Canzano: Cal flying low in men's basketball
Part 2 of a series on Pac-12 hoops.
SALT LAKE CITY — The 52-seat charter bus carrying the University of California men’s basketball team pulled away from the curb in front of the Huntsman Center on Sunday at half past six o’clock in the evening.
The Bears were fresh off their 20th loss of the season, a 61-46 defeat to Utah. After the game, Cal’s players dressed in the visiting locker room and made their way up a ramp to the idling bus while coach Mark Fox conducted a post-game interview.
What’s wrong with Cal basketball?
It’s become the question to ask. Not just on Sunday in the wake of the loss to the Utes. But during the hapless Fox era. For the first time in Cal’s 116-year program history, the program posted three consecutive 20-loss seasons.
This piece is Part 2 of an ongoing series about Pac-12 basketball. Cal’s dismal season isn’t just embarrassing, it drags down the conference’s NET Rankings. The Bears are currently ranked No. 298 out of 363 Division I men’s basketball programs, dead last among Power Five members.
“When I was hired, I understood the challenges,” Fox said on Sunday. “We knew that we had a massive rebuild in front of us and my athletic director was very honest about the rebuilding he needed to do in his area.”
Fox’s record in three-plus seasons at Cal: 38-78.
Pac-12 Conference record: 17-53.
Is Cal investing enough in basketball? Can the program be fixed? How long until Fox is fired? And would doing so make a difference?
“If they fire him,” said one program insider on Sunday, “the next guy will probably just lose, too.”
The lingering questions in Berkeley feel as heavy as a bag of bricks. But if Cal basketball is going to win games again in the Pac-12 Conference, it needs to get real with itself.
The Bottom Line
The 2021-2022 Cal basketball season is an interesting case study. Fox’s team posted a 12-20 record and finished 10th in the conference. It was a lousy season. But the men’s basketball program posted one notable victory last year.
It turned a profit.
The haul: $954,846.
UCLA’s program reached the Elite Eight last March, but Cal beat the pants off the Bruins when it came to the bottom line. Despite the losing record, the Bears profited $153,000 more than UCLA. Cal also beat another perennial contender, Oregon, by clearing $145,000 more than the Ducks last year.
The NCAA requires members to submit financial data detailing the annual operating revenues, expenses and capital related to their respective athletics programs. The reports are the Rosetta Stone for Pac-12 men’s basketball.
In the fiscal year ending in June of 2022, UCLA spent $11.9 million on men’s basketball. Oregon poured $10.9 million into its program. Cal played in a mostly-empty home arena and didn’t generate large sport-specific donations but it kept costs down. Program expenditures totaled $7.5 million.
Between Cal and its conference peers, the largest disparity in the men’s basketball investment came in coaching salaries, travel expenditures and game-day costs.
UCLA spent $1.5 million on team travel in 2022. Oregon spent $1.1 million. Cal’s men’s basketball travel expenses were only $652,000, in part, because the program more frequently utilized commercial flights vs. flying via charters.
After Sunday’s loss to Utah, the Bears coaches, players and support staff were carried to the airport in that bus. Then, the team then boarded a chartered Saab 2000 twin-engined high-speed airliner for the trip back to the Bay Area. According to flight records, the 58-seat aircraft left the Salt Lake City airport at 7:48 p.m. MT and landed less than two hours later in Oakland.
A university spokesperson said on Sunday: “Cal has consistently chartered to and from games this season.”
A current Cal player, however, said that the team did not use charter airline travel for every conference road game this season. The team used a commercial flight to make road trips to the two Arizona schools, among others. Cal confirmed that it used a commercial flight after Thursday night’s 59-46 loss at Colorado to fly between Boulder and Salt Lake City.
Pac-12 Conference Deputy Commissioner Jamie Zaninovich is the conference’s supervisor of basketball. He recently told me that the conference doesn’t mandate charter flights. It does, however, encourage them.
“The programs that are succeeding,” Zaninovich said, “most of that has to do with investment.”
Cal’s opponent on Sunday — Utah — said it has flown via charter for every Pac-12 road game this season. The Utes are not alone. Charter flights have become a frequent practice among the teams in the top-half of the Pac-12 standings.
Both UCLA and Arizona, for example, use a charter on every road trip, including non-conference games. Both programs used a private carrier on the 518-mile flight between Boulder and Salt Lake City. A source at UCLA said that two-game Pac-12 mountain swing can be taxing on players. Cutting down the travel time and skipping hours spent at the airport allows players to get extra comfort and rest.
“That altitude is real,” said one Bruins’ staffer.
Arizona AD Dave Heeke said: “We don’t fly commercial.”
Oregon coach Dana Altman swears by charter flights, too. The Ducks flew commercial when Altman was hired in Eugene in 2010. When recruits told him that Arizona and UCLA were regularly chartering all flights, Altman decided the Ducks needed to do it as well.
