Home Sports Meeting AppState Basketball’s “Agent of Change”

Meeting AppState Basketball’s “Agent of Change”

By David Rogers. April 9, 2014. BOONE, NC — All the ingredients are in place for Appalachian State to develop an outstanding, if not “great” basketball program.  That was the key takeaway from Wednesday’s Athletic Center introduction to Jim Fox, the new head coach of Appalachian State men’s basketball in front of four dozen members of the media, alumni, faculty, students and staff in the Mountaineer Room of the Center.

Blowing Rock News coverage of AppState Sports is made possible by a sponsorship from Appalachian Regional Orthopaedic & Sports Medicine Center

Photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Editor’s Note: The notes and highlights of comments by Mr. Fox and Mr. Cobb offered here are not n chronological order, but extracted from statements made during the formal remarks at the press conference and in subsequent interview sessions, then re-organized according to general subject areas.  We have exercised editorial privilege to omit what, in our judgment, are extraneous comments or “word whiskers” not relevant to the discussion for purposes of readability and reading efficiency. Where statements included indecipherable words or phrases (in our audio recordings), we have included contextual additions in (parentheses).

Fox was signed to a five-year contract. Salary starts at $200,000 per year and increases $10,000 per year. In addition, there is a pool of $200,000 for the hiring of assistant coaches.  According to Appalachian State Athletics Director Charlie Cobb, “These numbers are comparable to where the Sun Belt is. We are committed to starting a position of Director of Basketball Operations.  There are also some incentives in the contract for players’ academic performance and grade point averages, as well as winning in the regular season, in the conference, and things like that. It was approved by the Board of Trustees yesterday about 3:30 pm.”

In an almost 90-minute press conference and interview sessions, the Long Island, New York native whose parents were in the room deftly touched on a variety of subjects with passion, energy and insight.  Some highlights of the comments by Fox and Cobb:

The Interview and Hiring Process

Fox: “I had a great job at Davidson, with Coach McKillop and what he allows his staff to do. He was the boss, but I felt almost like I was a mini-head coach. I had looked at other jobs. Some I received, some I didn’t. But this one is…I am just really excited. I am lucky to be given this opportunity at a place like this.”

Cobb acknowledged that when the job came open there was a bit of a feeding frenzy. “I am speaking to a national group of basketball coaches in May,” Cobb said, “and somewhere I am going to work in a message about the assistant coaches who feel they need an attorney or an agent to help market themselves.  There is nothing more infuriarting sitting in this (athletic director’s) chair than to get a call or email from someone claiming to represent, ‘the perfect coach for your job.’  Then in a follow-up email  or call they give you a list of seven names.    Not all (or any) of the seven are perfect for your situaiton. More importantly, those coaches are competing with other guys being represented by the same agent.”

Mr. Fox shared that when he heard about the open head coaching position at Appalachian State, he went to his boss, Davidson head coach Bob McKillop, and told him that he was interested.

Cobb confirmed, “What I appreciate most is that I went through a mental list of guys who I thought might be interested in the job and here’s some guys that I want them to answer the question of would they be interested in the job, yes or no.” Cobb told reporters that Fox was one of the guys he was considering as a potential candidate, but that he had not yet reached out to him when McKillop called and told him that his 13-year veteran assistant and now associate head coach was very interested in the Appalachian job.

Publicly, when the decision to not renew the contract of former head coach Jason Capel was made, Cobb announced that the search for a new coach would be looking for someone with head coaching experience.  The decision to hire Fox, a 13-year assistant, went counter to that original hiring path.  “I had said that if we could find someone with head coaching experience, that is where I really wanted to be. In fact, five of the 10 guys that we interviewed as finalists either had been or were head coaches.  We kept going through the profile and, quite honestly, the further along in the process we went, it really became more about ‘fit.’  As this search went on, I was excited, but I also thought that maybe we needed to tweak what our initial thoughts were. It became more about who is the right fit. It became obvious that Coach McKillop trusted (Jim Fox) implicitly about how the program at Davidson operated. It prompted me to amend that original, strict criteria.

