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ATHENS — Unconcerned about his lack of ties to the region, Georgia named Nevada's Mark Fox as its new men's basketball coach Friday with the goal of transforming a moribund program into a national power.
The hiring of Fox, who had five straight 20-win seasons at Nevada, was a surprise to those outside the interview process. Among those mentioned as possible candidates were Missouri's Mike Anderson, Clemson's Oliver Purnell and Miami's Frank Haith.
In the end, athletic director Damon Evans settled on the 40-year-old Fox after a whirlwind courtship. The two met in Atlanta on Thursday, and Evans offered the job a few hours later.
Fox agreed to a six-year deal paying $1.3 million annually — a significant increase over the $760,000-a-year salary of his predecessor, Dennis Felton.
Felton was fired in January with the Bulldogs heading toward another dismal season. They finished 12-20 overall and 3-13 in the Southeastern Conference under interim coach Pete Herrmann.
"I know this is going to be a great day when we look back on the history of Georgia men's basketball program," Evans said during a news conference at the school's 2-year-old training facility. "Mark Fox is one of the country's brightest up-and-coming coaches."
Fox was 123-43 in five seasons at Nevada, winning at least 20 games every year. He won four Western Athletic Conference championships and reached the NCAA tournament three times, twice reaching the second round.
"I'm certainly attracted to the potential for this program," said Fox, accompanied by his wife, Cindy, and their two young children. "There's a terrific recruiting base in the state. You can get an outstanding education. We're very excited to be here. We're ready to go to work."
Fox's name never surfaced in reports of the search, and even the team was caught off guard. One of the top players, freshman Trey Thompkins, said he hasn't decided whether he will return to school next season. Two other players, guards Zac Swansey and Troy Brewer, announced they were seeking transfers shortly after the season ended.
"I don't know coach Fox more than anyone else on the team," Thompkins said. "I've known him for like five hours."
Fox expects his associate head coach, David Carter, to take over at Nevada. The school's athletic director, Cary Groth, planned a Friday news conference in Reno to discuss the coaching situation.
Fox plans to bring along at least one of his Nevada assistants, Kwanza Johnson, but also stressed that he needs to hire someone with ties to the state.
Anderson, who led Missouri to the NCAA regional finals, agreed to a new deal with the Tigers earlier this week. Evans said he met with about five coaches, and talked with several more informally.
The hiring of Fox did not make the sort of immediate splash Georgia fans might have hoped for, but Evans said he's more concerned about the long-term growth of the program. While the Bulldogs had success under coaches such as Hugh Durham, Tubby Smith and Jim Harrick, they have made only one NCAA tournament appearance since 2002.
"It's not about winning the first press conference," Evans said. "It's about finding the right person for the University of Georgia."
Fox said he's confident he'll be able to recruit within the state, even though he's not very well known to the high school and AAU coaches who hold such sway over potential signees. Georgia has a wealth of high school talent, but top prospects have historically headed elsewhere when it comes time to pick a college.
"There's no doubt the state of Georgia is a fertile recruiting ground," Evans said. "We've got to put a fence up around it like Mark Richt did in football. But to be a national power, you've got to be able to recruit across the nation. I have every confidence Mark Fox can do that."
The AD pointed to Fox's predecessor at Nevada, Trent Johnson, who led LSU to the SEC championship in his first season in Baton Rouge.
"He's not from the South, either," Evans said. "We get caught up in that sometimes, but guys move all over and do great jobs. I think if (Cconnecticut's) Jim Calhoun came down South to coach, he'd do just fine."
Fox led Nevada to a 21-13 record this season, keeping alive his streak of 20-win seasons. The Wolf Pack struggled to replace 7-foot center JaVale McGee, who left school early and was drafted in the first round by the Washington Wizards, and lost to Texas-El Paso in the first round of the postseason College Basketball Invitational.
Fox was an assistant coach at Washington (1991-93) and Kansas State (1994-2000) before moving to Nevada as associate head coach under Johnson in 2000. He was named head coach in 2004 after Johnson left for Stanford.
"I'm embarking on a new adventure in my career," said Fox, who met with his Nevada players late Thursday night to give them the news. "I'm leaving a great place where I loved to coach. I want to thank all the people of northern Nevada for all the support we had."