Originally created 01/13/04

Fiery Fox turns dismal Panthers into winners



Fox, who spent five seasons as defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, figured it was only a matter of time before Carolina would be among the best in the NFL.

"I didn't know when he would get it turned around, but I did know that he would do it," said Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. "I knew it would just be a matter of time once Foxy got the job."

But the Panthers weren't sure what to expect from Fox, a career assistant they knew little about.

While the Panthers' players didn't necessarily think of themselves as losers after that disastrous 2001 campaign, they had become that. Fox set out to fix the problem: At his very first minicamp, the new coach stood up and challenged his team's toughness.

"He basically came in and said 'I don't know how tough you guys are,' " safety Mike Minter said. "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 training camp would be around to turn this team into a winner."

That first training camp was brutal compared to what the Panthers were used to.

Former coach George Seifert was laid back and aloof, had few relationships with his players. Fox was a screamer and a sideline pacer who wanted to get to know each and every guy.

And his practices were tough: Under Seifert, the Panthers rarely worked out in full pads, under Fox, full-contact was the norm.

"He gave us a good kick in the butt, and man did we need it," defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "The biggest surprise was his bluntness. A lot of coaches sugarcoat stuff, but Foxy just said it like it was without pulling any punches. If you weren't doing a good job, he told you and told you how you had to do it the next time - or else."

The differences were noticed immediately, when the Panthers opened the 2002 season 3-0. There were still some tweaks that had to be made, though, and Carolina slipped into an eight-game losing streak.

But the Panthers of old would have packed it in from there. Under Fox, they rallied to a 7-9 finish.

Then he and general manager Marty Hurney went to work in the offseason, bringing in a powerful running back to carry the offensive load and gambling on a no-name quarterback to add a little fire to things. Stephen Davis and Jake Delhomme have worked out wonderfully for the Panthers, as have all of Fox's draft picks.

Although selecting defensive end Julius Peppers with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft seemed like a no-brainer, the pick was questioned by those who thought Peppers didn't fit Carolina's immediate needs.

And taking offensive lineman Jordan Gross in the first round last spring didn't exactly make a huge splash, but Fox went with his instinct and both Peppers and Gross have been steady plugs in Carolina's lines.

As he does with almost everything, Fox downplays the significance of his personnel moves.

"We're trying to locate the best human talent available, just like the other 31 teams in the National Football League," he said. "It's kind of our lifeblood, it's a lot of hard work, and we've been fortunate."

Fox's dry and bland persona off the field is a far cry from his onfield identity. He spends game days pacing the sidelines, yelling at his players after mistakes or running off in celebration after a big play.

But once the game is over, he shuts it down and holds everything close to the vest. Many of the Panthers have adopted that characteristic and like Fox, view each game one at a time.

Fox, who went to the Super Bowl with the Giants and has been under the spotlight before, won't let that change as the Panthers head into the second NFC championship game in franchise history.

"As I explained to our team, the game gets bigger on the outside," he said. "But we just try to stay the same on the inside. Our preparation, our focus, not be distracted. I think all those are the important factors."