Note: This is my story on John Fox in the 2002 preseason. I visited with him during off-season workouts the summer before his first season as the Carolina Panthers’ new head coach.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers' practice field and the coaches' offices in Ericsson Stadium are connected by a sidewalk that winds through a park-like setting.
New Panthers coach John Fox is making the walk after a summer school practice in June. He stops for fans greeting him. He poses for pictures with kids.
It's the Monday morning after golf's U.S. Open, and as Fox passes by a group of Carolina sportswriters, they call out to him, saying San Diegan Phil Mickelson lost another major because he's not mentally tough.
"That's not the reason," Fox says over his shoulder as he keeps walking.
Don't talk San Diego sports with John Fox and expect to go unchallenged. Fox made his NFL reputation on the East Coast as the New York Giants defensive coordinator, including a Super Bowl season two years ago, but he still considers himself a San Diegan.
He played football at Castle Park High and Southwestern College in Chula Vista. He played safety at San Diego State in 1975-76. He was a Chargers fan as a kid and a Chargers assistant coach in 1992-93.
He still follows SDSU football, and now that the head coach is an old Aztecs teammate, Tom Craft, he talks on the phone for first-hand updates on the program. As Fox sits in his office and reminisces, the Panthers' morning practice script is still tucked in the front of his coaching shorts. His feet are propped up on his desk.
"I'm a lifetime Aztec Alumni member," he says, reaching for his back pocket to pull out an alumni card before realizing, "Oh, my wallet is in my other pants."
There was a time when Fox was interested in becoming the head coach at his alma mater, but that was before his name landed on NFL short lists following the Giants' trip to the Super Bowl. He has brought energy to a Carolina franchise that finished 1-15 last season. Fans lost interest in the team not only from the losing but because they considered former coach George Siefert aloof.
Fox is demonstrative on the sidelines. In fact, he resembles former NFL coach Bill Parcells -- "People started telling me that when my hair turned gray," Fox said -- and speaks with the raspy voice of a football coach who does a lot of teaching, coaxing and yelling.
"John is the type guy who takes 30 minutes to walk down the hall because he's sticking his head in all the offices to say hi," said general manager Marty Hurney, who knew Fox from their days together with the Chargers. "He knows what he wants. He's a guy's guy. As far as coaching goes, he's very determined and focused."
In the Panthers' lunch room after practice, Fox has his arm around defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, who has a history as an NFL problem child. He's asking Gilbert how he's doing and joking with him.
"When you're 1-15, you're worn down," said Charlie Dayton, the team's director of communications. "John has given this whole organization a boost of energy. We would make the rounds on Friday mornings to radio stations, and he would be ready to go at 7, whether it was a sports talk station or country music station. He has won over our fans."
Fox can thank California voters for his NFL coaching career, although at the time he feared his coaching future had been derailed by the Prop. 13 vote in June 1978 that limited property taxes.
Fox, who was a graduate assistant at SDSU, had been told he had a job waiting for him as a teacher and coach at Castle Park High once he earned his teaching credential. But with school budget cuts from Prop. 13, there was no job.
At about the same time Sid Gillman, who was briefly the athletic director at USIU when the school had a brush with playing Division I football, called then-SDSU assistant Ted Tollner, asking him if he knew of any young coaches. Gillman hired Fox, beginning an odyssey that took him around the country to 13 more jobs before Carolina hired him.
"I knew from the time I was 11 years old that I was going to play football as long as I could and then I wanted to be a coach," Fox said. "I feel blessed to have this opportunity. I've had a lot of people influence me, from my Castle Park coaches, Gil Warren, Jan Chapman and Bing Dawson, to (Giants owner) Wellington Mara."
Fox even includes Raiders owner Al Davis on the list, although Fox resigned as the Raiders' defensive coordinator with one game remaining in the 1996 preseason because of differences with the meddling Davis.
"The experience with Al wasn't all negative," Fox said. "He's a very smart football man."
At New York, Fox directed units that ranked in the top 10 in rushing defense three of his five seasons. His style also is to blitz and attack the quarterback. Giants defensive end Michael Strahan set an NFL record with 22 1/2 sacks last year.
The constant blitzing amuses New York Jets coach Herman Edwards, who played with Fox in the secondary at San Diego State.
Edwards said when the Jets and Giants played a preseason game last year, he asked Fox on the field before the game, "John, how come when you played safety you hated being left in single coverage on a blitz, but as a defensive coordinator you're always blitzing, blitzing, blitzing?"
Warren, Fox's high school coach, laughs when he tells a story about Fox's senior year when he broke his collarbone just before the opener. Fox watched the first game from the press box but hated not being part of the team. For the remaining games he was injured, he stood on the sideline in full uniform, including pads.
"It was the most frustrating year of my life," Fox said. "I just had to be down on the field."
He's been down there ever since.