North Carolina has been one of the nation's premier programs much of the decade.
The Tar Heels have coach Mike Fox to thank for that.
There was a time when everyone wondered if the Tar Heels had what it took to reach the College World Series. Now the Heels routinely count on Omaha trips in June after four consecutive CWS appearances.
Fox has coached the Tar Heels for 11 seasons and has led the program to 10 NCAA appearances. He also has compiled an impressive 500-208-1 record.
The upcoming campaign will be Fox's biggest challenge in a few seasons. The Tar Heels are loaded with talent, but have several integral pieces to replace both at the plate and on the mound. Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley no longer will spearhead the offense. Ace pitcher Alex White, meanwhile, also signed a pro contract this past summer.
Fox sat down with us to discuss the upcoming campaign, the four consecutive CWS appearances and a host of other topics about his program and college baseball.
Q: Your program once again made a trip to the College World Series last season. Can you reflect on last season's campaign?
A: We were obviously just ecstatic about how our 2009 campaign transpired. Getting back to Omaha was special. I don't know if I fully expected that to happen with how many key departures we had from the '08 team a couple seasons ago. But give a lot of credit to our players. They played really well and that was the most important thing about the season. It was another special campaign.
Q: The Tar Heels now have made four consecutive CWS appearances. How special of a feat is that for you and the program?
A: Anyone that follows college baseball knows the difficulty of getting to Omaha just one time, much less four in a row. Only eight teams are going to get to Omaha and there are so many really good programs out there year in and out. Going four consecutive times is a very surreal feat from a personal standpoint. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect us to get to Omaha four years in a row. Any goals you set as a program or as a coach include going to Omaha, but not many people would write down going to Omaha four consecutive years as an expectation. Thinking that way is a little unrealistic as far as I'm concerned. But it happened for us and we're proud of it.
Q: Dustin Ackley was a phenomenal hitter for your program. How much of an impact did he have on North Carolina baseball in his three seasons there?
A: It's really difficult to put his contributions into words. Ackley was without a doubt the best player I've ever coached. I think more important than his contributions in the field and such, though, is the fact that his approach to the game made him a model for this program. He was modest, hard working and never showed to be a bad teammate. Every time he did something special, it was like he already had done it before. He never made a big deal out of his feats on the field. He was just a fantastic example to his teammates for three seasons. No player could get out of line. If they did, other players would point to Dusty as a model of how to act.
Q: What will the offense look like without Ackley in the lineup?
A: To be honest, I think we may actually be a little better 1-9. Time will tell if we really need Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley to be successful, but I like our chances. We'll find out if we'd rather have Seager and Ackley and an average 1-9, or a very solid 1-9. We'll see what happens. In terms of players that have looked good, Ryan Graepel had a fantastic fall at the plate and is ready to take a step forward. Also, Mike Cavasinni has returned to his old form and is ready to have a solid year at the plate. This is going to be an interesting team to watch from an offensive standpoint. We're still a work in progress, though.
Q: What are your thoughts on the upcoming campaign with the '10 season on the horizon?
A: The biggest challenge for us is going to be on the mound. We need to find out who's going to step up and fill some roles in the weekend rotation and the back end of the bullpen. Games are won and lost in those two areas in the ACC, so we need to figure some things out. We have so many young pitchers, so finding the right roles for those guys between now and opening day is important. The closer's role is wide open, but it looks like we're going to have Colin Bates and Patrick Johnson in the weekend rotation. So, that means it's likely Chris Munnelly or Nate Striz for the closer role. Striz was out for much of the fall because of surgery, but he'll be fine in the spring.
Q: With the departure of ace pitcher Alex White, everyone now expects Matt Harvey to rise to the occasion and become the next great UNC starter. What are your thoughts on Harvey for the upcoming season?
A: We hope Matt can rise to the occasion. I thought Matt had a terrific fall and is ready to take a step forward. He has really changed since his freshman campaign. His maturity, leadership and everything else about his life, I've never seen such an impressive transformation. He certainly has much talent and we hope he'll step up and take the reins of the weekend rotation. Hopefully he'll be mentioned with guys like Alex White and Andrew Miller by the end of the spring.
Q: There was a time when North Carolina wasn't expected to a perennial Omaha contender. What changed everything for the program?
A: I think Chad Flack's home run in the '06 Tuscaloosa Super Regional against Alabama was the turning point. I hate to put it all on a single play, but I think that was it. It might've also been the signings of pitchers Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard, and the fact they both chose to come to school here. It also could be Josh Horton coming to school here. But in the end, I always think about that Flack home run. When he hit that home run the air just kind of came out and relieved the pressure. That's when we thought we could succeed at the highest level in college baseball. Until then there always was some doubt, but it was like the dam burst at that point.
Q: You've coached against a lot of great hitters throughout your career. Any hitter in particular that stands out in your eyes?
A: I would have to say Mark Teixeira when he first started at Georgia Tech. I have never seen a player that could hit from both sides of the plate with absolutely no problem at all. He jumps out at me because he was amazing and could make some great pitchers look pretty bad. I would also have to put former Florida State catcher Buster Posey on the list. He was a fantastic player.
Q: You also have coached against plenty of front-line pitchers. Who's the best opposing pitcher you've seen?
A: I really like some of the pitchers Florida State had earlier this decade, especially Blair Varnes. Boy, there are so many good pitchers that have come from the ACC. Varnes, though, is the only pitcher I can think of off the top of my head.
Q: When you're not coaching, what exactly are you doing?
A: I'm usually just at home hanging out and spending quality time with the family. I don't have a lot of hobbies. I like the water, so I try to get to the coast of North Carolina as often as possible. My daughter is playing volleyball here at UNC, so I spend much of my time in the offseason watching her games. I just try to watch her and be with my family. I also try to see my mom as much as possible.
Q: What's the toughest part of coaching that perhaps outsiders don't think about too often?
A: Right now it's just the silly NCAA numbers we're under. That would be the toughest part. Up until now, it has been pretty good. There are always challenges with young people. You have to push the right buttons and get them motivated on and off the field. Trying to get them to understand some things can sometimes be difficult. Now you also have to manage the draft, and like I said, deal with some of the silly legislation that is in place. That's just my personal opinion on the legislation, though.
Q: With that said, what are some things you'd change about college baseball?
A: I'm not sure I'd change much about the current game. I love the aluminum bats and I believe in things such as the kids should be able to celebrate in the dugout. You know, things like that. I think college baseball is about as good as it ever has been right now. I don't know if I'd make many changes. Actually, I wish we'd stop making changes. In terms of rules, I would really like to see everyone have the same number of scholarships across the board. I'd just like to see everything equal. Scholarships are difficult for us because it's different in different conferences around the country. We need everything at the same level.
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