship, then seeing it slip away on an error in the eighth inning of the final game?
Fox: It was difficult. But itís just part of lifeóonly one team can win, and we have to move on. Anybody who gets that close can tell you thereís a lot of luck involved in winning a national championship and everything has to fall into place for you to win. However, the one thought I canít get out of my head is that even if we have good teams for many years here, we still may never get that close again. I need to make sure I get that thought out of my mind because weíre certainly going to keep trying for a national championship.
What did you tell the team before the final game against Oregon State?
At our pregame meal, I closed the doors so it was just the coaches and the players. I told them Iíd probably cry whether we won or lost, but that the outcome wouldnít change the way I felt about what those 30 guys had done for our program.
I really wanted to take some of the pressure off them. I said, ďJust enjoy it one more time, compete like you have all year, and try not to change anything. Just play and donít think about the consequences.Ē I knew it was critically important for us to play loose if we were going to have any chance of being successful.
What did you say after the game?
I told them how much I loved them, how I thoroughly enjoyed the season, and that I was heartbroken for all of them. I said, ďI might have been a little happier if weíd won, but I couldnít be any prouder.Ē
What did you say to second baseman Bryan Steed, who made the error?
I talked to Bryan when we got back to campus and basically told him exactly what I had said at the postgame press conference. My statement was that this is not about one player or one playóthis is a team game. I donít believe you can put a loss on one player. I told Bryan that I take full responsibility for the loss and that without him, we wouldnít have even made it to that game.
How do you remain positive and contain your emotions during tense moments? Is it something youíve improved over time?
Oh yes. There are so many factors out of your control during a game that you have to keep things in perspective. I try to stay positive all year long, but I really concentrate on being positive down the stretch. There are very few players you can motivate by being hard on them, and thatís tough for some of us long-time coaches to adjust to. As hard as it may seem, you have to change with the times because your job is to motivate these kids.
How did you keep players loose during the tournament?
We never talked about winning and losing or who was in our bracketówe really stressed the importance of playing loose and enjoying the experience. I tried to send a message right out of the gate that we were going to treat the experience almost like a vacation. As soon as we got on the bus to catch our plane to Omaha I turned my video camera on, and from that point I taped whatever and wherever I could.
What were the keys to your team's success, besides talent?
A big part of it was that the players who didnít play on a regular basis had the best attitudes Iíve seen in 24 years as a head coach. They accepted their roles and contributed any way they could, which is a huge component of team chemistry.
How do you maintain enthusiasm in athletes who arenít playing a lot?
Itís one of the real tricks in coaching, and it takes effort. You have to constantly talk to them and give them as much attention as the guys who are playing. And you certainly have to give them the opportunity to improve their skills and some hope of playing. Tell them you noticed they were the last to leave practice, or that you saw they were the first one off the bench to congratulate somebodyólet them know youíre noticing all the positive things they do. If theyíre great students or leaders in the locker room, you should always try to acknowledge how much those things mean to you.
Where did your coaching philosophy come from?
When I played j.v. basketball here, I learned a lot by watching the varsity basketball team practice under Dean Smith. I often heard Coach Smith say that the players win the games and the coaches lose them. That was his way of taking stress off of the players. Iíve kind of adopted that philosophy. The program is about the kids, and you have to keep that first and foremost in your mind every day.
What is your approach to pitch counts?
Weíre always careful about pitch counts, and we pace our pitchers all year with the assumption that weíll be playing in June. I work closely with my pitching coach, Scott Forbes, on how to distribute the pitching load throughout the season. We use a lot of pitchers early on because I think itís important that you develop your bullpen. I donít think we had any of our starters go more than 75 to 80 pitches right out of the gate. Toward the end of the season, the most that Andrew Miller or Daniel Bard threw was 115 to 120 pitches.
What are the differences between coaching at Division I and Division III?
The kids are pretty similaróthey all want to be treated right and get the opportunity to succeed. But there are major differences outside the lines. In Division III, coaches pretty much do everything themselves but there are no scholarships, not many professional scouts at games, and not too many egos to deal withóitís a very pure form of the game. In Division I, there are a lot more of those things to deal with, and recruiting is a whole other ballgame. The differences are vast, but Iíve thoroughly enjoyed both levels, and Iím so glad that I had the experience of starting at a small school.
How did your experience as athletic director at North Carolina Wesleyan affect how you run the baseball program at UNC?
Being the athletic director and having to manage a 10-sport department, hire other coaches, and work within a larger budget helped me a lot. Now Iím responsible for two full-time assistants, a volunteer assistant, an equipment manager, a grounds crew, sports information people, and several other support personnel. It taught me how important it is to have everybody on the same page and that you have to acknowledge what each person does. I keep a list of people who support our program throughout the year, from boosters to the grounds crew to the secretaries. Theyíre all big parts of our program, and at the end of the season I sit down and write letters thanking each of them for everything they did to make our season as great as it was.
Whatís your advice for younger coaches about cooperating with the media?
Obviously itís easier to talk with the media when you win, but when you lose you still need to act respectful, professional, and classy. I think youíve got to swallow the emotion of the moment and understand that reporters have a job to do. You can get your point across in a respectful way even when somebody asks a question you think is inappropriate or a little too personal. Those folks really donít know what coaches go through, but on the other hand, I really donít know what kinds of demands reporters and writers deal with, either.
How have you changed as a coach over the years?
Iím a little more tolerant and understanding than I was in the past. Part of that is because I now have a son attending Carolina who is the same age as the kids Iím coaching. As a result, I feel like I have a better idea of what my players are going through off the field.
When you only see the kids at practices or games and youíre focused on developing a team, itís easy to forget that they face a lot of challenges in the rest of their lives. I try to do some things with my players away from the game so I can learn more about them and their personalities.
What have you learned about the coaching lifestyle?
There are some great highs and lows, but no matter what, you have to stay even-keeled and have a thick skin. Coaching can absolutely consume you if you let it. You have to realize that you reach a certain point in the day when youíre not productive any more, and itís time to either go home or take a break and maybe go for a run. I also try to take some time for myself during the day when I can. Sometimes Iíll sit in the stadium bleachers and catch my breath and reflect on things. You have to be able to sit back, relish whatís happening, and not constantly think about whatís next.