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Fox's physical mentality works wonders for Carolina


HOUSTON - John Fox had just brought his son to Napa, Calif., a day before training camp, and he and his wife had just purchased a home in the Bay area. But despite the regular season starting within two weeks, Fox abruptly quit his job as the Oakland Raiders' defensive coordinator in 1996.

There were quite a few NFL coaches and administrators who questioned the move, but Fox wasn't about to let anyone second-guess his decisions or game planning, even if it was meddlesome owner Al Davis.

Tough guy, this Fox.

Admit it, we've all wanted to do it - just look at our boss and say, take this job and ...

Fox has displayed a similar attitude in leading the Carolina Panthers to their first Super Bowl appearance, as they will face the New England Patriots on Sunday.

In Carolina, Fox, 48, is known as a throwback in the mold of Vince Lombardi. Around the country, no one knows him. Here in Houston, he is the "other coach" who will stand opposite the NFL's reigning genius, the Patriots' Bill Belichick.

"That is like everything else, no credit," Panthers safety Mike Minter said of Fox being overshadowed by Belichick. "This guy should have been on the list for Coach of the Year and he was left off of it. You take an organization that was 1-15 [two years ago] to the Super Bowl and you don't get any recognition?"

Fox is partly to blame for the lack of attention. When off camera, the former defensive coordinator is hyperactive and super social. Politicians can't work a room better than Fox.

He reads a lot, and the team's locker room is loaded with slogans called "Foxisms." The surfer boy charm is there, the one he developed as a teen-ager once his family moved from Virginia Beach, Va., to San Diego.

But turn on the lights and put a microphone in front of Fox, and he turns from Superman to Clark Kent. There is paranoia that he might slip and give the opposition ammunition. The former life of the party becomes an incredibly shrinking man, making the stale, monotone Belichick seem charismatic.

That's hard to do.

"Foxy likes to play golf, go to dinner; he doesn't like to hang around inside," said Carolina strength coach Jerry Simmons. "On Fridays, he is out somewhere in Charlotte eating and meeting with people. He is a players' type coach, and by that I mean family is important to him.

"He is always talking about that with players, communicating with them about things outside of football. He reminds me of Raymond Berry, my very first coach. Raymond let you know that football was special. He would point out that there are a lot of guys out there working hard for $5 an hour, and what we have here is very special."

Fox is as tough as Berry. When he became the Panthers' coach two years ago, he inherited a team that had had only one winning season since it entered the NFL in 1995, including a 1-15 record in 2001.

At the Panthers' first team meeting, Fox questioned his team's toughness. He challenged the players to make it through a strenuous training camp.

In other words, he beat them down before he picked them up.

"You have to establish the mind-set first before you can be physical," Fox said. "If you're prepared, then you can take the next step, which is winning. Winning breeds confidence, and we just build on that."

There were other things, too. The Panthers require players to participate in offseason weight training. The Panthers, who still use free weights, had 100 percent attendance, which is rare in this day. Some teams don't practice in full gear after the 10th or 11th week of the season, but Carolina is still in full gear even during Super Bowl week.

"Here, the mentality is different," said Panthers center Jeff Mitchell, a former Raven. "Right from the start, it's, 'We're going to be physical. We're going to be tougher than any team we face.' "

The Panthers run the ball, control the clock, stop the run, play well on special teams, make a few big plays in the passing game and make few mistakes. Fox's forte, though, is putting together defenses.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC championship game, Carolina outmuscled the Eagles by running the ball 40 times in 54 plays. All 11 of the Eagles' drives started inside their 40. The Eagles were held to 289 yards of total offense, and quarterback Donovan McNabb was intercepted three times.

Carolina, a team without a bona-fide superstar, has been impressive in the playoffs.

Fox's tough style could have come from his mother, Kaye, who earned her master's degree in business from William and Mary, or from his father, Ron, a former Navy SEAL. His desire to teach fundamentals came from coaching defensive backs under former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll, and the importance of family came from former San Diego Chargers coach Bobby Ross.

"His energy, his enthusiasm, his confidence - he had everything covered right off the bat," Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said, recalling his first impression of Fox. "He knew what he wanted to do with building a coaching staff. He had a complete plan. He was very well-prepared. In my mind, he had it all."

The last time Fox came to the Super Bowl, he was defensive coordinator of the New York Giants, who lost to the Ravens three years ago. As a reminder, Fox wore the NFC championship ring to Houston.

"This game is only fun when you win, and that's true any week, particularly this week," Fox said.

And so he looks forward to Sunday, going against Belichick.

"You have to be ready to play in this league because all these teams are very well-coached," Fox said. "I expect them to be physical, and I know we'll show up and be physical."

It's a Fox-coached team. The Panthers don't know any other way.

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