The first man Carolina Panthers General Manager Marty Hurney and team president Mark Richardson interviewed for their head coaching vacancy two years ago was Steve Spurrier. The second candidate they spoke to was John Fox, and when he left Charlotte after a lengthy session, the two executives thought they had their man. It was not Steve Spurrier.
They spoke with several other coaches during the hiring process, including Tony Dungy and Marvin Lewis. But in the end, Fox, the New York Giants' defensive coordinator the previous four years, had made the most indelible impression.
"He had all the characteristics we were looking for," said Hurney, a Washington area native and former sportswriter who learned the front-office game under Bobby Beathard in San Diego. "He had great energy. He knew exactly what he wanted to do with his staff. You could tell he had a great feel for coaches around the league and how he wanted to deal with the players."
Fox has dug Carolina out from the rubble of a 1-15 year in 2001 under George Seifert and has the team one game away from a Super Bowl appearance. To get to the big game, Fox will have to become this year's Jon Gruden, the coach who comes up with the plan that upsets the Philadelphia Eagles at home in the NFC championship game. A 29-23 double-overtime victory over the Rams last weekend in St. Louis put Carolina and its 48-year-old coach in the title game Sunday in Philadelphia.
Fox's no-fear coaching style stood in contrast to two others who chose to play it conservatively last weekend. They were roundly criticized by the media and by their teams' fans -- and will be watching the title games at home. At the end of regulation, the Rams' Mike Martz chose to play for a tie and overtime instead of an outright victory, settling for a field goal against Carolina. And, in Philadelphia, Packers Coach Mike Sherman chose not to go for a first down on fourth-and-one late in the game, when a first down likely would have clinched the victory for Green Bay.
Diplomacy may be a Fox trait, but conservative play isn't. "You just evaluate differently game to game," Fox said Monday at his weekly press conference. "Every week is a customizing of your team versus their team. Every week brings on a new experience as far as their weaknesses, their strengths, or your strengths and how they match up. A lot of those are dictated as far as the decisions you make.
"Whether its fourth and one on the goal line, or if your quarterback has thrown a few picks, maybe with 38 seconds left you decide not to pass one more time. You go for the safe field goal. There's a lot that goes into each decision each week."
Against St. Louis, Fox chose to go for the Rams' jugular on the first play of the second overtime, calling for a bold, deep pass over the middle to wide receiver Steve Smith, who carried it 69 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
"He's as aggressive as you can get," New York Giants safety Sean Williams, who broke in as a rookie under Fox, told the Associated Press. "One of his favorite sayings is 'don't be afraid to be great.' If he's in that kind of situation, I know he's playing to win."
Fox has never really varied from the winning formula he espoused to Hurney and Richardson in that very first interview. Run the football, play tough defense and have high-quality special teams. This year, that philosophy -- aided considerably by the acquisition of free agent running back Stephen Davis -- has produced a 13-5 record. It also has resulted in a number of very close games, most won in regulation or overtime by the Panthers.
Nine of their regular season victories have been by six points or less, and they were 4-1 in overtime, counting the Rams victory. In Fox's first season, four of their nine losses were by a maddening three points or less, though the Panthers, even after an eight-game losing streak, set the foundation for their 2003 success by winning four of their last five games.
"I talked to him at midseason," said Jim Fassel, the former Giants coach who originally hired Fox in 1997. "He said, 'You know last year we were losing those close ones, and now we've learned how to win them.' That's not a coincidence. First of all, he's got more veteran guys, and that gives you an edge in winning the close ones. No. 2, and coaches can't really control this, early in the season if you win a couple of them, it gives your team confidence you can do that. If you lose some of them, it sends you in the opposite direction."
Veteran safety Mike Minter, who played on the 1-15 team, said that early in his tenure Fox "basically came in and said, 'I don't know how tough you guys are.' He didn't pull any punches on that and it's hard when a man has his toughness questioned. But he laid it all out there and told us whoever survived that [first] training camp would be around to turn this team into a winner."
There were serious questions about Fox's ability to succeed in the mid-1990s during one of the darker periods of his coaching life. Fox had left the Chargers in 1995 to become defensive coordinator for the Raiders. A week before the '96 season, following a tough exhibition loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he left the team. One of his close friends said this week that Raiders owner Al Davis and Fox were constantly clashing, and Fox decided life was too short to be miserable every day he went to work.
He spent the '96 season working as a consultant for the St. Louis Rams, breaking down tapes, helping the staff in any way he could. "Actually it was pretty enjoyable," he said last week. "I went to work five days a week, got to spend a lot of time with my family. It was kind of a good break, to be honest with you."
The following season, Fassel hired him as his defensive coordinator and the Giants thrived. "In New York, he essentially handled one side of the ball," said Fassel, an offensive specialist who said he basically left Fox alone. "It was as close for a guy to be the head coach as you'll ever get. He did a great job for us."
Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi also was a huge Fox fan.
"There was never a doubt in my mind after the first year I saw him coach that he would be a head coach some day," Accorsi said. "In all my years, there have been only two assistants I could say that about that soon, and that was [Marty] Schottenheimer and John Fox."
Accorsi recalled the week before the Giants' NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings at the end of the 2000 season that he had serious reservations about his team's ability to contain Minnesota's high-powered offense.
"All I saw in my mind that week was Randy Moss and Minnesota scoring 500 touchdowns on us," Accorsi said. "All week, I didn't even want to talk to John. On Saturday, he comes up to me and says, 'You've been avoiding me. How come?' When I told him why, he laughed and said, 'Don't worry. We're gonna' be fine.' "
The Giants won, 41-0.
"When he interviewed for the Carolina job, he asked me if I'd do a mock interview with him," Accorsi said. "I made him dress up and wear a suit, and I asked him about everything. When I asked the key question -- what is your offensive philosophy? -- he knew exactly what to say. 'We're gonna run the ball, play tough defense and put a big emphasis on special teams.'
"That's what they're doing now. This guy had been prepared for years. This should not be a surprise to anyone."
Staff writer Mark Maske contributed to this story.