There’s a theory about college athletics, often posed by academians who are embarassed by their school’s athletic program but rarely (if ever) put into practice, that if a coach runs a clean program the ‘right way’, teaching young men to become adults through the values of teamwork and personal accountability, without losing too many games, that perhaps that’s enough. Perhaps such a program fulfills the mission of the universtiy, and that if such a coach is fired, it demonstrates that all we care about is winning, and that the whole idea of a ’student-athlete’ is a sham. Perhaps.
However, if you want to apply this theory to Ben Braun (and a high-minded academic university such as Cal is more likely to try), you still have a big hole you have to cover up, and that’s his graduation rate. Other than David Paris, I can’t recall any Cal Basketball players having trouble with grades, and I think we can all stomach a few athletes turning pro early instead than graduating; would you have counselled Bill Gates to stay in school rather than drop out and start Microsoft? Rather, it’s the transfer rate that’s staggering. Of the 26 scholarship athletes recruited by Ben Braun between 1997 and 2003, just 12 received a sendoff on Senior Day. It’s hard to justify that you’re fulfilling the mission of the University when you’re not graduating players; moreover, with such a rate of attrition, it’s hard to win basketball games.
Every one of Braun’s recruiting classes from 1999-2004 (except 2000) had at least one player transfer to another university, and ‘00 class had Saulius Kuzminskas, who returned to Lithuania after one year, and Gabriel Hughes, who was released to transfer but decided to come back. During these same years, 2 players left early for the NBA, 2 players had career-ending injuries, and 2 players never even enrolled at Cal. This kind of attrition is a real black mark on Braun’s program, and it makes it difficult to sustain any kind of momentum. It’s no coincidence that once Shipp and Wethers graduated in 2002, the program began backsliding, as the defections became too much to overcome.
Here, then, is the list of Braun’s recruiting classes:
Shahar Gordon - Returned to Israel (Military Obligation)
Shantay Legans - Transfer to Fresno State
Nick Vander Laan - Transfer to Virginia
Gabriel Hughes - Was released to transfer, came back
Saulius Kuzminskas - Returned to Lithuania
Michael Lawson - Never Played
Erik Bond - Transfer to St. Mary’s
Jamal Sampson - NBA
Julian Sensley - Never Enrolled
David Paris - Transfer
Jordi Vilardell - Injury ended career
Kennedy Winston - Never Enrolled
Marquise Kately - Transfer to Morgan State
Dominic McGuire - Transfer to Fresno State
Leon Powe - NBA
Kevin Langford - Transfer to Texas Christian
Sam Rayburn - Injury ended career
Walk-ons who earned a scholarship
One good thing that you can say about Braun is that he’s good at turning walk-ons into useful role players. However, while this has helped diminish the cost of all the defections and attrition, it has only been necessary because of such defections. Does Alex Pribble get a scholarship if Kately and McGuire are still around? Probably not.
Most of the individual losses are explainable in reasonable, rational terms (although I still can’t figure out why Shantay Legans left before his senior year, and I’m not sure we’ll ever find out what went wrong with Marquise Kately). Kennedy Winston wanted to stay near his suddenly very ill mother in Alabama. Julian Sensley never qualified to enroll at Cal. Some, such as Nick Vander Laan and Erik Bond may have wanted to go somewhere that they could be more than role players. Powe and Sampson left early for the NBA. Saulius Kuzminskas and Kevin Langford were probably just homesick. It’s not the individual reasons; it’s the collective sense that Braun can’t keep players from jumping ship.
Many of these losses obviously cannot be blamed on Braun. Still, at some point, you have to pin the ‘revolving door’ effect on the coach. Part of the responsibility of recruiting is not just finding the best athletes and convincing them to come to Cal, but also finding the right athletes. Athletes who want to come to Cal, whose personalities mesh with the coaches and the other players, and who can handle the academic rigors of the University. It’s difficult, yes, but that’s why he makes the big bucks. I can be an apologist for a lot of the things that have ailed the Cal basketball program, but not for this. This one’s on you, Ben.
The silver lining in the above list is that the two most recent classes are still completely intact, and next year’s senior class has suffered only one non-injury loss (so far). In fact, with Omar Wilkes and Jamal Boykin, next year’s team will be the first since Braun’s early days of post-Bozeman cleanup that more players will have transfered in that transfered out. Maybe Braun is finally figuring these things out. For his sake, I hope so.