‘This is the hardest part of coaching’
If North Carolina had won the College World Series, finally delivering Mike Fox his long-sought national title on the seventh try, some people close to him wondered if he might go out on top and retire.
With the Tar Heels eliminated after Wednesday night's loss to Oregon State, what now?
Fox's contract expires at the end of the month, and while Fox, 62, and athletic director Bubba Cunningham have been working on an extension, there's still nothing signed yet — a somewhat surprising and unusual state of affairs for any successful college coach and especially one who has been in Chapel Hill for 20 years.
"We have a contract in the works," Cunningham said Wednesday night in a text message.
It's easy to understand why North Carolina might have been loathe to enter into a long-term extension with Fox even a few months into this season, coming off two years where the Tar Heels missed the NCAA tournament and then were upset at home by Davidson last year. When North Carolina started the season 7-7 before losing to Gardner-Webb, that only reinforced that trend.
But North Carolina's play since then, regrouping and playing its way all the way to Omaha, where the Tar Heels beat Oregon State and lost to Mississippi State before being eliminated by the Beavers in a rematch, wiped out any of those thoughts, and Fox's deliberate re-examination of his program, its principles and its standards since its previous trip to Omaha in 2013 appears to have worked. (Some of it, to be sure, was beyond his control: there's not much anyone in college baseball can do about bad luck with recruits in the draft.)
While Fox will be criticized for some of his pitching decisions Wednesday, that's a much smaller issue than the overall direction of the program. The disappointment of the past few years was really the only dip in that trajectory under Fox, and the past few months have wiped that out. There shouldn't be much doubt in the health of the program under Fox at this point, so the question is really going to be how he wants to proceed.
If Fox wants to return, this should be a slam dunk, and if Fox and Cunningham are just narrowing down details, it will be. Cunningham said Fox has not mentioned retirement to him, and this may be nothing more than a protracted negotiation over a contract that both sides have considered a formality.
But still, that doesn't change the fact that the Tar Heels' season is over and they don't have a coach under contract for next year.
When North Carolina defeated Stetson in the super regional to advance to the College World Series, Fox picked his wife, Cheryl, off the ground and spun her around in joy. “We're going back to Omaha, baby!” he yelled.
Whether that emotion sprung from his joy in the renewed success of the program or the knowledge it might be his last shot, only Fox knows.