Support from Carolinas runs deep for Fox

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A silver-haired man with a loud, raspy voice emerged from his backyard just off the 14th fairway at Quail Hollow Club. He walked past a few spectators following Jimmie Johnson in the Pro-Am of this 2010 PGA event, ducked under the rope and headed straight for the then four-time Sprint Cup champion.

"Hey, Jimmie," the man yelled.

Johnson turned and smiled.

What had been a rather ugly performance on a track that involved doglegs instead of left turns quickly improved after a quick pep talk from this familiar and welcome face.

By the last hole Johnson was so confident that he changed from a 3-wood to a driver when challenged with a small wager.

"I just told him go for it," the silver-haired man told Johnson. "Grip it and rip it. It's all mental."

The man was John Fox, whose Denver Broncos are preparing to face the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday. Fox was a few months removed from what would be his final season as the head coach of the Carolina Panthers when he ran into Johnson on this day.

That they came from two distinctly different worlds in sports didn't matter to either.

"He is just an awesome guy," Johnson said.

Johnson was one of many in Charlotte who contacted Fox in November after the 58-year-old coach went through heart surgery to repair an aortic valve after collapsing during a bye-week round of golf at Quail Hollow.

He will be one of many from the Charlotte area, where Fox still owns his fairway house, pulling for a Denver victory in the Super Bowl.

"I’m sure there will probably be some Charger fans disappointed in my pick," said Johnson, a native of Southern California. "But I have a ton of respect for coach John Fox."

Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross also will be rooting for the man who led him to the Super Bowl after his 2003 rookie season. He considers himself "extremely lucky" to have played under the man he and others call "Foxy."

Former Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker (1999-2007), now a preseason commentator for the Panthers Television Network, said Fox was the epitome of a player's coach.

"Yes, yes, I have," Fox told reporters during Tuesday's Super Bowl media day when asked if he'd received well-wishes from Charlotte. "I spent nine years there, so I built a lot of close friendships."

Fox makes friends faster than quarterback Peyton Manning completes touchdown passes. Gross said the scene of Fox joining Johnson on the golf course is a "very, very accurate description of him."

"He builds relationships," Gross said. "It's not just with whoever is convenient for him to help him be successful. It's with anybody. It's because he cares about people.

"I'm sure there's hundreds of people still in Charlotte that if he saw them walking down the streets he'd love to spend two minutes catching up with them."

Carolina had some of its best seasons under Fox. The 2003 team finished 14-6, losing the Super Bowl 32-29 to New England on a last-second field goal. The 2005 team went 13-6, losing to Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

The 2008 team went 12-5, losing to Arizona in an NFC divisional playoff game.

The Panthers didn't accomplish those goals because Fox was good at making friends. He also was a heck of a coach, and when the time came to be tough he was as gritty as the best of them.

"He would definitely use an aggressive tone and chew you out if he had to," Gross said.

One of those times came on the night before the Panthers' Super Bowl in Houston. The Panthers had moved to a secret location about an hour bus ride from the stadium and players weren't happy.

"Guys started griping about how far it was and whose idea it was," Gross recalled. "We were getting too vocal about it and it was becoming a distraction at the team dinner.

"I'll never forget that. He laid into us with a few choice words, like, 'Who do you guys think you are that you think you know better than I do what this team should do?' It was pretty good. It was a humbling experience for sure. It helped us get back focused. You respect a guy like that."

Fox's problem at Carolina wasn't that he wasn't liked or respected, but it was the team's lack of consistency. He never had consecutive winning seasons. After the 2008 loss when owner Jerry Richardson thought all the pieces were in place, the Panthers went 8-8.

That Richardson didn't extend Fox's contract after the 2008 season, that he left him to be a lame-duck coach in 2010, that the team used the 2010 season without a salary cap to get what was considered some bad deals off the books, turned into an ugly 2-14 conclusion.

It turned out good for the Panthers and Fox, who left Carolina with a 78-74 record. Richardson hired Ron Rivera, who rebuilt the team into one that finished 12-5 this season and made him a favorite to win NFL Coach of the Year on Saturday night in New York City.

Fox went to Denver, where he's led the Broncos to three AFC West titles and now the Super Bowl. Much of his success the past two seasons has been credited to Manning, but the coach's imprint shouldn't be overlooked.

"Peyton Manning has elevated that team, but if you look at Coach Fox, without Peyton Manning he managed to get to the playoffs with Tim Tebow," Rucker reminded. "At the end of the day, coach Fox and the staff around him knows football."

Fox also knows people.

"Coach Fox is a guy that makes you just feel good to be around," Manning told reporters earlier in the week.

He made Johnson feel pretty good that day on the golf course in 2010. The two ran into each other in late November not far from where they met that day. Johnson was playing in a Turkey Day scramble as Fox was preparing for his final examination before returning to Denver after a four-week recovery.

Johnson admittedly doesn't know X's and O's like he does down force and drag, but he is a pretty good judge of character. He understands why Denver has been successful under Fox. He compares him to his team owner, Rick Hendrick.

"I work for an awesome guy and know how important it is in the work space," said Johnson, now a six-time champion. "I hate [Fox] isn't here coaching anymore, but I'm happy for him and will be cheering him on from the couch."