North Carolina baseball coach and N.C. Sports Hall of Fame class of 2017 inductee Mike Fox speaks during Thursday’s press conference at the N.C. History Museum in Raleigh. Before Fox coached the Tar Heels, he spent 15 years at N.C. Wesleyan, leading the Battling Bishops to the NCAA Division III World Series title in 1989.
Paul Durham | Times
By Paul Durham
RALEIGH — During his introduction of North Carolina baseball coach Mike Fox at Thursday’s press conference for the class of 2017 inductees into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, recently retired Duke sports broadcaster Bob Harris noted that among Fox’s many accomplishments was being honored as Baseball America’s national coach of the year in 2018.
“Er, wait a minute,” Harris said with a grin. “Just seeing if you were paying attention. That was the 2008 national coach of the year.”
Well, perhaps Harris was being prescient. After all, Fox, in his 19th season in Chapel Hill, has directed his Tar Heels to a 36-9 mark and a No. 3 ranking in all four national polls. Not bad for a team that lists just two seniors on its roster and could very well be in position to land that honor for Fox next year.
Of course, the Tar Heels are living in the moment and could add to one of the more impressive career accomplishments for Fox that Harris mentioned in his introduction — getting UNC to the College World Series six times.
However, none of those six trips to Omaha, Nebraska, resulted in the Tar Heels bringing home a national championship trophy. Fox, who was an All-CWS selection as a second baseman for the Tar Heels in their inaugural appearance in 1978, does have one national title to his credit.
Fox led North Carolina Wesleyan College to the NCAA Division III World Series championship in 1989, the crowning jewel of a 15-year stint in Rocky Mount.
“Those Wesleyan days, that was my training ground,” Fox said Thursday. “Those were my days to make all my mistakes and learn from them — because I was so young when I got started.”
Fox was “about 26 of 27” when he took over at Wesleyan in 1982.
“I wasn’t much older than the seniors that were there,” he said. “I had coached in high school at (Raleigh) Millbrook for two years and basically just came right in late September and basically just learned. It was true on-the-job training! And off I went.”
There he stayed in Rocky Mount, where he got married and started his family, until then UNC athletic director Dick Baddour called to offer Fox the Tar Heels job in 1998. Still his connection to Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina remains. Fox, an Asheville native who attended high school in Charlotte, was no stranger to this part of the state by the time he became the Wesleyan head coach. His roommate on the UNC baseball team in the 1970s, Clay Johnson, quickly became of one Fox’s best friends — a bond that remains to this day. Johnson and his family were among the guests at Fox’s table Friday at the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
“We met in the Boshamer Stadium locker room as freshmen and I spent many a weekend at his mom and dad’s home right there by Fleming Stadium,” Fox said. “That was probably my first introduction to eastern North Carolina, coming home with Clay on the weekends. My parents had moved out of state.”
Two Fike High graduates — Rusty Dail and Doug Flowers — were mainstays on the Battling Bishops championship team in 1989 while several other area products played for Fox in Rocky Mount, including Charles Davis, a Beddingfield product who has gone on to become a pretty good baseball coach at Charles B. Aycock High over the past 28 years. Davis has sent many of his players to Chapel Hill, including current Tar Heels senior Adam Pate and freshman Ashton McGee.
As impressive as is the list of Fox’s players who have been drafted by MLB teams, so too is the number of his former players and assistant coaches who have gone on to lead teams of their own. That list includes former Wesleyan assistant Billy Godwin, who was the East Carolina head coach from 2006-2014.
“That’s awesome to see,” Fox said. “You don’t always know what your players’ passion is, what they want to do. A lot of them play want to go into coaching but sometimes it’s not the right fit. But I have had a lot to go on and do that at various levels and it’s been pretty cool to follow all those guys.”
BEFORE HIS TIME
Even 50-plus years ago, Glenn Bass wasn’t exceptionally big to be a professional football player at 6-foot-1, 208 pounds. But the Wilson native and 2017 N.C. Sports Hall of Fame inductee had one thing that transcends any era — speed.
As a starting wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, whom he led with 50 receptions as a rookie in 1961 in earning team MVP honors, the East Carolina College (now University) product was part of the start-up American Football League’s (it began in 1960) willingness to throw the football and throw it deep.
“You know we’ve built here in this nation a culture of entertainment and the AFL was a wide-open brand of ball,” Bass said during Thursday’s press conference. “It was not the Browns’ 3 yards and a cloud of dust or Green Bay, so when we had that merger people had already started watching a lot of the AFL games. Then it began to open up the game. It took a while but I believe it became more entertaining for the fans. Now it’s really taken off. I mean, my gosh! The money that’s made off it.”
There’s no doubt the NFL of today (the two leagues merged in 1966) far more resembles the high-flying AFL of old given the modern game’s reliance on the forward pass.
One has to wonder how much Bass would be worth in today’s market. One thing is for sure, it’s lot more than Bass ever made in over the course of his eight-year career with the Bills and Houston Oilers.
“I gave my bonus money to the shoeshine boy on the way home — almost!” he quipped.
Bass was a football and baseball standout at Charles L. Coon High, playing football for the Cyclones under Paul Marklin and baseball for Irv Dickens. He said he decided to attend East Carolina over a football scholarship offer from N.C. State because the Pirates wanted him to play baseball and football and split the scholarship accordingly.
Eventually Bass chose a career in pro football but he had a chance to play baseball professionally after earning All-America honors and helping the Pirates win the 1961 NAIA baseball championship — the only national title in school history. But when he left Wilson for Greenville in the fall of 1957, Bass had another sport near and dear to his heart.
“I wanted to play basketball!” he said. “I really enjoyed that in high school.”
WILSON IN THE HALL
Bass’ induction is the fourth consecutive year a Wilson County native has been enshrined in the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. The last three were former Greene Central and Snow Hill American Legion baseball coach James R. “Rabbit” Fulghum, he of the five state baseball titles, in 2016, retired sports writer Lenox Rawlings in 2015 and Lee S. Gliarmis, who has been a part of the Wilson sports community for more than seven decades, in 2014.
Bass is the 14th NCSHOF member with ties to Wilson. The others are (with their year of induction in parentheses): Leon Brogden (2007); Bill Brooks(1993); George Clark (2004); Carlester Crumpler (2002); Tom Davis (1988); Paul Gay (1998); Bunn Hearn (1993); Tom Parham (2011); Harvey Reid Jr. (1992) and Henry Trevathan (2012).