Oftentimes, when a coach of a major sport at a big-time college gets fired, there’s a big celebration and very little regret. Perhaps there was a scandal, or the guy was a jerk, or he was simply never very good in the first place. No one much mourned the end of the Jay John era at Oregon State, or the Karl Dorrell era at UCLA, or the Todd Bozeman era at Cal.
Ben Braun, however, was not one of those coaches. Yes, there was celebration, but I think most fans are still grateful for the good times that Braun brought us. Braun’s problem was that sports fans have short memories, and not enough of those good times occurred very recently.
However, I come here not to applaud or condemn Braun’s dismissal, or to tell you exactly how happy it is appropriate to feel about it. No, I come here today to celebrate Braun’s tenure at Cal, and the good times that he did bring us. So, in honor of Braun’s 12 years of service, I present to you my own personal list of the Top 12 Moments of the Ben Braun Era at Cal.
12. Cal upsets No. 9 Washington State in Pullman (2008)
Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include this game on my list, but since it was the first (and only) [road] win over a top 10 team during Braun’s tenure, it gets the nod. With Hardin back in the Bay Area with an illness, I didn’t see any way Cal would win this one, but Jamal Boykin, starting in Hardin’s place, was huge down the stretch, including a pair of late free throws and a big-time block. Anderson poured in 27 points to lead all scorers in what has got to be the best recent Cal game that no Cal fan saw. As the game wasn’t on TV (I listened on the radio) and snow dumped on Pullman, causing the Governor to declare a state of emergency, I’m not sure how many people saw this game at all.
In fact, given their relative effect on Cal fans, I could have easily chosen either of the streak-breaking wins over Stanford, first in 2002 (ending 10 straight vs. the Cardinal) and then in 2007 (ending 13 straight at Maples). Each one was an exciting celebration of finally besting our cross-bay rival, the first game especially, given that at the time, our football team’s futility vs. Stanford wouldn’t be ended until later that year. However, because both of those streaks occurred largely on Braun’s watch, in this celebration of Braun’s tenure I decided not to include them. If they make your personal ‘Top 12′ list, I understand completely.
11. Cal Upsets Top-Seeded UCLA in the Pac-10 tournament (2007)
Things were looking pretty bleak at the tail end of this injury-plagued season, but Ayinde Ubaka finally gave us the game of his career that we all knew he was capable of having, and the Bears, having already blown halftime leads to UCLA twice this season, finally managed to win one. Though they once again squandered a second-half lead, Ubaka would not be denied, hitting big shot after big shot down the stretch, finally forcing overtime with 15 seconds left. The Bears dominated the extra five minutes, and Cal had themselves a huge upset of 4th-ranked UCLA.
Yeah, this season didn’t go as expected, due in part to the roster being decimated by injuries, but for one day, you believed the Bears could beat anybody. Ubaka had a career-high 29 points, and if he had played like that more often, his career might have indeed been a storied one at Cal.
UCLA, for their part, would turn out just fine, winning their next 4 games to make it back to the Final Four.
10. Sean Lampley sets the school scoring record (2001)
Beset by probation, scandal, and scholarship restrictions, Ben Braun only brought in one recruit during his first year at Cal, but boy, was he a doozy. Sean Lampley would, for me, epitomize the Bear’s rise from the ashes under Braun, helping the Bears to the NIT title as a sophomore, leading them to the NIT quarterfinals the next year, and finally back to the NCAA tournament as a senior.
Lampley, as a senior, seemed like he was an automatic 20 points every night out, and on the night he broke the record, an otherwise unremarkable 19-point victory at home over Washington State, he did not disappoint, pouring in 29. There was a celebration during the first timeout after the record fell, and Haas gave Lampley a standing ovation, a tribute to four years of making putting the ball in the bucket look so easy.
Every time I see Cal attempt an alley-oop and it goes horribly wrong (ball glances off Hardin’s hands out-of-bounds, etc.), I think back to the sweetness of Legans-to-Lampley, and how in tune they were with each other. Also, though it has nothing to do with this list, I found this awesome photo of Lampley in a Dubs uni. No idea when it was taken.
9. Cal makes the field of 65 for the first time since probation (2001)
Of course, the real culmination of Lampley’s career was when the team finally made the NCAA tournament during his senior year. Here’s what he had to say after the bracket was announced:
"I’m sure Fresno State will be up for us and I’m sure it’s going to be a good game. I’m excited, too, that we’re in there, but I think my emotions will come out on the floor when we get to the tournament. I didn’t care what bracket or seed we were. We could have been a 16th seed, I just wanted to make it to the tournament. I’m pleased that we’re in. We’ve been through a lot of turmoil, especially myself and Morgan (Lingle) the four years that we’ve been with Cal. We struggled and we got over it. I think that just shows the adversity that we went through and we made it. You’ve got to just listen to the people who have been there before, and that’s our coaching staff. I think they’ll lead us into this tournament."
Okay, so the Bears did seem like they were a little bit ‘happy just to be here’ that year, and they did indeed fall to Fresno State in the 8-9 game, but this was still an important accomplishment. It was a big moment for the program, and you got the sense that things were only going to get better in the years to come.
8. Cal blows away No. 9 UCLA at the Oakland Arena (1999)
Cal would eventually defeat 3 top ten foes that year (North Carolina and Arizona were the other victims), the first time in school history that had ever happened, but the UCLA game gets the nod, if only for this post-game quote from Baron Davis, who has since seen much better days at the Oakland Arena:
"We got our butts kicked. I wish I could say it someway else, but they pounded us, drove a stake into us, and all we did was cry. They treated us like little kids today," Davis said. "Coming off a loss you should be hungry, but obviously you saw who the hungrier team was today and it wasn’t us."
A conference record crowd of 15,676 saw the Bears demolish UCLA by a score of 85-67, the largest margin for a home victory over the Bruins since 1948. I was not at this game, but I can only imagine how much fun it would have been to attend.
7. Cal defeats Pennsylvania for their first tournament victory in 5 years (2002)
Going into the tournament, Cal wasn’t given very much respect as a 6-seed, and indeed Penn was a hot upset pick by bracket pundits before the game. However, Cal proved them all wrong in taking down the Quakers, proving that while the previous year’s team may have been just ‘happy to be there’, this year’s edition was not satisfied.
No, no, Joe Shipp and Co. were not ‘just happy to be there’ in 2002, taking down the upset-minded Quakers to win their first tournament game in 5 years.
Indeed, Cal would hold a halftime lead over 3rd-seeded Pitt in their next game, and with 10th-seeded Kent State already through to the Sweet 16, Cal looked as though they might be in for a deep tourney run. However, it was not to be, as Ben Howland broke Cal fan’s hearts for the first (but certainly not the last) time, leading Pitt past Cal and ending Braun’s best shot at a Sweet 16 since his debut season.
Alas, it was not so easy vs. Pitt, as Brandin Knight and the Panthers proved too much for Shantay Legans and Cal. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, this would be Shantay’s last game in a Cal uniform.
Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon, where I run down the absolute best moments of the Ben Braun Era at Cal.