“…I kept coming back,” Cobb said, “to thinking that Jim was the perfect fit for a couple of other jobs that are open. So I started thinking, well, if he is a perfect fit for those jobs, then why not ours?”

Cobb acknowledged that when a respected head coach is willing to reach out and call about an open position on behalf of an assistant, it is a great testament to the candidate’s potential.

On Style of Play

“I am focused on the future with our guys,” Fox said. “My staff and I are going to put in our system. In practice and in film, it is constant repetition and it (those skills) becomes habit. Both offensively and defensively, that is what we are going to do. Coach McKillop tells the story of being in New York when Captain Sully landed the airliner on the Hudson River. All those years as a pilot, all of the repetition prepared him for that one instant (emergency) moment. He landed the plane because his training kicked in. His training took over. He didn’t panic. For us, when we are playing in front of 19,000 people, there will be no panic. Our guys will go back to their reptition, and back to their habits. We will be fine.

“At Davidson, the word that we bandied about a lot was ‘attacking’. Davidson wanted to put (opposing teams) on their heels. That is what we are going to do at Appalachian. We are going to play a fun brand of basketball. We are going to attack people, and I told the guys that right from the beginning, whether it be offensively or defensively. We don’t want to be that first team that surrenders. I am going to talk to our guys about being relentless. Constant attack. That is a tough thing. They really have to commit, to be willing to do that. It is not easy.  Yesterday in the workout, our guys played their butts off. But you know what? They started to get a little fatigued with about 10 minutes to go. So that commitment to attack has got to be for the full 40 minutes.

“The great thing about Coach McKillop is that he wants staff opinion. But as an assistant coach, you take what you are doing at Davidson, then on the side you are writing things down, saying, ‘This is how I would do it. This is how I would change it a little bit, add my own little quirks.”

Recruiting

Fox: “I think you have to do very well in your backyard. In this case: North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Florida. Those are good and fertile recruiting grounds for us. But with the name ‘Appalachian State” you can reach out to other areas. Ohio, for example. In Minnesota, there is only one Division I school.  Coach (Bobby) Cremins established that pipeline from New York.  You know, my father runs one of the largest AAU organizations in the country out of New York. Once (student athletes) get on this campus and feel the excitement and support, I think we can get players.

“You have to hit the ground running with recruiting. We are already talking to players to help them find the right match. The process is starting, even though we don’t have the staff in place yet. What our roster changes are going to be, I won’t know fully for another month.

“Also, you see on ESPN and you look at these bloggers, if you look at the transfer list for Division I, there’s 500 (players) out there. So you don’t want to rush (the process). You want to find people who are committed to Appalachian and want to be here. If it means that we sit on a scholarship for a year and have more next year, then so be it. I want to find the RIGHT player, not a quick solution.

“…There are some good players coming out of junior college. Those junior college transfers to Wichita State (this year)? They were all about that program. They bought into the coach’s philosophy and they were great players.

“I would never say we are not going to recruit this or that kind of player. I want to find the RIGHT player: athletically, academically, and in the community. We want our fans, our alumni, our students, our boosters to be proud of wearing the Black and Gold.”

What Was Attractive About the Job

Fox: “A lot of times first time head coaches get into a program where there are a lot of problems. There are challenges here, but (the program) is not rock bottom. We make a couple of changes right away and we set a tone, then we can move forward. I told the guys that we are not writing a year off or two years off (as transition years), we can be very good (right away). We just have to commit to doing it. There will be bumps in the road, some ups and downs, but starting yesterday, we can move forward.”

What Needs to Change

“Our commitment. The guys need to be more committed in the classroom. Our guys have to be more committed in the community. I want our guys to be active, to be out amongst the fans, in the community talking to different people.

“…Our guys have great personalities, and I want them to show that. I don’t want any sense of entitlement. They are wearing ‘App State’ on their chest and I want them to be willing to commit to the entire program, the entire culture.”

