(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)
Mike Fox ’78 walked into Boshamer Stadium once it opened to fans this year, managing a small team of two grandkids, the first spring in four decades he hadn’t worn a team uniform. If he’s not the UNC baseball team’s biggest fan, he’s certainly the most baseball-savvy one.
After 22 years as head coach, he knows the hard decisions coaches have to make — who makes the team, who gets to travel, who’s going to play. He retired just before the start of the 2020 fall semester. Now he has to cope with the pressures of being a fan — willing a team to victory through the strength of your vocal cords and the discipline of your superstitions.
When he was a student, Mike joined the team as a walk-on and barely made the JV squad. But before his freshman year was up, he’d been promoted to varsity. While he worked on his master’s degree, UNC hired him as a graduate assistant in the summer league, coaching players he’d played alongside of a few weeks prior. After completing his master’s in teaching in 1979, he was packing up to go back to his parents’ home in Birmingham, Alabama and become a general contractor when Millbrook High School in Raleigh offered him a job teaching and coaching.
Mike found his passion in coaching. A couple years later, he accepted a call to coach at N.C. Wesleyan, where he transformed the Division III team in Rocky Mount into a national baseball powerhouse. Fifteen seasons later, UNC Athletics Director Dick Baddour ’66 (’75 MA) came looking for him.
Every time he drives past the Red Roof Inn on U.S. 15-501 and I-40, he remembers the excitement and nerves he felt as he and his wife checked in the night before the interview that would change his life and the lives of players for the next couple of decades.
To do what he loved at the place he loved, he never considered going anyplace else.
Mike left at the top of his game, retiring as the winningest active coach in Division I baseball and the first to lead an ACC team to four consecutive College World Series. He may be the only athlete to play and coach in the world series in the same uniform.
Baseball America selected Mike as National Coach of the Year in 2008. He was named ACC Coach of the Year in 2018, and his peers elected him Atlantic Region Coach of the Year three times. In 2017, he was inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame.
But when the pandemic ended the 2020 season after only a few weeks, Mike got a chance to step back from the fast-paced, 24-hour-a-day-availability demands piled on a coach at his level. He took the opportunity to practice what he had preached to his players over the years: There is life beyond baseball.
A big part of Mike’s success is his ability to build relationships with players from different backgrounds and with different personalities, to shape their diverse talents into a winning team.
“We’re all putting on the same jersey,” he’d remind them. Through the strength of his relationships, he’d get his players to buy into placing the success of the team and the program ahead of their own personal glory. “The program is bigger than me and you,” he’d say.
Mike took the long view with the young men he recruited and never lost sight of the whole person off the field. They came to him at age 18, but he had a vision of them at age 35 or 40, because he knew at some point their baseball life was going to end, and they’d still have a long life ahead of them. He coached them on a trajectory to excel at being husbands, fathers and community leaders.
No doubt, Mike is competitive. But as serious as he was about winning, he never let it bend his principles. He recruited players not only because of their athletic abilities but their commitment to the ideals of a first-class university. In one of his first seasons as coach, the bleachers in the old Boshamer Stadium needed to be cleaned before the start of the season. He scheduled his players in shifts to do the spruce-up so they’d take pride in their home turf.
Mike’s relationships with his players stand the test of time. Many of his assistant coaches played for him as students. He has danced at the weddings of his former players and attended their parents’ funerals. He’s in the stands of their first game when they go pro. He signs autographs and takes selfies with their kids at Little League games.
Despite all of his accomplishments and accolades in a long coaching career, Mike is still the same person he was when he first joined the Tar Heel team 40-some years ago. Expect him to be on his best behavior, even in the stands.
The Distinguished Service Medal is presented by the GAA Board of Directors.