“It’s one of those questions that the conference and our individual schools have to answer,” Altman said. “How competitive do we want to be nationally? The Big Ten all charters. The Big 12 all charters. The SEC with their football money, they all charter.”
Altman said the flights aren’t just a fun selling point for recruits. Going via charter cuts down on the length of a long season, reducing wear and tear on players and helps them academically.
Said Altman: “We charter and it’s an advantage for us.”
The Cal men’s basketball team shares its practice facility. Not just with the women’s team, but with the entire student body. The Bears hold their practices at UC Berkeley’s campus Recreational Sports Facility.
The “RSF” is open to members of the student body, seven days a week. The venue’s offerings include lap swimming, martial arts, intramural sports, table tennis, intramural basketball, badminton and volleyball.
One campus insider told me that it’s not unusual for Fox’s practices to be interrupted by curious students, who poke their heads into the gym thinking it might be one of the various scheduled “Open Gym” sessions. It creates a unique challenge for players wanting to get extra practice and work on their shot between classes.
Kuany Kuany, a Cal forward, said: “You can still get your shots up. It may not be as often as you would like, but as long as we still have access, no one is making it an excuse.”
Former Cal coach Ben Braun came up with a creative solution during his tenure (1996-2008). Braun forged a relationship with the Golden State Warriors. His players took a 20-minute bus ride from campus to the NBA franchise’s practice facility in downtown Oakland.
In his first season, Braun said he would try to go into the RSF during the winter months, but soon realized the university had turned the heat off while students were on break. His players could see their breath in the air. It’s a cost-cutting practice that still exists, Braun said.
Braun said: “It kills you in recruiting. Even your own players are going, ‘What is this?!?’”
In his 12 seasons as head coach at Cal, Braun posted a .587 win percentage. Cal reached the NCAA Tournament five times and advanced to the Sweet 16 once. Not because Braun had deep resources — because he didn’t — but because he was creative and tireless.
Braun didn’t just coach and recruit, he cultivated interesting relationships with key donors and wooed corporate sponsors. During Braun’s time in Berkeley, Nike made the program one of only four “Jordan Brand” universities in the country. The other three were North Carolina, St. John’s and Cincinnati.
“Our guys were walking around Union Square wearing the Jordan Brand,” Braun said. “Everyone saw us.”
When Cal’s administration balked at the cost of chartered flights, adding a film room, or told Braun that a dedicated strength and conditioning coach wasn’t in the budget, he called on donors himself.
“I raised every freaking penny of it,” Braun said. “You have to be creative. You have to get the funding for these things.”
The Maxwell family — the founders of PowerBar — owned a private plane. When they heard Braun was traveling commercial to recruit, they loaned him their plane. It’s why the coach never missed a practice.
Braun worked closely with booster Bob Haas, a Cal graduate and the grand nephew of Levi Strauss, to build a film room for the men’s and women’s programs. And when the Goldman family, Cal’s largest current donor, was told that Braun used $250,000 of his own money to start an academic-achievement fund, it matched the donation on the spot. The Goldman family went all-in and Braun said he’ll never forget it.
Said Braun: “It’s what you had to do to get what you needed to win.”
Question of Leadership
Fox is 4-37 in Pac-12 road games during his tenure. The losses are difficult to ignore. His recruiting classes don’t make a strong case for retention, either. Between 2020-2022 the Bears had the No. 89, No. 70 and No. 91-ranked classes. The 2023 class is currently ranked 57th by 247Sports.
“How do you get better players?” said Braun. “You didn’t charter like some others. You have no practice facility. You’re not going to get the best players. You’re going to get some good academics, though.”
Braun has coached against Fox.
“I think he’s a good coach who is facing a lot of challenges.”
Fox’s current five-year contract runs through March of 2024. The coach will make $1.72 million in salary this season and $1.8 million in 2024. He’s also set to collect a $250,000 retention bonus should he be employed on Jan. 1, 2024.
Athletic director Jim Knowlton hinted at a contract extension for Fox last year. Did the AD mean it? Or was it a hollow show of public support so Knowlton can later claim he did all he could?
Frustrated fans groaned when Knowlton told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I think recruits want to know, and I want coaches to know that I have confidence in them.”
Knowlton did not return messages seeking comment for this piece. His background is in civil engineering. He played college ice hockey and was a team captain at Army West Point. He has a well-respected military service record, a good handshake, and previously served as the athletic director at the Air Force Academy.
But is he right for Cal?
In 2018, Knowlton became the latest in a line of curious AD hires in Berkeley. None of the last four Cal athletic directors arrived with a background that included personal experience with football or men’s basketball.
Said one UC-Berkeley athletic department employee: “They’re clueless. The ADs they hire have backgrounds in rowing, field hockey, ice hockey and wrestling. It’s not what you need if you want to promote revenue-generating sports.”
Cal’s biggest athletic successes in recent years have come in rowing, water polo, swimming and diving. The women’s basketball program is 2-10 in conference play this season. The football team finished 4-8 last season and is 10-18 in the last three combined seasons.
