Hey, I’m back. After leaving off my discussion of Ben Braun and his basketball program a few weeks ago, I’m back with one final installment. In summarizing many of my earlier points, I’d like to draw a few comparisons to other coaches with similar track records, to see if we can glean anything new.
Braun’s programs, while flawed, have achieved marked success. He is certainly an improvement on past head coaches, and while his record does not stand up to the best in the game (or even the best coaches at Cal), it’s got its merits. He’s one of those coaches in the middle ground; not good enough that we definitely want to keep him, but not bad enough that we definitely want to fire him. His situation reminds me of another coach Cal football fans may be familiar with…
Glen Mason was, until recently, the head football coach at Minnesota. Previously, he had been the head coach at Kansas, a perennially hapless program that he had helped to turn around. Starting at Minnesota in 1997, a school without a winning record since 1990, Mason got Minnesota to play winning football again. He posted a 64-57 record in 10 seasons, and played in bowl games in 7 of the last 8 years. As you can see by the above link (several years old on the Minnesota website), Mason was largely lauded for his efforts. In fact, without him, it is highly unlikely that Minnesota would have gotten the momentum necessary to build a new, on-campus stadium (scheduled to open in 2009, when Cal visits) and move out of the horrid Metrodome.
However, during his tenure, Mason never posted a Big 10 record better than 5-3. His teams were never really in the hunt for the conference championship, and his teams never played in a bowl better than the Sun. He had one 10-win season, in 2003, but the prevailing sentiment in the last couple years was that Mason, while a good coach, had taken the Golden Gophers as far as he could, and a new coach was needed to get Minnesota over the hump into the national elite. Sounds like Braun’s situation, no?
This past December, Minnesota choked away a 31-point lead in the Insight Bowl to lose to Texas Tech, 44-41, in overtime. This embarrassing collapse proved to be the final straw, and Mason was fired shortly afterwards. While his firing drew shock and criticism from the national media, not many familiar with the Gophers’ program were surprised. A year from now, this could be Braun’s fate.
In today’s ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately’ sports scene, today’s savior is tomorrow’s no-good bum. Was Minnesota right to unceremoniously dump Mason? Were its standards too high, or had Mason proven his unworthiness by failing to build on earlier successes? This is the dilemma the Braun situation is currently posing.
When deciding whether to retain a head coach, an athletic director typically asks themselves, ‘Have they done enough to warrant keeping them on?’ A better question, though much harder to answer, would be, ‘Will they do enough in the future to warrant keeping them on?’ While it’s impossible to know exactly how the Bears will do next year or 5 years down the road, what I did do is look for coaches with a comparable first 10 years. Now, the sample size is small, because coaches are fired or leave for better jobs so often, and I didn’t include small schools where the pressure and resources are far less, but tried to find an answer to the following question: ‘Are there any coaches that plodded along with moderate success for about 10 years at the same school (a few winning seasons, a few tourney appearances), and then after a while, the light turned on, and the coach became much more successful after that? I was able to find two.
The first is Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. In 1976 Roy Danforth, the previous Syracuse coach, left for another school, and when a coaching search didn’t turn up anything, the 32-year-old Boeheim, an assistant of Danforth and former player, was promoted. This was hardly a barren program, as Syracuse had made the Final Four as recently as 1975. However, while Syracuse made 8 of the next 10 tournaments, winning 20 games in most of those seasons, at the end of the 1986 season, Boeheim’s career tournament record stood at 7-8, with the Orange never winning more than one tournament game over that span.
In his 11th season, however, Boeheim’s program went to another level, making the national title game (which it lost to Indiana). In the years to follow, Syracuse would make 8 more Sweet 16s and 2 more national title games, finally winning it all in 2003 with freshman sensation Carmelo Anthony.
An even better example? Stanford’s Mike Montgomery. After 8 years at Montana, Monty took over a Stanford program in 1986 that had one NCAA appearance *ever* (a National Championship over Dartmouth in 1942). Stanford made its second tourney appearance in 1989; the next year, although falling short of the NCAAs, it won the NIT. Stanford finally won a tournament game in 1995, its first in 43 years. Two years later, in Montgomery’s 11th season at Stanford, the Cardinal finally made it back to the Sweet 16. Given their moribund history, Stanford was understandably patient with Monty’s program, and their patience paid off. The next year, Monty’s 12th, Stanford made the Final Four, and they didn’t miss the tournament again until last year, after Montgomery had left for the NBA.
These two examples do give me some hope that perhaps Ben Braun’s career at Cal could follow the same trend. It may not be likely, but it’s certainly possible. There would probably be more examples, but so few coaches stay at a school long enough to find out. They either leave for a better job or the unemployment office. I find it a bit disappointing that of the 73 BCS-conference basketball schools, only 8 have employed the same coach for the last 11 years. The pursuit of excellence is admirable, but this kind of pressure and turnover can’t be having positive effects on the 19- and 20-year-olds who are supposedly getting ‘an education’. I can only hope that when these sorts of coaching decisions are made, somebody at least considers the student-athletes involved.
OK, that’s it. I’ve said my piece. Here’s hoping Braun’s 12th season will make us all forget we ever thought of firing him.