There is a book on John Fox, and there is usually a book on his nightstand. One of the books he recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, was "Lone Survivor," about a 2005 U.S. Navy SEALs reconnaissance mission at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that led to a horrific battle. Only one SEAL — Marcus Luttrell — survived.
"It takes you through all the specialty training," Fox said. "I grew up with that. That's what my dad did; he was an instructor after the Vietnam War. So I kind of lived that."
The Carolina Panthers and their fans may believe otherwise, but chances are they don't know the book on Fox the head coach as well as Fox the reader grasped "Lone Survivor."
Whether Fox is a better coach now with the Broncos than he was in nine seasons with the Carolina Panthers is subject to opinion, but what's irrefutable is that he has tried to be.
"You study things," Fox said from his corner top-floor office at the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters. "You study other people. I try to read a lot. I've always been kind of a military guy, so I look at a lot of military-type things. Their procedures. You know they're to get people to make the ultimate sacrifice. I think it's pretty unique, maybe the epitome of it all."
At 57, Fox is a relatively old coach who's not afraid to try to learn new tricks. He arrived in Denver two years ago with a rap that he was closer to Woody Hayes conservatism than Bill Walsh genius. And when the Broncos won a game last year by running the ball 55 times and completing just two passes, Fox's cautious-look-four ways-before-crossing reputation was reinforced.
Yet, when Fox returns to Carolina on Sunday to face his former team, he will bring with him a Broncos team that is averaging 36.5 passes per game.
"Part of being a coach is putting your players in the best position to succeed," Fox said. "I'm not so sure Peyton Manning would be that good in a zone-read option offense. It doesn't take a Phi Beta Kappa to figure that out."
Fox isn't so much a paradox as he is a chameleon. He can be a jovial, fist-bumping, favorite uncle Foxy who loves to joke and laugh. And he's a competitor who takes winning so seriously he unmercifully chewed out a crew of replacement officials because they were in the way of his team's quest for victory. He is a man raised alongside the disciplined, military lifestyle, yet as a young adult he enlisted in the slightly more independent and less combative world of football.
"I think it's fair to say I wasn't (the military type) at that age," Fox said. "The military doesn't really care who you are, you're going to be their type when they're done with you. They do whatever
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Fox laughed after communicating his perspective. His leadership style is also that of combinations and contradictions. He admires the military ways of molding individuals into those who care more about the person next to him, about valuing the mission as a whole more than personal decoration.
But Fox is no drill sergeant. He doesn't bark commands; he delegates authority, to the coaches on his staff and the players in his locker room.
"My impression of what's most important for a football coach is: Can you get guys to play hard for you?" Manning said. "There are different ways to do that. There are scare tactics, fear tactics where you're scared if you don't make this tackle they may cut you next
Fox said he doesn't want his players driving into the parking lot each day with a knot in their stomach. Same with his assistant coaches. His predecessors, Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, were micromanagers, particularly with the offense. Fox is a macromanager.
"He's different from the coaches I've played for," said John Elway, the former Broncos quarterback who now heads the team's entire football operations as an executive. "He is not so much devoted to one side of the ball, he's more of a team manager. He leaves the offenses and defenses up to the coordinators — where I was used to the head coach being deep into one side of the ball or the other. It works very well this way."
He's no Josh
John Fox is not the type who draws the shades in his office. He lets all the sunshine into his office. McDaniels almost always had the shades closed. Let's make that No. 135 in the list of differences between Fox and the young man he replaced two years ago.
"We knew of the candidates we talked to that John would be the guy who was going to the opposite of Josh in that he had nine years as head coach, he was older, his background was of a players' coach," Elway said. "He was a guy this building needed."
The head coach's office is decorated with the usual pictures and mementos. His Panthers' souvenirs are back at his Charlotte, N.C., home that he and his wife, Robyn, have kept and where their two oldest sons, Matt and Mark, continue to live. Cody, the youngest son, is living in the upper east side of New York, dealing with the nightmarish aftereffects from Hurricane Sandy. The white board in the coach's office has this message from Fox's seventh-grade daughter, who attends Kent Denver: I love you dad, Halle.
Every week, on a Monday or Wednesday, Fox brings his players' leadership council into his office for a 20-minute, state-of-team meeting. The council is about 10 to 12 players strong. It includes the five captains — Manning, Champ Bailey, Wesley Woodyard, Chris Kuper and Elvis Dumervil — and an invited player or two from each position.
"The leadership council is something that's different from the teams I've been a part of," Manning said. "He's calling the shots, but it's good to see what's going on with the players, different positions. That's been effective. That's his doing."
Fox is the gatekeeper. He has the hammer. But he believes in empowering his players. They don't work for him. They work with him.
When the Broncos went 8-8 last year in Fox's first season with the Broncos, perhaps the Panthers faithful thought: Been there, seen that. Fox had three great seasons in Carolina — 11-5, 11-5 and 12-4 — and one miserable final season in 2010. Fox's typical season with the Panthers, though, was 7-9 or 8-8. He had five of those.
The book on John Fox the head coach is inside those 8-8 and 7-9 records. For there lies the story of how a coach kept his team playing hard, to not quit.
"He's one of a kind," veteran defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "He's classic. But at the end of the day everyone has utmost respect for him, believes in what he says. Guys are going to play hard for that."
Retread or experienced wisdom?