Defensive backs coach
On a Sunday in late February 1985, the former Robin Militello had been married for less than 24 hours in her hometown of St. Louis when she and her new husband, an energetic young football coach named John Fox, caught a flight from St. Louis to Los Angeles and rushed to the Coliseum. There, the United States Football League's Los Angeles Express was about to play the Houston Gamblers.
"John handed me one ticket," Robin recalled at the Broncos' Dove Valley headquarters. "I'm looking at him and asking, 'Where do I go?' He says, 'Oh, just follow the other wives, you'll figure it out.'
"I'm sitting in the Coliseum by myself, three hours before the game started. And I'm going, 'What in the world did I just do?' "
It was opening day of the spring league's season, and Fox, the Express' new defensive backfield coach, was about to coach his first regular-season game in pro football.
The Express, with Steve Young at quarterback and Gary Zimmerman at offensive tackle, led 33-13 going into the fourth quarter. But the Gamblers, with Jim Kelly throwing for 263 yards in the fourth quarter and 574 yards for the game against a Fox-coached secondary, came back to win 34-33 in front of an announced crowd of 18,828 in the cavernous Coliseum.
The marriage has lasted.
The league didn't.
And Fox's coaching career in pro football, with perhaps nowhere to go but up after that afternoon, is an NFL success story. At 55, he was hired as the Broncos' 14th head coach on Thursday, landing on his feet after a 2-14 season closed out an otherwise praiseworthy nine-season stint with the Carolina Panthers.
"Nine years in this league is a great run," Fox said after his introductory news conference Friday at Dove Valley. "All good things come to an end and it was time for a change. I'm really excited about the challenge."
Always on the move
At birth in Virginia Beach, Va., and during his mother's previous marriages, the future coach was John St. George and John Hutchison. Then, in mid-1960, Kaye met and married a rough and tough Navy SEAL, Ron Fox, and John's name changed again. "In my mind, he was my dad," John said. "He was always great to me, always treated me like his own son."
In 1970, when John was in the early stages of high school, the family moved to the San Diego area, where Ron trained SEALs. "I started getting frisky, thinking maybe I could take my dad if we wrestled," John said. "My brother and I went down to Coronado with him, because they had a diving tower and we loved to swim there. He was in charge of the equivalent of detention, and they had them in these 'combat' rooms, and we proceeded to watch him beat the tar out of two of 'em at once, so I changed my mind about mouthing off to my dad."
Fox sustained a broken collarbone in the first game of his senior season at Castle Park High in Chula Vista, Calif. He made it back onto the field for a playoff game, but didn't receive any scholarship offers. After playing two years at Southwestern College, he transferred to San Diego State and walked on, earning a scholarship and playing for a Claude Gilbert-coached 10-1 team as a senior in 1977.
He was determined to get into coaching in the worst way. Arguably, he did just that.
Fox was an Aztecs graduate assistant for one year, then spent the next six seasons as a defensive backs coach at six schools — U.S. International, Boise State, Long Beach State, Utah, Kansas and Iowa State.
"It was all upward mobility," Fox said. "I was single and I was aggressive."
During a spring 1984 trip with other Iowa State coaches to confer with the Texas staff, he met Robin Militello, an American Airlines flight attendant, on a flight from Dallas to Austin. Actually, he was on a pay phone when he spotted her and, he joked, "stared at her to the point where I think I made her uncomfortable."
Said Robin: "We had made eye contact in the terminal, and then I had to go down to the plane. When he got on, he walked right by me and didn't even recognize me."
Confessed John: "She took the tickets, but I wasn't really paying attention."
But he ended up with the aisle seat next to the galley, and they struck up a conversation. When he asked how to get in touch with her, she told him where she was staying and that if he could remember — and spell — her last name, he would be able to find her. "So I'm with three other knucklehead coaches, and there are four football coaches trying to remember it for me," he said.
John and Robin went to dinner in Austin and began a long-distance relationship — "She was based in Dallas and I was in metropolitan Ames, Iowa," Fox said — that even included Robin and her parents going to an Iowa State home game. The couple set a wedding date for the next February, and the plans were far along when John took the job with the Express, which was going to open its regular season the day after the big ceremony in St. Louis.
See you later, Raiders
After that USFL season, the league's last, Fox returned to college ball with Pittsburgh in 1986, moved to the Steelers in 1989 and started his climb in the NFL. The major speed bump came in 1996, when, on the verge of his third season as the Raiders' defensive coordinator, Fox walked into the office of senior administrator Bruce Allen and handed him a letter of resignation. At the time, head coach Mike White said the move took him "totally by surprise." Fox won't go into detail about why he quit. But the intervening hand of owner Al Davis was infamous by then.
"My parents were with me and we were unpacking," Robin recalled. "And John had our oldest son, Matthew, with him at camp. He called me and said, 'Robin, whatever you do, do not freak out.' I was thinking Matthew was there, and I was going, 'Oh, my gosh, what?' He said, 'I just quit my job and I'm on my way home.' I said, 'You did what?' My dad took the phone out of my hand and said, 'John, you just come home and we'll make it all work.' "
John said of his Raiders stint: "Even though it didn't end up good, it still was a great experience. People talk about Al, but he's in the Hall of Fame for a reason. He knows personnel. And sometimes, seeing how not to do things is as important as seeing how to do things."
The Fox family moved to St. Louis for a sabbatical year, and John worked as a consultant in the Rams' front office. He got back into coaching as the Giants' defensive coordinator in 1997 and had an attention-catching run there with the franchise that made it to Super Bowl XXXV in January 2001, losing to the Baltimore Ravens He got the Panthers' head coaching job in 2002.
At least publicly, his upbeat attitude — even during the Panthers' two-win season in 2010 — was unrelenting. By now, the Foxes have four children — sons Matthew, Mark and Cody and daughter Halle.
"Charlotte's all Halle knows," Robin said. "Now she's 11, and there might be a little drama, but once she gets out here and sees all this, she'll be excited. How can she not be? John and I are.
"Honestly, nothing really gets him down. Or if it does, he doesn't show it. When he gets upset is when someone says something to me. That's when you see a reaction. We're a team, and that's always the way we've looked at it."
Ever since that rough beginning in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Terry Frei: 303-954-1895 or firstname.lastname@example.org