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Hoops Program Helps Baseball And Beyond

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

June 27, 2007

CHAPEL HILL – The influence of the men's basketball program at North Carolina has long reached far beyond whatever gymnasium housed it at the time.

Hoops even gets an assist for the newfound success the baseball program is enjoying. The Tar Heels recently played in the national championship series (another loss to Oregon State) for the second consecutive season.

Baseball coach Mike Fox said basketball is what drew him to Chapel Hill back in 1974, when he arrived at UNC as a freshman.

"There is something that if you've grown up in the state, and you've either picked between Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest or N.C. State, you're going to be a fan of generally one of those schools," Fox said. "That is just what happens in this state. And it may not start with baseball. With me, it started with basketball. For me coming here, it was the biggest thrill ever to put that jersey on."

Fox walked on to the baseball team when he came to Chapel Hill in the fall of 1974, but he also played junior varsity basketball. He studied the Dean Smith system while playing for former Carolina assistant Eddie Fogler. Fox applied many of the principles he learned to baseball when he became a head coach at the Division III level, at North Carolina Wesleyan.

Basketball has helped with the football program as well.

In the fall of 2006, Smith and former UNC player and pro basketball great Billy Cunningham were sitting in the Smith Center. They had been watching Roy Williams' Tar Heels practice. During this time, the school was searching for a new football coach, having fired John Bunting in midseason.

Smith asked Cunningham if he knew Butch Davis from Cunningham's years in Miami with the NBA's Heat. Cunningham said he did, and that he remembered Davis as a good man who cleaned up the Miami football program.

At the time, there was a subtle campaign by some UNC insiders to attach Davis to the problems at Miami, just as most gave him credit as the man who returned from the Dallas Cowboys with discipline and solutions to those problems.

By the time Davis had been officially hired and announced as the next UNC coach, Cunningham had played a large role behind the scenes in helping to land him. As usual, Smith had a hand in it all as well.

For Fox, the basketball program continues to help baseball because basketball remains the most popular sports team for a large portion of the state. Women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance talks about how men's basketball is a part of every Carolina student's heritage, and how for many years he studied Smith and how he ran his program.

In baseball, this popularity is particularly important because of the numbers game every college baseball coach must play. Baseball gets fewer than 12 scholarships by NCAA rule. With as many as 30 kids on the team, few programs award a full ride to any player. At state schools, the cost of attending is far less for in-state kids, so by recruiting most of his players from North Carolina, Fox is able to make the money go further.

When he goes after a high-profile kid who is sure to get drafted by a Major League Baseball team, and therefore will have to decide between turning pro and attending UNC, Fox may have to give a full scholarship, particularly to an out-of-state prospect.

"You know who the best players are," Fox said. "You have to work at recruiting. It's the hardest thing we do. Then you have to be lucky. We got Daniel Bard. We thought he was going to go to Wake Forest. It's not as easy as some people would like to think it would be, as if you could just go knock on somebody's door and they say they will come. I wish it were that easy."

Bard eventually went in the first round of the MLB draft, to the Red Sox, but not before he helped Fox and the Tar Heels reach the 2006 College World Series finals. UNC lost to Oregon State in that series, but getting there proved to be a milestone for a program that had never been a true national contender.

When the team advanced to Omaha, Neb., and the College World Series again this season, it was the first time in school history it had ever done so in consecutive years.

Getting to this point has not been easy. UNC had won periodically through the years, but the program sailed through the 1990s without making a CWS trip.

Fox: "Winning Is An Attitude"

So when Fox arrived, he found some players on hand, but he also discovered that he had some attitude development to perform if he wanted to achieve the kind of success he had enjoyed at the Division III level. He had won the national championship there, but when he moved to Carolina he learned he could not even win a weekend series at Florida State.

"It's been a slow process," Fox said. "It helps when you win a couple of big games on the road. The series (in 2006) at Miami, when we won on Sunday to win that series, which we hadn't done before, that confidence just grows."

This is Fox's ninth season at UNC. That confidence took eight years to develop. During that span, the Tar Heels won a lot of regular-season baseball games, but they always seemed to sputter when the postseason arrived.

He took an undefeated team to Florida State when he first took the job at UNC and left numb after getting hammered for three days.

"Winning is an attitude," Fox said. "We couldn't figure out when I first got here why we couldn't seem to win a series at Florida State, win big games, win on Sundays. We had three first-round pitchers when I first got here.

"But I think it is just because we didn't expect to win. I got off the field Sunday my first year at Florida State, that was my first league series on the road as the coach here. We went down there 22-0 and got waxed in three games. That really sent a message to me that you're not going to win in this league if you don't have kids who get off that bus and think they are going to go into a place and win.

"It is so much about confidence and a little bit of cockiness. It's such an attitude in this league."

Of course, he also had to get the kind of players who could compete nationally. Collegiate baseball long has been dominated by the Pac-10, SEC and teams such as Miami and Florida State, which were long-time independents before joining conferences.

Getting Bard and left-handed pitcher Andrew Miller, who eventually became Baseball America's national player of the year, made a huge difference.

But Fox also signed in-state players such as two-time first-team All-ACC shortstop and second-round draft choice Josh Horton, North Carolina high school player of the year Chad Flack, and North Carolina high school co-players of the year Kyle Seager and Alex White. The latter two were seniors the same year as Dustin Ackley, an athletic performer who became the national freshman of the year this season.

But in recruiting players such as Bard, Miller and White, all of whom were drafted out of high school, there is always the danger of losing them before they ever arrive on campus. Even though a player signs with a college, the draft does not take place until the June before the kid is scheduled to enter college. He easily can sign and leave a hole in the recruiting class and a coach's plans.

"That is the biggest challenge in the last four or five years, since I started to try to recruit some of those kids," Fox said. "You have to protect yourself."

This year the Tar Heels signed three of the top high school pitching prospects in the nation. All three probably would have gone in the first round (two did), but Rick Porcello and Matt Harvey tagged themselves with such high prices for signing bonuses that they slipped in the draft. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner went reasonably quickly and almost certainly will turn pro.

UNC has a chance to get Porcello and/or Harvey. If Fox can pull that off, there will be every reason to believe the Tar Heels can continue to maintain the success they have enjoyed these past two seasons.

This year, they won the Coastal Division of the ACC for the second straight year, they won the ACC Tournament for the first time since 1990, and they duplicated their success in the NCAA Tournament.

They also are getting a beautiful new place to play. Boshamer Stadium is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with an entirely new structure on the same site. There will be many more seats and a whole new flavor.

But as proud and pleased as he is to get it, Fox is the first to say that a new facility will not ensure that the Tar Heels remain an elite program. They are going to have to continue to emulate men's basketball and go get the right players, and then make sure they do the work that is required to be an elite team.

"People say, ‘Hey, they are spending all this money. They are putting all these seats in here,'" Fox said. "If I think about all that too much, I'm not going to enjoy my life. I'm not going to let that happen. That would be too shallow.

"Hopefully, if I continue to do the things I'm supposed to do here at the University of North Carolina, I'll be fine. If I take that upon myself that we have to win, then you start cutting corners and it trickles down to your players.

"We never talk about winning here. We talk about doing things the right way, and hopefully the product will be winning."

Sounds like something Smith would say.