Coming from a Private School Setting vs. a Public School Setting

Cobb: “Basketball is basketball. Like in public schools, not every kid playing basketball in a private college is a rocket scientist…I think the academic profile of the Appalachian student compares very favorably to the academic profile of the Davidson student.  I think the academic profile of an Appalachian athlete compares very favorably to the academic profile of a Davidson athlete. There is not as much difference as people may perceive. Perhaps the biggest difference or challenge is that Davidson is a very small school on the outskirts of Charlotte. We are a (larger) university in the mountains of North Carolina.  (When it comes to recruiting) it depends on what kind of experience the (student-athlete) is looking for.  Administrators would probably say that kids pick their school because of the school. I tend to think that most (student-athletes) pick their school because of the coaches and staff, and because they feel comfortable with their (prospective) teammates during the recruiting process.  Appalachian State has name recognition now across the nation. Finding 3-5 basketball players a year you are really counting on the coaches to be able to do that. It is not just about finding great basketball players, but finding the right ones to fit our circumstances.”

The Role of the University’s Move to the Sun Belt Conference in the Decision-Making

Cobb: “At the end of the day, it was more about (acknowledging) that we have struggled the last several years. It has been apparent to everybody. It is more about trying to be successful, whether that is in the Southern Conference or in the Sun Belt. Now in Davidson’s case it is in the Atlantic 10 Conference. You want to be successful. For us, we had an opening that happened to coincide with a time when we are going to the Sun Belt. For us, it was not very significant.  If anything, it probably helped (incite) some of the interest from some of the coaches. I am not sure that staying in the Southern Conference would have appealed to certain guys, but for the vast majority it didn’t make a difference. This is a gem (of a job). It is a great opportunity at a very good school.”

Player Retention

At least two incoming freshmen recruits, North Forsyth’s highly touted 6-1 point guard, Kedrick Flomo and Rasheed Worrell, a 6-8 forward from Coker, Alabama, have reportedly asked for a release from previously signed commitments to Appalachian State since former head coach Jason Capel and his staff were not rehired.

In addition, there is still the outstanding matter of Devonte Graham, the prized point guard recruit out of Raleigh’s Broughton High School, who signed a letter of intent to Appalachian State before his senior season, then reportedly asked out of his commitment after an impressive senior season so that he could explore other opportunities with larger, presumably more prominent basketball schools. Capel denied the release because, according to other news reports at the time, he felt North Carolina State and, perhaps, other schools were tampering.  Rather than enroll at Appalachian State, Graham chose to enroll at Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire.

Speaking with reporters after the press conference, Fox told reporters regarding the freshmen, “I have spoken with both of them. I want to get back and and speak with them and engage their interest. I want guys that want to be here, that want to wear ‘Appalachian’ across their chest. After I get out and speak with them, hopefully we will be able to move on, one way or the other. This will be determined very quickly.

“What people don’t grasp,” he said, “is that when a coach leaves, it is tough on the players (both on the roster and recruits). The players are sitting there in a room looking at me when I am talking with them and saying, ‘Man, he didn’t recruit me. Does he want me? Is he going to keep me here?…Any time there is a head coaching change, there is going to be change on your roster. They say that when you sign a letter of intent you are signing with the school, but they are really signing with the coach and the players (who will become their teammates).”

Fox reported that Davidson didn’t have the problem of recruit retention during his tenure because McKillop has been the head coach for some 25 years, so without that coaching turnover, you don’t have the problem.

“I have spoken with Graham’s people, too,” Fox stated. “I want this to end. He is a great guy. I want him to know that we are doing everything we can to make sure he is going to go where he wants to go. I spoke with them last night. I have not spoken officially with Charlie (Cobb) about it, but I can tell you that that (situation) is going to be resolved today.”

Apparently, Fox is a man of his word. We have heard no direct word out of the Appalachian State athletic department yet, but CBSSports.com is reporting Wednesday evening that “Appalachian State has released 2014 recruit Devonte Graham from his letter-of-intent, meaning the point guard is free to go anywhere in the fall.”  The same report indicates that Graham has received interest from Creighton, Kansas, Providence, Pittsburgh, Virginia, and Nebraska.

