As promised, today I’ll start seriously talking about how Cal is going to replace Ben Braun as the men’s basketball head coach. It is not a given that this will happen; there are still plausible scenarios/arguments whereby, at the end of the year, Sandy Barbour expresses confidence in his coaching ability, and Braun continues his work at Cal through next year and beyond. Still, I think the tide has turned.
Over the past few years, the grumbling and discontent about Braun have grown louder and harder to ignore, prompting me to run an entire five part series on the subject last year. Past years have brought us excuses for his team’s failures, and so despite his track record, this year was widely viewed as a ‘put up or shut up’ sort of year for Braun. This year’s team has been given reasonable health and reasonable expectations (compete in the top half of the Pac-10 and make the NCAA tournament), and so unless the Bears go on some sort of miracle run, I think it’s safe to say Braun will have decidedly failed to ‘put up’. Defending him is getting to be a difficult task, and I get the sense that more and more of his ‘on the fence’ support is peeling away, perhaps deciding that to pull the Bears up out of mediocrity, a change is needed, if only to shake things up.
Anyway, I’m going to run a little exercise where I pretend to be the Athletic Director, and I decide we’re going to look at making a change regarding the men’s basketball coaching staff. It’s a tough decision, and I’m glad I’m just writing about it on the internet instead of actually having such a weighty responsibility.
Now, instead of simply throwing around names of basketball coaches, I’d like to be a little more systematic about this process, which is why I’m going to start by laying out some standards and expectations for the basketball program. If we’re really going to justify making a change, I think we ought to have concrete goals to measure the program up against, showing how the current head coach has failed to meet such standards, why we expect said coach will fail to meet such standards in the future, and why we expect the new coach we hire will succeed where the current coach has failed. This can be a big, expensive process, what with contract buyouts, executive search consulting firms, and lucrative contracts aimed at luring successful coaches away from their current jobs, and so if we’re going to undertake it, we’d better be damned sure we’re ending up with a better coach than we started with.
The way I see it, there are two major factors on which to evaluate a coaching staff, and most everything falls within one of those two categories. They are, in order of importance:
1. Representing the University
2. Competitive Performance
That’s right, competitive performance comes second. I know not everyone feels this way, but I will not support a program whose off-court shenanigans cast a negative light on the University I love, no matter how many titles it wins in the process. No way, no how. It’s not worth it.
Breaking these categories down:
Representing the University
- Legal issues (crimes, misdemeanors, etc. — players AND coaches)
- Ethics issues (academic fraud, recruiting scandals)
- Scholarship issues (poor grades, failing to graduate)
The basic idea here is to avoid bringing negative attention to the University, with of course the ideal being a group of true student-athletes that are role models for the community. I can stomach minor violations on a very occasional basis (i.e. a player caught smoking pot, or failing to make grades for a semester), but only as long as they remain isolated incidents, and there is a program and a culture in place to prevent and actively discourage such occurrences from turning into patterns of behavior.
Under Ben Braun, Cal has been very good with regards to these issues. It is perhaps Braun’s strong suit. Unfortunately, excelling in this area does not win you any points; it is merely a prerequisite for a successful basketball program, buying a seat at the next table, where we can begin to talk about competitive performance.
- Conference Championships
- Tournament Performance
- National Exposure/Prominence
In a general, hand-wavy sort of way, I think that most people would agree that reasonable goals for a basketball team would be to regularly compete for conference championships, have some NCAA tournament success, and gain some sort of national prominence. These goals, of course, are rather open-ended, and leave quite a bit of grey area, where we are uncertain that certain accomplishments actually merit the term ’success’. Ben Braun’s problem, obviously, is that his achievements at Cal sit somewhere within this grey area.
By any reasonable standard, Ben Howland has been a success at UCLA. By the same token, there’s no way to qualify Jay John, formerly of Oregon State, as anything but a failure there. Ben Braun? That’s a trickier question. How many Pac-10 wins are enough? How many NCAA tournament appearances? Must Cal be consistently ranked in the top 25 to be considered successful? What’s needed is a benchmark, whereby we can say, with a reasonable degree of confidence, that a given level of achievement is successful enough.
So what’s a reasonable goal for Cal? On one hand, Cal hardly has a storied basketball history; there’s the NCAA title in ‘59, the runner-up finish in ‘60, the brief light of the Jason Kidd era, aaaand…that’s pretty much it. There’s been some other moderate successes along the way, but nothing most college basketball fans will remember (I’ll bet, even now, there are more people who can tell you Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s name when he played at UCLA than can tell you where Leon Powe played his college ball, if they’ve even heard of Leon Powe). Given our past history, there’s no justification for expecting immediate or sustained greatness.
On the other hand, Cal is a world-class university, with vast resources, a stellar academic reputation, a beautiful location, and good (though not great) local prep basketball talent. They compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country, the Pac-10, and annually face off against storied programs such as Arizona and UCLA. Remember, before Mike Montgomery arrived at Stanford, the Cardinal had virtually no basketball history to speak of. There is no limiting barrier in place that says Cal cannot build a basketball program capable of competing with the best in the country.
With that in mind, I’ll now get more specific about the vague performance standards I mentioned before. Feel free to disagree with me. In fact, please do, as I think this can be a valuable discussion.
Regularly compete for conference championships
There are 10 teams in the Pac-10; I don’t think it’s too much to ask to win a conference championship once a decade. I think Cal should be in the hunt* for a conference championship most years, and should be in the hunt for a top-5 conference finish virtually every year. Barring extraordinary circumstances**, Cal should never finish last.
* ‘in the hunt’ - mathematically alive going into the final week of the season, or thereabouts
** massive injuries, everyone leaves for the NBA, etc.
Have some NCAA tournament success
Cal should make the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, something that I believe should follow from meeting the previous expectations. Cal should win NCAA games with some regularity, and while Final Fours are tough expectations to meet, I think Cal should make a regional final at least as often as it wins the Pac-10 (once a decade).
Gain some sort of national prominence
This will follow from meeting the first two expectations, as winning the conference and making noise in the tournament will lead to national exposure. Rankings are not everything, but Cal should be a part of them with some regularity. Cal should also endeavor to schedule more high-profile non-conference games, which will help with exposure to recruits. Besides, I think dropping a close game at Kansas State is worth more than blowing out Jackson State at home, both in terms of experience and NCAA tournament consideration.
If you’re scoring at home, you’ll see that Braun does poorly with regards to competitive performance. Yes, the Bears are competitive, but it’s been a long time since they were competitive enough, and in 12 years on the job, Braun has still failed to bring home a single conference title. Perhaps I’m expecting too much, but I don’t think so. Some people might suggest that I’m not expecting enough. Anyway, my next post will begin to suggest coaches who might actually be able to meet these standards while coaching at Cal. I’ll be back in a couple days.