The Carolina Panthers made official Friday what John Fox has known for two years: The winningest and longest-tenured coach in franchise history is gone after Sunday's game at Atlanta.
Fox met Friday afternoon with Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who informed him that after nine years it was time for a change. Fox, who has a regular-season record of 73-70, entered the season in the final year of a contract that paid him $6.5million this year.
"I told John today that I appreciate everything he has done for us over the last nine years, but as happens in this business, it is time for both sides to move in different directions," Richardson said in a release.
"While we haven't accomplished all of the goals we set as an organization when we signed him in 2002, we have certainly had our share of high moments – the Super Bowl, two NFC Championship games and a division title in 2008. We wish John and his family the best going forward."
In the announcement, the Panthers said the contracts of Fox and his assistants would not be renewed. General manager Marty Hurney is expected be retained and lead the search for Fox's successor.
Fox, who took the Panthers to their only Super Bowl appearance after the 2003 season, said twice this week he had known the end was imminent for a couple of years.
Richardson declined to give Fox a long-term extension after the 2008 season, which ended with a 33-13 home loss to Arizona in the divisional round of the playoffs. Several of Fox's assistants left after the '08 season, at least one at Fox's urging.
"I could see that coming, let me put it that way," Fox told reporters after the Panthers' practice.
"It's something I've been preparing for for a couple of years," he added. "As I've said before, it's been a lot of great memories, a lot of great relationships and something I'll cherish forever and embark on the next chapter."
Fox, 55, was hired in 2002 after the Panthers went 1-15 in George Seifert's final season. Two years later, Fox had the Panthers in the Super Bowl, where they lost to New England 32-29 in Houston.
But Fox could not turn the Panthers into a perennial playoff team, failing to post back-to-back winning seasons. Fox, the New York Giants' defensive coordinator when the Panthers hired him, said in the release he appreciated the opportunity Richardson gave him to be a head coach.
His final season will be one to forget. After the Panthers (2-13) cut ties with a dozen veterans in the offseason, the lame-duck coach opened the season with the NFL's youngest roster.
Injuries and inconsistent quarterback play contributed to the worst season of Fox's professional career. In 19 previous seasons as an NFL assistant or head coach, his teams never finished with more than nine losses.
"I'll say this, these guys have stayed enthusiastic and have continued to work very hard all season," Fox said.
Falcons coach Mike Smith said Fox's body of work speaks for itself.
"John to me is one of the best coaches in the league," Smith said. "I've always admired the way he prepares his teams. They're always fundamentally sound and they always play hard. I enjoy competing against John and they're always competitive games."
Speculation on Fox's replacement has centered on Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, who reportedly is being targeted by San Francisco after the 49ers fired Mike Singletary. Harbaugh, a former Michigan quarterback, also has been linked to his alma mater, where the future of Rich Rodriguez is tenuous.
The Panthers also could turn to an up-and-coming coordinator as they did with Fox nine years ago.
A spokesman said the Panthers would hold an end-of-the-season news conference next week.
Having locked up the No.1 pick in next year's draft, the Panthers seemingly have little incentive in Sunday's game other than to send Fox out a winner.
Meanwhile, Atlanta (12-3) can clinch the NFC South title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Panthers for the second time in three weeks. The Falcons missed a chance to lock up the division when they lost at home to New Orleans 17-14 on Monday night.
The Panthers beat Arizona 19-12 in Fox's final home game two weeks ago. The normally stoic coach admitted getting choked up when offensive tackle Jordan Gross presented him with the game ball afterward in the locker room.
Gross hopes the Panthers can repeat the scene Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
"Beating the Cardinals at home was a huge thing for us his last home game. This game's big. It means a lot to the Falcons and it means a lot to us," Gross said. "We haven't had a lot of games that had a lot of weight on them, and this is one that does."