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What a Difference a Coach Makes

by David Mihm | January 12th, 2009

This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a long time.  It never felt quite right, though, because I’m not one to bash a sitting coach or a team publicly during a season, particularly a team that I’m fond of watching.  But it appears this story finally has a happy ending, and now seems like a fitting time to publish it.

Prior to last weekend, the new millennium for the California Golden Bears could have been summed up in one word: “forgettable.”

Living just steps from Haas Pavilion for nearly eight months, and a short bus ride away for three more years, I remained an eager, albeit objective observer of Cal basketball during my time in the Bay Area. Despite a gleaming new arena (Haas Pavilion, renovated extensively in 1999), athletic department coffers flush with cash, and the allure of playing in the nation’s seventh-largest media market, Cal was a perennial also-ran in a perennially “down” Pac-10.

Midway through the 2009 season, it’s quite clear that the agent of Cal’s mediocrity was its coach, Ben Braun.

At the time of his unceremonious dismissal in April, Braun ranked 11th among all active Division I coaches with 552 victories, a glowing testament to an utter lack of scrutiny of the basketball program by Cal’s Athletics Directors.  Braun’s “impressive” win total of 219 in 12 years at Cal spoke more to his longevity (rumors of an “untouchable” decree from the Haas family abounded in the East Bay) than his skill on the sidelines.

And, it must be said, Braun did have a strange knack for winning games that inner forces within the Athletics Department did care about–such as upsetting rival UCLA in the 2007 Pac-10 Tournament Semifinals, followed by a blowout loss to Oregon the next day, and a 16-17 finish.

The only truly notable recruit of Braun’s tenure during the 2000s was a local hero named Leon Powe whose college career was highlighted by a disastrous knee injury and an early NCAA Tournament exit.

Cal’s offense did flourish, relatively speaking, with Powe–the directive of “feed Leon so he can get fouled” at least provided some sense of purpose for Cal’s perimeter players.  But even the introduction of Ryan Anderson, whose offensive skill set was superior to Powe’s at the college level, provided no great boost to the Bears’ brand of basketball, as perimeter passing and bailout three-point shots remained a staple during Braun’s last two years.

Favorite snapshots from the twilight of Braun’s tenure include:

  • 2006 Great Alaska Shootout vs. Marshall. With Cal up six (eight?) under two minutes to go, Braun calls timeout on a loose ball out of bounds.  The play drawn up directs the inbounding player to run the baseline, which of course, as even a tepid basketball fan knows, is only allowed on a made basket.  Following the turnover, Marshall hits a three, steals the next inbounds pass, and hits another three to tie the game (cut the lead to two?) in a span of less than 15 seconds.  Somehow Cal is able to recover, and ices the game at the free throw line.
  • 2006 Golden Bear Classic vs. San Diego. A near-empty (we’re talking fewer than 1,000 fans) Haas Pavilion watches a Bears squad with two sure-fire NBA players lose to a San Diego team that finished 6-8 in the WCC.
  • 2007 Washington State (?) vs. Cal, 1st half. On the heels of an impressive, and improbable, win over Stanford the previous outing, Your Humble Bracketographer counted the total number of offensive screens set by the Bears for teammates during the first half: 0.  I can think of no more fitting statistic to describe just how “offensive” Cal’s offense was under Braun.

Fast forward to 2008-2009.  In comes former Stanford boss Mike Montgomery to coach a team which lost two players (Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin) to the NBA, with virtually no fresh talent to replace them.

Wake Forest has been impressive, and Michigan has been a nice surprise, but with all due respect to Dino Gaudio and John Beilein, please hand Montgomery the Coach of the Year award right now.

Cal could easily crash down the stretch in a better-than-expected Pac-10, but the Bears already own four very impressive road victories over NCAA Tournament or Bubble teams–UNLV, Utah, Washington State, and Washington– and it’s tough to see them missing the field without a DISASTROUS “Last 10 games” statistic.  (Keep in mind that Arizona made it last year going 4-8 in its Last 12, including two wins over the record-settingly-bad Beavers of Oregon State.)

My only opportunity to watch Cal so far this season came on Saturday evening against the Huskies.  The Bears weren’t exactly impressive, but showed more grit, determination, and flair than I ever saw them display under their former coach.  Their tenacity on the glass was formidable, as was their defense.  Harper Kamp and Jerome Randle have improved by leaps and bounds over the previous year, and the team chemistry is simply excellent.

There is no fear in these Bears, no indecision.

Montgomery’s choice of assistants is as inspired as his own coaching.  Travis DeCuire brings credibility as a former Division I player and longtime assistant coach.  Former Oregon State boss Jay John brings a decade and a half of institutional knowledge about Pac-10 programs, most recently from his six years at Oregon State.  And Gregg Gottlieb, son of Bob and brother of Doug, clearly has fantastic beat on the recruiting trail.

In what I would call “Year Zero,” Monty already has the Bears in the hunt for a Pac-10 title, with vastly inferior talent to the other Pac-10 contenders (UCLA, Arizona State, USC(?)).  I’d look for the Bears to fill the voids left at Arizona and Oregon and become a consistent contender for the Pac-10 crown with UCLA over the next several years.

Frank Rich’s excellent column Forgotten But Not Gone highlights the “legacy” of our 43rd president, one of the few leaders less effective in the last eight years than Braun was at Cal.

That’s where the analogy stops, though. Unlike Bush, Braun is already forgotten AND gone by long-suffering Berkeley faithful.

My heart goes out to fans of the Rice Owls.

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