Coach Fox disclosed, “I went to see the players (on Tuesday). You know, there is anxiety for them, too. There is doubt in their minds. Here is this new coach who didn’t recruit me. Here’s this new coach I know nothing about.

“I told them,” Fox shared, “Guys, we are a family. You are MY guys.You are MY guys and I want you to believe that. Anything you need, I am here for you.

“We all watch the NCAA tournament,” continued Fox. “You know what? There is such a fine line in college basketball between being good and being great. I have to get our players to believe this, that we are not that far off. We have to change some things. We have to do some things differently. We have to build a culture. But, you know what? They want to do it.

“They are going to work,” he added. “I am going to kick their butts, because they want to achieve greatness. I believe that. I looked into their eyes and I know they want to achieve that greatness. I can’t wait to work with them.”

On Developing the Assistant Coaches Staff

In answer to a Blowing Rock News question about his thoughts, process and priorities in hiring assistant coaches, Fox said, “Most important, I want guys who are going to be loyal to Appalachian State, and not looking with one foot in the door and one foot out the door. I want guys who are going to roll up their sleeves and work hard, and guys who have connections around the areas that I think are important. I want guys who are able to communicate, to get our message through to players. Finally, I want guys who eventually want to be head coaches, because if they want to be head coaches they will be willing to dabble in every aspect of the job. When we recruit a player, I ask them if they want to be a pro. If they say yes, those are the kind of guys that I want to recruit because then I know that they are going to work for their four years.

In answer to a follow-up question regarding timing, Fox revealed, “There is somebody coming in tomorrow, to start. Hopefully by the end of the weekend I will have the two other guys. I am trying to get a former player from AppState on my staff. I don’t know if he will be able to do it, but it would be great if he does.”

On Scheduling

Fox: “We have to look forward and it is important that I not look at what has been done in the past (in terms of scheduling). Some of our schedule has already been done. Some of it I will be able to fill in. My goal with our schedule at Appalachian is to get people excited. Being from New York, we say we want to put our players and our program and the university on Broadway. We want the lights to be the brightest. We want people to see us on TV. That is generally my philosophy on scheduling. I also want to build confidence in our players. We have to be playing our best basketball in late February and early March, getting ready for the Sun Belt tournament. I told our players yesterday, April 8th, that we are building right now for the end of February and early March. I want our guys to expect to win (that Sun Belt championship).

“Scheduling is one of the most challenging aspects of the program. It would blow your mind. It is not easy. What we have to do is establish that culture find things that make games interesting.  Maybe we play a game in Asheville. You have to think outside the box when it comes to scheduling. It can’t just be home-and-home…maybe you play neutral site games.  Maybe you play Purdue in Indianapolis., or Gonzaga in Seattle, or Florida in Jacksonville. That is a neutral site game, not like a money game at their place.

“Developing in-state rivalries is important.  The challenge is that we are going to inherit a schedule. What we have to do is get the fans to come (whomever the opponent).  If you look at the successful mid-Majors, they could be playing (four reporters and the head coach) and their fans are still going to come because they believe in the program. They believe in the culture. That is our challenge as a staff and as a team, to build that culture.”

Building the Program

After thanking a litany of folks who have helped not just in the interview process, but in his career’s development, Fox said, “Now it is time to talk about US.  I am humbled. I am honored to be your men’s basketball coach. I was at Davidson for 13 years, so you know there is anxiety. I was in my hotel room yesterday and I put on that black and gold and man, it felt good.”

That Fox has toiled in every aspect of building and maintaining a successful basketball program at former perennial Southern Conference powerhouse Davidson — a frequent SoCon representative to the NCAA Division I tournament — was obvious.  He didn’t just speak of recruiting and getting good players and teaching fundamentals.  He spoke of those things, but in his prepared remarks he issued a “call to arms” to fans, alumni, students, faculty, business owners and members of the High Country and App Nation communities to get behind the program. “I need your help,” he admitted to everyone in the room and listening to the live radio broadcast. “I need you to get behind us,” he said, smiling.  “I told Charlie in the interview process that I want to be the Mayor of Boone by the time September rolls around. I want to get out and meet as many people as possible. I want to get you excited about what we are going to do here.

