Success in college athletics is not determined solely by wins and losses, but rather by meeting and exceeding the expectations regarding those wins and losses. Win some one year, and expectations are raised for the next. This is the backbone of the argument against Ben Braun.
Very little was expected of his first team in 1996; they were picked to finish 8th in the Pac-10. However, Braun surprised everyone by guiding them to the Sweet 16, and was rightly lauded for his brilliant coaching effort. However, that season is still the high-water mark of his tenure, and the raised expectations of annual NCAA tournament entries and competing for conference championships have not been met. Braun is still the same coach he always was, but by now, we expect more.
Expectations have also been fueled by outside forces. Jason Kidd put the program on the national map, and the excitement surrounding the program got Haas Pavilion built. Jeff Tedford has turned a BCS doormat into a BCS powerhouse in a few short years, and he’ll eventually get a new stadium built as well. While Braun’s work would have been praised at Cal 20 years ago, today restless alumni are asking, ‘If the football team can succeed with lesser facilities at Cal, why can’t we have a nationally-ranked basketball team too?’ That’s a darn good question.
Are the expectations surrounding this basketball program realistic? Is a conference championship too much to ask at a school that hasn’t won one since 1960? How about regular appearances in the NCAA tournament? The facilities are first-class, and the school’s setting and academics should only help attract potential recruits. What is Cal lacking that other Pac-10 schools have? Should it always rank behind UCLA and Arizona on the west coast?
Like it or not, the expectations at major-conference basketball schools are astronomically high. There is no place among the top conferences for coaches who are merely ‘good’. Those coaches area shown the door when their performace stagnates. Take a downtrodden program and make it respectable? Genius! Now let’s see you turn it into a powerhouse.
Here is a current list of all of the men’s basketball coaches at BCS conference schools that have been at one school at least as long as Ben Braun has (11 years). It’s a pretty short list. Which names don’t belong?
Current Coaches at Same BCS-Conference School Since 1996
Jim Boeheim (Syracuse, since 1976)
Mike Krzyzewski (Duke, since 1980)
Lute Olson (Arizona, since 1983)
Jim Calhoun (Connecticut, since 1986)
Gary Williams (Maryland, since 1989)
Ben Braun (California, since 1996)
Ricardo Patton (Colorado, since 1996)
Billy Donovan (Florida, since 1996)
Tom Izzo (Michigan State, since 1996)
My first question was, ‘Who’s Ricardo Patton?’ Well, he’s a barely .500 coach, and he’s already resigned, effective at the end of this season. Remove him, and you’re left with Braun and 7 other coaches, all of the rest of whom have won National Championships. Not just conference championships and Final Four appearances, but the whole enchilada. College basketball’s a ‘win or go home’ world, and most coaches end up going home. By this measure, Cal’s patience with Braun has been quite lenient.
What do these sorts of expectations say about big-time college athletics? Win at all costs? If you don’t win, it doesn’t matter how well you do anything else? Are these values held by the Universities that support such a system? Do we fire physics professors because they fail to win a Nobel Prize? Not that college basketball fans pay attention to such arguments, but something seems out of whack here.
Finally, I’d like to point out an article from October of 1997, a thank-you letter from an Old Blue, written at the height of Braun’s popularity. Cal had just been to the Sweet 16, and Braun turned down Michigan to instead sign an 8-year contract extension. The author makes some good points, and while he probably overstates his case, it’s hard to even imagine someone saying these things about Ben Braun now. While Braun hasn’t been everything we hoped, for everything he has done, do we perhaps owe him one last chance? Sandy Barbour seems to think so.
Also, if you didn’t read the whole article, I’d like to quote the second to last paragraph. It’s a perfect example of the value of hindsight.
"Braun, Lavin, Montgomery. Maybe even Bibby. A generation of Pac 10 coaches with some staying power, some sincerity, a bit of integrity."