CHARLOTTE, N.C. — "To me coaching is teaching," says John Fox, who waited 13 years before getting his chance to coach an NFL team but is now in his second year at the helm of the Carolina Panthers.
"[Coaching] epitomizes teaching," says Mr. Fox. "You're dealing with young people and the teaching really encompasses life. Dealing with adversity, dealing with prosperity, and dealing with pressure."
Whatever the lessons Fox is offering, they seem to be having their effect. Until this season, the Carolina Panthers were just an anonymous Sunbelt team with just one winning season to its credit since joining the NFL in 1995.
This year, Carolina is in first place with a 5-1 record.
"Knowing John, I'm not surprised," says Tim Green, a Fox Sports broadcaster who played eight seasons in the NFL. "He's intelligent, he's methodical, and he teaches the game in a straightforward way. He doesn't overcomplicate the game."
The Panthers stumbled and bumbled through a 1-15 season in 2001 under George Seifert, a pedigreed veteran coach who won two Super Bowls with San Francisco before suffering through three miserable seasons in Carolina. The Panthers fired Seifert in January 2002, and then flirted briefly with former University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier.
But in the end, Fox's teaching skills proved very attractive.
"I was with John for a couple of years in San Diego," says Marty Hurney, the Panthers general manager. "I knew what he was like. He would teach a rock if you gave him the chance."
Part of the Panthers' transformation has resulted from shrewd personnel decisions - and building with young players, as with star defensive lineman Julius Peppers, selected second overall in the 2002 NFL draft - Fox's first.
But as crucial as it was to rebuild the roster, no less essential have been the attitude and system Fox has instilled. For example, the Panthers now work in a crisp, trains-run-on-time environment.
Unlike his predecessor, Fox makes certain his players arrive at the stadium, and depart, each day before rush hour.
"John likes to have them there during the freshest part of their day," says Charlie Dayton, a team spokesman who has been with Carolina since 1995.
The players must be at the stadium by 7:30 a.m. each day. The schedule includes daily training sessions, team meetings, and, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., brisk practices with little downtime. Fox pays close attention to all three phases of football - offense, defense, and special teams, including kickoff and punt returns as well as field goals.
Since his arrival, Fox has worked with Hurney to revamp the franchise. The team opted to concentrate on developing young players through the draft rather than spending heavily on veterans.
And investing time in teaching and training such young players is perhaps more necessary than ever before. As football players become faster, bigger, and stronger, Mr. Green says, the game's complexity increases. The competition created by more versatile and skilled players requires more teaching and more communication from coaches.
"The personnel groupings and the formations are in the hundreds," says Mr. Green. "It's an unending set of possibilities. So you have that, plus all of the mental aspects and the literal techniques of each position. I'm a firm believer in a good coach being more valuable than a good player because of those factors."
Hurney says Carolina's executives liked Fox as soon as he came to town for an interview. His gung-ho attitude was genuine, and he brought a shot of life and enthusiasm wherever he went. Such attributes were desperately needed for a franchise whose owner had declared the energy sapped among fans, players, and coaches.
Kevin Donnalley, a veteran offensive lineman who played on the 1-15 team two years ago, credits the new coach with making a significant difference.
"He sticks to the plan," Donnalley says. "We're going to be conservative, run the ball on offense, play good defense and special teams, and we'll be in it at the end. That's exactly how it's turned out."
The Panthers went 7-9 during Fox's debut season in 2002. The season included an eight-game losing streak, several player arrests, and a sense among observers that nothing had changed.
But Fox remained steady amid distraction and disarray. He never lashed out. Carolina won four of its final five games and set the table for the strong start this year.
Mike Minter, a defensive back who's endured six losing seasons as a Panther, says Fox's unwavering faith has begun paying off.
"We've been winning," Minter says. "We've learned a lot."
Minter credits Fox with offering the best lesson in handling adversity. During the eight-game losing streak last season, the coach never panicked. Instead, he encouraged the players to work harder.
For such fearsome hulks, professional football players often have delicate psyches. Signs of panic or shakiness, especially from the top, have the impact of tectonic tremors.
"If you go through something and you learn from it, all you're doing is getting better," Minter adds. "It's like that in life, and in football."
Fox agrees. Despite his seven-day work weeks, his enthusiasm is undiminished. The joy of convincing a group to believe in a philosophy and work at it can't be matched, he says.
"Coaching and teaching involve group dynamics," Fox says, walking off the practice field on a crisp fall afternoon. "You have people who come from all walks of life - economic, racial, regions, nationalities. You lead them by getting them to believe in what they're doing. After that, peer pressure kicks in, people become disciples."