Cal dismissed coach Mark Fox on Thursday in a move surprising only in that it required 19 hours from the conclusion of the worst season in school history to the announcement of Fox’s termination.
The writing has been on this wall since the invention of writing.
Fox was a questionable hire from the start, as athletic director Jim Knowlton spent just three days looking for a replacement for Wyking Jones in the spring of 2019 and allowed an East Coast-based search firm, Collegiate Sports Associates, to guide the process despite its questionable track record for West Coast hires.
The first red flag: Fox was unemployed at the time, having been fired by Georgia a year earlier.
The second red flag: Fox had no ties to Cal.
Every Bears fan in captivity — at least, those who haven’t been driven away by six dreadful years under Jones and Fox — should hope Knowlton doesn’t retain CSA this time around.
Then again, Pete Newell at the peak of his powers would only get the Bears to mediocrity without the university deciding it actually cares about basketball.
For all the spotlight on the lack of a dedicated practice facility, the program’s issues run much deeper.
The national landscape for football and men’s basketball has changed dramatically in the past few years. The transfer portal created a system of free agency that poses challenges for schools with high academic standards while the implementation of name, image and likeness (NIL) runs counter to the traditional NCAA model held dear by schools where the faculty voice is loudest.
In combination, the portal and NIL have forced schools to choose their level of commitment to winning.
Not surprisingly, Cal hasn’t barreled forward into the new era.
Nor, for that matter, has Stanford.
In both major sports — the sports that generate revenue for all other sports — the ancient rivals are falling behind their peers at an ever-accelerating rate.
The result is a Bay Area double-dip into the abyss that could not have come at a worse time for the Pac-12.
With USC and UCLA announcing their departures to the Big Ten (in the summer of 2024) and the Bears and Cardinal struggling to compete, California is rapidly losing relevance just when the conference needs needle-moving success in its most populous state.
It’s not like either school is decades removed from winning. In the spring of 2017, Cal basketball wrapped up a 21-win season under Cuonzo Martin; that fall, Stanford football won the Pac-12 North division title.
Then Martin bolted Berkeley for his home turf (the coaching gig at Missouri). The Bears responded with a bad hire (Jones), then compounded the problem with another bad hire. Fox is a good coach but poorly suited for the talent acquisition process at a school with numerous inherent obstacles.
COVID walloped both Cal and Stanford to a greater degree than many Pac-12 peers. Add the transfer portal and NIL, and the landscape shifted far faster than the universities adjusted — either because they lacked the willpower or the ability.
Where should the Bears turn this time? Assuming chancellor Carol Christ doesn’t order a major shift in institutional priorities, can anyone salvage this wreck?
Here are five names to consider:
Randy Bennett: One of the best coaches on the West Coast resides a few miles up the road from Berkeley. Yes, Bennett has a good situation at Saint Mary’s and will be coaching in the NCAAs for the ninth time. But we believe he would jump if the Bears make a strong offer. They have passed on him repeatedly over the years, and it’s not clear the school’s approach has changed, even if its level of desperation has soared.
Dennis Gates: The Bears passed on Gates four years ago. Since then, he turned around the Cleveland State program and has led Missouri to 23 wins this season (after taking over for Cuonzo Martin). Cal can’t outbid the Tigers and would have to hope the prospect of resuscitating his alma mater — Gates played and coached for Cal under Ben Braun — lured him home.
Travis DeCuire: The former Cal assistant under Mike Montgomery is wrapping up his ninth season at Montana. All he’s done in Missoula is win 20 games four different times. The Seattle native has recruiting ties throughout the West Coast and, crucially, knows what works in Berkeley.
Tim Miles: San Jose State’s basketball team is winning for the first time in forever, and Miles is the reason. He took charge of the Spartans last year and went 1-17 in the Mountain West. This season, SJSU won 10 conference games and is 20-12 overall after beating Nevada in the conference tournament. Miles has led five different schools to at least one 20-win season: Southwest Minnesota State, North Dakota State, Colorado State, Nebraska and SJSU.
Mark Madsen: If Stanford hired a Cal alum (Troy Taylor) to restore its football program to prominence, why can’t Cal hire a Stanford alum to save its basketball program? Madsen has done impressive work in his four years at Utah Valley. He would love to revive his alma mater, obviously. But as of this moment, Stanford doesn’t have a vacancy.
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