Jim Fox spent 13 seasons as a Davidson assistant before Appalachian State hired him as its head coach.
His introduction to college coaching ruined the ladder-climbing curve.
Appalachian State will open the season Saturday with a game at Davidson, meaning Fox will begin his third year with a matchup against his mentor, Bob McKillop.
McKillop agreed to let Fox work at Davidson as a volunteer coach before the 2001-02 season, with a start date of Sept. 1, after the team returned from a European exhibition tour. When the Wildcats were overseas, staff member Michael Kelly received an offer to become the head coach at Rhode Island College.
McKillop had good news for Fox when the team arrived back on campus.
“I might have surprised Jim, but I promoted him from volunteer coach to part-time coach - a paid job,” McKillop said. “Without even serving one day on the job, he got a promotion.”
The two Long Island transplants enjoyed great success while working together at the small private school near Lake Norman, reaching six NCAA tournaments and riding a Steph Curry-crested wave of upsets to the 2008 Elite Eight.
When Davidson and Appalachian State parted ways as Southern Conference rivals and joined new leagues in 2014, McKillop recommended Fox for the job of leading the Mountaineers into a new era as Sun Belt members.
“He was the reason I got this job,” Fox said. “There are not many jobs out there, and the respect (former Appalachian State director of athletics) Charlie (Cobb) and (administrator) Rick (Beasley) had for coach is no doubt the reason I got the job. Coach went out there and worked hard for me.”
It was an unintentional but well-received repayment for the work Fox put in at Davidson.
McKillop, who coached high school basketball and ran a successful camp on Long Island, developed a connection to Fox through his similarly named father, who directed a youth basketball camp and also worked as a referee.
McKillop and Fox had other connections. Years apart, both attended Chaminade High and coached in the Catholic league, with Fox serving as an associate head coach at St. Dominic. McKillop made trips to New York to watch his son Matt, who lived with his grandparents during the summer, play for the Long Island Lightning travel team coached by Fox.
“I saw his investment of himself in the players – he really cared about his players,” McKillop said. “I saw the investment of his time in trying to be a better coach – he was on a mission to be a better coach. I saw his knowledge, his awareness, the way he taught.”
Fox left his friends and the familiar surroundings of New York for an unpaid job more than 650 miles from home, making a step-by-step climb to part-time assistant, second assistant, first assistant and, finally, associate head coach.
Fox, 43, regularly spent Thanksgivings with McKillop and his wife, Cathy, leading him to say they became his “parents in North Carolina.” McKillop, 66, joked that he preferred “older brother.”
Fox has a large, panoramic photo from the 2008 Elite Eight game against Kansas in Detroit’s Ford Field displayed prominently in his Holmes Center office. Davidson lost 59-57 against the Jayhawks, who advanced to the Final Four and won the national championship.
Conversely, Appalachian State has appeared in only two NCAA tournaments, as Bobby Cremins’ 1979 team and Buzz Peterson’s 2000 squad won Southern Conference tournament championships. The Mountaineers have finished with a winning record six times in the past 16 seasons, but Fox finally possesses a roster full of his players after posting a 21-39 record in his first two years as a head coach.
“The big picture you see, the reason that’s up there is because it reminds you every day that you walk in my office that, hey, this can be done,” Fox said. “You can get to the promised land. Coach did it at Davidson. If it’s a player or a recruit, or it’s me, I see that picture and it’s, ‘You have to keep working hard, and you can get there.’ ”
A winning season remains the next rung for Fox to reach.
The Winston-Salem Journal is a news partner of the Observer. For more Appalachian State coverage go to http://www.journalnow.com/sports/asu/