Cal men’s basketball is in a historically bad place. The Bears’ 3-29 record this season was the worst not just in Cal history but in Pac-12 history overall. With the worst attendance of all 76 major conference schools, the fans Cal has left have quickly moved from disappointment to anger to apathy. It’s hard to blame them when the team hasn’t sniffed the NCAA tournament in seven years and been last in the Pac-12 for four of the last six seasons.
All this losing has made it hard to remember that in a not-so-distant past, Cal actually fielded a competitive basketball team. Prior to this recent stretch, Cal was a frequent contender: Packed Haas Pavilion crowds watched future NBA-greats like Jason Kidd and Jaylen Brown lead the Bears to postseason play almost three out of every four seasons since 1985. Cal even has a national championship in its history.
Cal certainly isn’t a blue blood, but winning basketball in Berkeley can and has been done before. Is it possible now to restore Cal basketball to its former glory? Maybe or maybe not, but here are three steps the Bears can take to begin the path back to March Madness — or at least out of worst-team-in-the-nation territory.
Step 1: Make the right hire
It’s no secret that the right coach can make the difference for a basketball team. Where would Duke be without Mike Krzyzewski or the Chicago Bulls without Phil Jackson? What is often overlooked, however, is just how much the wrong coach can break a team. Cal’s successive hires of an inexperienced unknown and a mediocre retread in Wyking Jones and Mark Fox respectively took a once proud program to the basement of college basketball in six short years.
Cal has taken the first step in firing Fox, but the more important next piece of the puzzle is where the Bears go from here. What does the right coach look like for Cal? There are no illusions that Steve Kerr will walk through the door, but Cal doesn’t necessarily need an all-time great to be better.
The blue and gold just need something different from Jones and Fox, who most fans knew were not the answer as soon as they were on board. A promising up-and-comer with success at a mid-major is all the Bears should be looking for. Whether athletic director Jim Knowlton is the right person to make that hire is another conversation entirely, but I’ll keep my ten step plan to save Cal Athletics for the next article.
A coach who is familiar with Cal would be nice. A good recruiter who can coach modern basketball would be a bonus as well. But more than anything, Cal just needs to make an ambitious hire that can inject life into the program.
Step 2: Start spending
A critical step to hiring a good coach is being willing to pay for them. And more importantly, it has become clear in 2023 that a critical step to building a winning college basketball team is being willing to spend on it.
Yet Cal basketball isn’t doing that. From hiring unqualified yet inexpensive coaches to being one of the few Pac-12 teams that doesn’t fly charter to all away games, the blue and gold are defined by cutting corners. Perhaps the worst example is Cal being one of the only major conference schools not to have a dedicated practice facility. Instead, the team gets their shots up with the rest of Berkeley’s students at our shared on-campus gym, the Recreational Sports Facility. I have indeed run open gym with members of Cal basketball.
This lack of resources doesn’t only hurt the current program but it also scares away recruits. The one thing the Bears do well is save money — Cal actually generated more revenue last season than Sweet 16 bound UCLA by spending $4.4 million less on their program than the Bruins.
But what UCLA does well is win. Building a winning program and pinching pennies are incompatible in today’s era. Investing resources into the team and making money no object in the hiring of a next coach would do wonders for Cal basketball. If the Bears want to journey back towards respectability, they’ll have to open up the piggy bank.
Step 3: Use Berkeley’s advantages
Perhaps the only reason I still have faith in Cal basketball someday turning things around is because of everything off the court that Berkeley brings to the table. The program is in the heart of a major metropolitan area and basketball hotbed with the world champion Golden State Warriors in its backyard. The alumni network is extensive and wealthy if it were tapped into.
Cal basketball has a rich history with deep connections in professional basketball. And the combination of elite academics, California sun, big city access and thriving college town should be more than enough to draw top recruits.
These intangibles are what can make the difference for Cal basketball. This is how the Bears have won in the past, and leveraging them is perhaps the single biggest thing Cal can do to right the ship. Instead, they have fallen by the wayside and as a result, the program has plummeted.
Cal basketball does not have an easy road ahead. Rebuilding the program will take time, and I have doubts about whether the university can be successful at doing it. But following my three-step plan would be a good start.