Mike Fox builds empire, instills values

The story was written after North Carolina’s baseball program made it to the final series two times in three years (2006, 2007), losing both to Oregon State. Mike Fox took over in 1999 and has led North Carolina to the College World Series (final eight teams) five times (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011) in his 14-year tenure. Previously, North Carolina had only made it four times (1960, 1966, 1978, 1989) in 41 years (since 1948). Fox also played on the 1978 team as the starting shortstop.

North Carolina was ranked No. 1 most of the season and is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Baseball Tournament. 2013 was the first season since 1990 that North Carolina won both the ACC regular season and tournament titles in the same season. They open a Super Regional in Chapel Hill Friday. It’s a best-of-three series with South Carolina. 

Every day Mike Fox awakes with two primary objectives in his coaching plan: getting the most out of his players on the field and instilling the most in his players for life.

For the past three years it’s worked out pretty well. Fox led the baseball team at the University of North Carolina on three consecutive trips to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. Two of those trips concluded in the championship round. It’s extraordinary considering that North Carolina reached the CWS only four times in the previous 45 years before this run.

“Yeah, it’s definitely a bit surreal,” says Fox, who was the starting second baseman on the 1978 North Carolina squad that reached the CWS.

While Fox adds that he’s received more criticism these past three years than any other in his 26 years of coaching, he shrugs it off because anytime he and his Tar Heels get an Omaha steak – actually in Omaha – or slurp a Zesto’s milkshake (an ice cream joint beside Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium), it’s been a great year.                                                        The school’s athletic administration agrees.

“To make it to Omaha three years in a row is, well, not impossible,” says Larry Gallo, North Carolina’s senior associate athletic director. “But for someone to do that is to be very, very successful.”

Success is something familiar to Fox. Before joining the Tar Heels 11 years ago, he coached for 16 years at North Carolina Wesleyan, where he led the Battling Bishops to the Division III World Series eight times, including to their first national title.

While Fox has earned whatever praise he receives, he says it’s all part of a grander plan.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Fox says. “The Lord has had a plan for me.”

After dropping to his knees in his dorm room and crying out to Jesus Christ his sophomore year, in what he called one of the most powerful moments of his life, Fox’s entire life has been driven by his faith. He leads the Tar Heels in prayer before games, and directs any praise they receive where it only makes sense.

“I remember in 2006, especially after we won the regional and then again after the super regional, the first thing he did was bring us together and give the glory to God,” says senior catcher Mike McKee. “That was the most thrilling, awesome experience. It was unbelievable.”

All-American righthander Alex White says Fox’s pre-game prayers unite the team, bonding them together in a way he’s never experienced in baseball. “That extra element creates a great atmosphere to play in,” says White.

And yet, Fox has never clashed with the school’s administration – or anyone else – despite the school being a secular university. There’s a certain appealing subtlety to Fox’s faith that enables him to lead the way he does.

“He portrays his faith in a very classy, non-ostentation fashion,” says Gallo.

All-American first baseman/outfielder Dustin Ackley adds, “He doesn’t overdo anything. He knows if he starts overdoing it, people stop listening.”

Plus, there’s way more to Fox’s faith-based leadership than merely praying before games.

“He’s a tireless worker,” says Gallo. “And he does things the right way. His character is beyond reproach.”

And it’s something Fox passes down to his players. He knows it’s more about getting the right players rather than the best ones, and he expects the same character from them that he exhibits in his own life.

“He’s a great recruiter,” says Ackley. “He’s told us about the past when he’s had guys with so much talent, but never came together as a team, and that’s why they couldn’t do what we’ve done. He finds the right guys.”

Same goes for his coaching staff, who Gallo credits along with Fox for much of North Carolina’s success. All three assistants – Scott Forbes, Scott Jackson, and Matt McCay – are also believers.

“We’re extremely committed not only to our professions, but our families and faith,” says Fox. “That’s special. I’m proud of that, and I think it helps us.”

Fox’s efforts have launched the Tar Heels into the limelight after years of North Carolina baseball being enshrouded by ACC big boys Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami, and Clemson. And with two of the nation’s top-five prospects (White’s No. 2; Ackley’s No. 4), according to Baseball America, and an experience-laden roster returning for 2009, the Tar Heels appear poised for another romp through Rosenblatt and a shot at the trophy.                                                                                                                                      But while Fox might wake each morning with winning in mind, he sleeps well because he knows he’s strived that day to instill values in his players that are far more essential than trophies could bring.

“The bottom line is, it’s still just a game,” says Fox. “My impact on these players will last their lifetime, beyond a four-year period and 200 baseball games.”

“He’s a great coach,” says White. “But he’s more concerned with how he develops us as people than as baseball players. He always wants us to win, but it takes a back seat to his role as a leader and counselor.”

While Fox’s mission is to place his team in position to win, his passion is for their lives to change.

“When people leave here, they’re a different kind of person,” says Ackley. “That’s a part of his faith.”

Fox is OK with critics targeting him, because if he’s considered the bulls-eye then his players are in the clear.

“He cares about us as much as his own family,” says White.

For example, in 2006, second baseman Bryan Steed’s eighth-inning throwing error allowed Oregon State to claim the lead and ultimately cost the Tar Heels the national title. Fox vigorously defended Steed as the player braved the media in the postgame press conference.

“I don’t think Bryan should be sitting up here at this table,” said Fox to reporters in that post-game press conference. Fox then smothered other implicative grenades sportswriters lobbed at anyone other than himself.

Says Ackley, “That’s huge, having coaches take care of you, not leaving you out to dry in situations like that.”

But then, that’s all just part of the plan.

“I mean, it’s what Christ did,” Fox says, grinning and shrugging as if thinking, Like, how could I act any differently?

Brandon Sneed is a freelance writer who lives in Wilson, N.C. This story was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Sports Spectrum.

Uncommon Challenge