Braun won at Cal. So did his successors, Mike Montgomery (.640) and Cuonzo Martin (.614). But all three were successful head coaches at prior stops and had proof of performance. After Martin left, the Bears hired a career-assistant named Wyking Jones.
Jones had been to two Final Fours as an assistant. But he’d never been a head coach. The job swallowed him up. He was fired after posting a 16-47 record in two seasons.
Said one university source: “Wyking had no chance.”
Some Cal fans want Fox fired — today. Worse yet, others have stopped caring. Home attendance is dismal. The W-L record is alarming. And boosters and former Cal players are growing weary watching the program’s low-flying trajectory.
The 46-point offensive output on Sunday vs. Utah marked the fourth straight game in which Cal failed to score at least 50 points.
After the loss, Fox pointed to injuries. It’s become a frequent talking point, fed via the university sports information staff to TV broadcast partners before games. I ran the injury question by data scientist Evan Miyakawa. He’s a PhD statistician. Among other things, Miyakawa studies the number of missed games by rotation players in college hoops.
Said Miyakawa: “Cal has had 28 games missed by rotation players, which is 28th highest in the country and second in the Pac-12.”
Oregon’s rotation players have lost 34 games this season. But the Ducks have far more depth, better recruiting classes, more resources, superior administrative support and a future Hall of Fame coach on the bench.
Oregon is 8-5 in Pac-12 play.
Cal is in the basement.
“Everybody is culpable,” Braun said. “You can’t pin this on Covid, or fans not coming out, or no practice facility. There’s a combination of things that contribute to it. S**t, I had challenges. We were on the NCAA death penalty, we didn’t have a gym, we had to travel with backpacks on a bus to practice.
“It’s all related. It snowballs. They can change the coach — it won’t fix it.”
Will Cal Figure It Out?
Rich Cellini is the radio play-by-play broadcaster for Cal basketball. He spent his Sunday in Salt Lake City calling the program’s 20th loss of the season.
Cellini was not among those on the team charter after the game. He boarded a commercial flight — Southwest Airlines — and got home late Sunday evening. He also works as a professor in the University of San Francisco’s Sport Management program.
“With a lot of losing teams, the players hate the coaches and the coaches hate the players. I can say one thing about this team, I haven’t seen that,” he said.
I asked Cellini how he manages to get excited about a team that struggles to break 50 points and has won only three times this season.
“I just try to give the game the respect it deserves,” he said.
Kuany Kuany played 32 minutes in the losing effort on Sunday in Salt Lake City. He scored 11 points and had seven rebounds. Out of high school, Kuany had scholarship offers from Georgia, DePaul, Florida State and Kansas State. After the game, I asked him, “Why Cal?”
Kuany, 6-foot-9, was born in Kenya, but moved to Australia when he was 6. He started playing basketball after a growth spurt at age 11 and moved on his own to the United States at 15.
Victory Rock is a prep academy in Florida. Kuany spent his first three seasons on its campus in Sarasota, Fla. Before his senior season, Kuany transferred across the country to Prolific Prep Academy in Napa, Calif.
On Sunday, when I asked Kuany why he decided to go to Cal, he didn’t point to the school’s basketball facilities, rich tradition or chartered flights. Instead, he spoke about his long-standing relationship with assistant Chris Harriman, the proximity of the campus to Napa, and the “great education” that Cal provides.
Academics are an interesting part of Cal’s story, aren’t they?
The university positions itself as a strong academic landing spot for students. The campus celebrates that. But high academic standards create obstacles when it comes to recruiting and the shifting landscape of college athletics.
Bring up academics as an excuse and those who follow Cal closely will point to a line of gifted former athletes, particularly from the 1990s, who gained admission using university exemptions and waivers.
“Right now, they can’t get the right player,” said one source, “so they lean on the educational standards as an excuse.”
Coach Pete Newell won a national championship at Cal in 1959. Jason Kidd carried the Bears to national prominence in the 1990s. But all that success seems so far away now. The world of college athletics has pivoted and the transfer portal presents a challenge for the current regime at Cal.
“The portal is not a lane we can run full-time in,” Fox said. “We’re not going to be able to get everybody into school and we really value the academic quality of our place. That’s one of the things we sell.”
Fox’s seat is scalding hot. No doubt, Knowlton’s chair is warming too. Something must be done. Cal (3-20) is flirting with posting the worst regular-season in program history. Dick Kuchen went 6-21 in 1978-79. That team lost 11 of its final 12 games to finish with a .222 winning percentage.
Fox’s team has lost seven consecutive games. The average margin of defeat in that span: 17.7 points. This week, Cal hosts Arizona and ASU. After that, it plays at USC and UCLA. There are eight regular-season games remaining. Fox must finish 4-4 or better to avoid the worst single-season win percentage in school history.
Said Fox: “I’m not a good loser.”
The irony is, he may end up the best ever at Cal.
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