Discover more from Write For California
Cal Men's Basketball Coaching Search: A Good or Bad Hiring Process?
Cal appears to have found their next MBB coach in Mark Madsen. But what can we say about the process that led to the hire?
For those who went outside an enjoyed your weekend and are catching up on a Monday morning, it appears likely that Cal is hiring Mark Madsen as their next men’s basketball coach. Sources both national and local have reported that it’s going to happen as soon as Madsen’s Utah Valley squad ends their NIT run in Las Vegas later this week.
(On that note, if you want a free preview of what a Madsen team looks like, tune in to ESPN2 at 6:30 on Tuesday night to watch Utah Valley vs. UAB in the NIT semi-finals)
While I’m operating under the assumption that all of the reporting is accurate, we’ll wait for a deeper analysis of what Madsen might bring at Cal’s head coach for when the official announcement is made. But in this odd interim period we can talk through Cal’s hiring process. Let me paint you two very different pictures:
Jim Knowlton, chastened by the failure of his first revenue sport hire, listens to his many critics and conducts a very different search. Whether by choice or forced by circumstances, he is not the sole decision maker but merely part of a larger committee. He solicits input from major donors and former program luminaries. Using a search firm in a useful fashion, an initial list of possible candidates is narrowed down to a list of those with some level of mutual interest.
On that list are longshot candidates, up-and-comers, and obvious candidates. Is it a bummer that Cal can’t hit on any longshot candidates? Of course - but this is a program that has endured a six year run of futility that might be without modern analog.
Eventually, after thorough vetting and interviews, Knowlton gets as close as you can to consensus among a large group of interested parties, and makes an informed decision to hire an up-and-coming coach with NBA, G-League, and college experience. Sure, maybe it’s not the flashiest hire, but it’s probably about as good as Cal could be expected to do considering the very many drawbacks currently facing the program.
Jim Knowlton, under pressure due to the failure of his first revenue sport hire AND by recent reporting that he is under investigation for his handling of complaints of mistreatment of Cal athletes, realizes that he must appear to pay lip service to the many, many pissed off constituents who have lost faith in his leadership. He listens to donors (who generally advocate for Joe Pasternack) and players (who advocate for everybody under the sun) because he has to, but only to maintain appearances.
Meanwhile, Knowlton interviews a mixed bag of candidates, with some good names and some iffy names. But an interview is a two way street, and potential coaches are vetting Cal just as much as Cal is vetting coaches. When these interviews happen, Knowlton is unable to provide potential coaches with any reassurances that all of the barriers in place that have helped contribute to the collapse of Cal basketball will be removed.
New practice facility? No dates announced, no funding secured. New, stringent admissions policies? No, we’re not even considering tweaks. Increased funding for NIL and recruiting? No guarantees. Can we provide any assurance about who your boss will be in a year or two? Nope, like we said, he’s under investigation.
So while Cal interviews some intriguing names, most decide that Cal is only valuable as a tool to extract a better contract from their current employers. Randy Bennett saying no is one thing, but Joe Pasternack and Amir Abdur-Rahim passing is ominous.
Meanwhile, donors and former athletes feel sidelined again when Cal is unable to close on their preferred candidate, and another coach is left to try to rebuild without a ton of institutional support to kick start his tenure.
What we actually know
Based on various reports from twitter and this recap of the process from Bear Insider, I think the following coaches were interviewed:
This list may not be exhaustive - there were rumors that Cal was also vetting coaches involved in the G-League and some high-major associate head coaches - but it seems reasonably likely that these five were high on Cal’s list.
What we don’t know, and likely won’t ever know for sure, was Cal’s internal ranking of candidates and who was actually gettable. In theory, Cal could massively increase the salary of everybody on that list except Bennett, but money isn’t everything and I’m not going to assume anything until details of the new contract is announced.
I suppose it’s worth noting that everybody on this list is a significantly more credible target than Mark Fox. I realize that isn’t saying much, but if your final list of candidates to take over for a team that went 3-28 includes four credible names, then your candidate vetting process is at least solid.
A verdict on the hiring process?
You’ll be unsurprised at my cop-out answer: it’s probably a little bit of both. In comparison to the coaching searches that occurred in 2017 and 2019, this was a well-run operation. But doing better than two of the worst coaching hire processes in major athletics history is not our measure of success. Stan Johnson concerns aside, it was a credible list of candidates. As much as I’m primed to believe the worst about Cal’s current AD, objectively speaking this doesn’t look much different from a standard major conference coach search.
The sense I get is that Jim Knowlton attempted to get buy-in from various aggrieved parties . . . and largely failed. But such is the damage done to Cal MBB that it might not have been an achievable goal. I’m not particularly convinced that Jim Knowlton can himself fix Cal MBB even if he does everything right, because the Cal community has lost faith in him as an Athletic Director. He’s a lame duck, and that’s his own fault.
If you’re a fan of Joe Pasternack, then you might be inclined to view this hiring process as another failure. Conventional wisdom was that Pasternack wanted the job, so if you think Pasternack is a better candidate than Madsen, then the process must be a failure. As the Bear Insider article notes, Pasternack reportedly had lots of donor support and would supposedly be able to activate lots of NIL spending from said donors. While I have no doubt that there is a segment of donors who were all-in on Pasternack, I have no way of comparing the support he had as compared to Madsen. If Cal continues to lag behind peers in NIL funding, this will be a perpetual what-if.
Mark Madsen could certainly succeed at Cal. There are enough positive marks on his resume that you can’t dismiss the possibility, even though the structural barriers in the way are very real. And if he does improve the program, then donor/alum/fan support will return.
But I’m skeptical that support will come before wins, that support will come just from Madsen’s hire. Maybe the damage done to Cal MBB is so severe that it wasn’t possible to hire somebody who would immediately galvanize support.
In a matter of days, Cal should have a new head coach. I don’t know if Mark Madsen gets me excited, exactly. But his hiring doesn’t fill me with dread and foreboding like Cal’s last two MBB hires did, so I’ll count that as some form of progress.