“I was fortunate,” Fox admitted. “Where I was, I had a great job. Coach McKillop, Matt Matheny, (others) told me, ‘Don’t jump at just anything. Find a place that is special. Find a place where you can be successful. And man, what a place (here at Appalachian State). There are people who want to be behind me. There are people who want our basketball program to be successful.  There are people who want the Holmes Center to be rockin’.

“I have seen the Holmes Center rockin’. I remember getting off the bus a couple of years ago and there were about 8,000 fans in there going crazy. I need the students. I am going to get out in the cafeteria. I want to go to fraternity houses. I want to go to sorority houses. I want to get those students excited about Appalachian State’s men’s basketball program.  I told our players that we need THEM to be out there getting people excited about our program. It can’t just be me and our staff. We need to get our players out there getting people excited and coming to games.

“I want to get out there and meet as many season ticket holders and other people in Boone as possible, and talk to them.  Tell me where to eat. Tell me where to go. Tell me with whom I should meet.  This is all about building that army.  This is that call to arms. I need you to help me. We can do great things here. That is what Appalachian expects. I expect greatness from our players on the court. I expect greatness from our players off the court.  I expect greatness from our players in the classroom. And I expect greatness from our players in the community.

“When you, the fans and the media, are invested in our program, then that program becomes really important to the community. I want you to come to practice. I want you to come to our workouts. I want you to stop by the office and just talk to me, because I want to get you invested.  I told Charlie that after each game I want to find a spot here in the community, and my whole staff is going to show up after every game, just to mix with the fans. I want to hear what you have to say. If you thought we should have played zone (when we played man-to-man), tell me! If you thought we should have done something different, tell me. Because if you demonstrate that you care, too, we are going to be successful.

“I am excited. The future is bright. I am excited to be representing Appalachian State,” he concluded his prepared remarks.

In a personal interview after the formal press conference, Fox elaborated on the program-building aspects of his job and what he expects of his players. “When (starting forward) Michael Obacha is walking down the street,” the new head coach and program-builder observed, “and he sees a young boy wearing some kind of Appalachian State gear, I want Michael to take the time to go up and talk to that boy. Even if he only speaks to that kid for two minutes, that kid becomes a fan. It will get that boy excited that he met one of the Mountaineers and he will go home and tell his mother and father that he wants to go to an AppState game, to see his new friend Michael play.”

In introducing Fox to AppNation on Wednesday, Athletic Director Charlie Cobb explained to those attending the press conference that there were five characteristics he and others in the selection process were looking for in the next head basketball coach.

  1. Someone committed to building a winning program.
  2. Someone with experience as a leader
  3. Someone with great communication skills
  4. Someone committed to the academic performance of our team
  5. Someone who wanted to be an eager part of the Boone community

“I am excited that Jim is here,” Cobb said. “He brings outstanding credentials to Appalachian State. The thing that stuck me is that when I spoke with (Davidson head coach) Bob McKillop, he said that in 13 years (as an assistant at Davidson) Jim has worn every hat. When you start at the ground floor and go to the top of a successful program, obviously you learn every aspect of building a program.

“One of the most telling comments about Jim came last week,” Cobb smiled. “We were in Dallas and we ran across Coach McKillop and his wife, Kathy.  When Coach introduced us and told Kathy who we were, she said ‘You are hiring Jim.’  I told her that we were trying to. She said, ‘He is simply the best.’  One thing you discover in our world: Coaches’ spouses typically know what’s going on.  For her to say that without prodding speaks highly about Jim as a man, but also the potential he brings to the job.

“Jim did an amazing job in the interview process,” added Cobb, “of detailing his process for building a program based on style of play, recruiting the right kids, and player development. I am confident that Jim will bring energy and accountability to our program. He is that agent of change that we are all looking for.”

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