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Archive for Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Woodling: Carolina coach Fox was once KU assistant

January 21, 2004

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For one reason or another, defensive backs were in short supply during that week of practice, so the assistant coach put on pads and a helmet and became a player-coach -- a rarity in pro football.

"He never played in a game," John Hadl recalled about the assistant coach. "He just did it in practice. But he was only 25 or 30 years old at the time."

John Fox was, in fact, 30 years old in 1985, and he was in his first year as a professional football coach after spending the previous seven years -- including one at Kansas -- as a college aide.

Fox's first pro boss was Hadl, the former standout NFL quarterback who is now Kansas University's associate athletic director for development. The team was the Los Angeles Express of the ill-fated United States Football League.

Don't remember the old USFL? You're undoubtedly not alone. Pro football teams like the Express, the New Jersey Generals, the Denver Gold and the Memphis Showboats are answers to trivia questions today, teams in little danger of being resurrected through retro fashions.

The USFL did not go head-to-head with the established NFL. That would have been suicide. Instead, the USFL played its games in the spring. As it turned out, USFL games might as well have been played on the moon.

"They didn't have a TV contract. That was the problem," Hadl said.

After the league folded, Fox eventually wound up with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL and ultimately to his first head-coaching job with the Cinderella Carolina Panthers, who will meet the favored New England Patriots Feb. 1 in the Super Bowl.

Hadl is not in the least surprised Fox is head coach of a team in the Super Bowl.

"You could tell he was going places," Hadl said. "He was a sharp young guy. He was wired. He had tremendous energy. He's a good guy, too. I hope he can pull it off."

Few coaches have paid more dues than Fox. His early years in the business are almost unbelievably nomadic. It's no secret football coaches lead vagabond lives, but Fox's first eight years make you wonder if he owned camels and lived in a tent.

A defensive back at San Diego State, Fox spent his first year out of college on the Aztecs' staff as a graduate assistant. The next year (1979) he was an aide at U.S. International. A year later, Fox was at Boise State. The next year (1981) he was at Long Beach State. In 1982, he moved to Utah. A year later, he was on first-year head coach Mike Gottfried's Kansas staff. In '84, Fox moved on to Iowa State, then to the Express the next year.

That's eight jobs in eight years. Is that a record? If it isn't, I'll bet it's in the top three. Eight different jobs aren't all that unusual for an American Football Coaches Assn. member, but in eight years ...? Amazing.

By the way, Fox isn't the only member of Gottfried's 1983 cadre who went on to become a head coach. Defensive coordinator Ron Zook is currently the head man at Florida University. Also, offensive line coach Mike Solari is now the man in charge of the Chiefs' offensive line, arguably the best in the NFL.

Fox, now 49, isn't the only member of the Panthers' organization with Kansas football connections. Danny Crossman, listed as Carolina's special teams aide, was a starting defensive back for the Jayhawks in 1985 before transferring to Pitt when Gottfried took over those Panthers in 1986.

Also, Carolina's director of pro scouting is Mark Koncz, a defensive tackle who lettered for the Jayhawks from 1987-89. Koncz, a suburban Chicago native, was KU's defensive captain during his senior year.

Meanwhile, the Panthers, extant only since 1995, have had just one former KU football player on their active roster during their nine-year history. That was Isaac Byrd, a wide receiver who logged three seasons (2000-2002) in Charlotte.

If you're wondering about the Patriots, they have two former Jayhawks on the roster, but linebacker Don Davis rarely plays and long snapper Sean McDermott is on the injured list.

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