The sad state of Cal basketball: Commercial flights, shared gyms, Mark Fox negligence
Plenty of reasons, plenty of blame, one sad program.
John Canzano detailed the sad state of Cal men’s basketball yesterday. It was a lot of things we knew, and some other things we didn’t.
But there are some new findings. Is it the reason Cal basketball has collapsed?
Cal is flying the conventional way
Unlike the rest of their Pac-12 counterparts, who usually charter their flights, Cal often has to travel commercial when they go on the road, which can be fairly uncomfortable for basketball players.
A current Cal player, however, said that the team did not used 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.
This could be part of the reason the Bears have gone an appalling 4-37 on the road during the Mark Fox era. It can’t be super comfortable for the Bears to have to cram themselves into cramped quarters and recover afterward, particularly on short rest.
The Cal basketball practice situation remains horrendous
Despite a more dedicated practice court inside the RSF, Cal is still sharing their space with the students, limiting practice time and preventing crucial private development. More from Canzano:
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.
Additionally the gym shuts down during the winter months to save costs, meaning it’s bitterly cold during the wintertime to use the RSF. Crucial development time has been lost here for decades.
Cal uses academics as a crutch to excuse failure on the court
One common internal excuse is the academics:
“Right now, they can’t get the right player,” said one source, “so they lean on the educational standards as an excuse.”
Academics have been a fun way for Mark Fox to justify poor recruiting and transfer portal efforts, as if the football program hasn’t found a way to get good players out of them. And it should be easier in basketball to find decent talent with the necessary academic qualifications since there isn’t as many players to manage. It’s an excuse, one of many we’ve seen from this program as the Fox era plunged into the Bay.
Jim Knowlton appears to be out of his depth
The reviews of athletic director Jim Knowlton appear to be not great. Knowlton’s infamous public support of Fox appears to be grating internally inside the program too. One Cal Athletics staffer had this to say.
“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.”
Knowlton continues to appear to be the steward of all the sports, which is nice in theory for a program with Olympic tradition like Cal, but horrendous when one of the revenue sports is this public of a failure. Knowlton has repeated injury excuses a few times this year and seems to be doing his best to tread water for his failed hire. His primary goal at this time with the basketball program appears to be saving face. He definitely does not want to have to make another hire and show his inexperience off here again.
Cal would rather be bad and cheap instead of trying to be good and expensive
Canzano’s conclusion? Cal is choosing the path of least resistance—balancing the books by choosing to minimize investment.
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.
There is no doubt Cal could invest more and be successful. But because of a poor TV contract and sagging college basketball ticket sales even prior to the bottoming out under Wyking Jones, Cal was barely turning profits even when they were successful. For an athletic department still in a debt crunch thanks to the Memorial Stadium renovations, it made more sense for Cal to go much cheaper on basketball and hope they could hold steady.
As long as basketball turns a profit, any poor record is justified! This is how debt-ridden organizations justify bad decisions, and in this case, a 3-20 record.
None of this excuses Mark Fox, the master of excuses
Despite all of this, many of these conditions applied to Ben Braun, and Mike Montgomery, and Cuonzo Martin.
None of this can excuse 3-20. The main culprit for 3-20 will always remain Mark Fox.
Yes, Cal has had bad injury luck. But Cal also had Justice Sueing, Matt Bradley, Andre Kelly and Connor Vanover, all of whom transferred out from Fox’s regime and are top contributors on other team. That would potentially be Cal’s starting lineup right now. And several went down the ranks to find better places for them because of how unappealing playing basketball was here. That’s on Fox.
Yes, Cal has had resource constraints. But even Ben Braun found ways to make it work.
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.
Braun also took his players to the Warriors practice facility in Oakland during the winter months when the facilities went cold and recruited very well. The hustle was always there.
Fox appears to have never hustled at all in his time at Berkeley. He has dismissed NIL nearly entirely while the football program has started kicking into high gear. He has shown only a minimal effort to try and recruit at a high level, usually sandwiching it in between regular visits to football team practices. He’s found a program on the respirator and leeched off what money he can before he sails off into retirement.
Fox’s Cal offenses, which have never been that good anywhere, are some of the most turgid in college basketball. The team does not run anything remotely close to an efficient offense, choosing to run the clock down to minimize possessions so the margin of defeat can never be that low. His defensive acumen has all but abandoned him this year as the team gives up easy bucket afte reasy bucket. He chases off talented players, knowing this style of basketball is a dead end for meaningful development.
Fox does not hustle to garner donor support because more donors invested in Cal basketball means he’s more likely to be bought out. He finds the Cal donors left who care about the grades and academics more than on-court results (yes, they exist) and rallies their support to give him one last buffer from the unemployment line.
Fox rallies to Knowlton, his last defender, with excuses about injuries and transfers and academics and no facilities, when we have decades of experience to know that Cal men’s basketball can succeed in lean environments. And he knows Knowlton wants no part of a hiring search after so thoroughly bungling this one.
Mark Fox has at some point given up on succeeding with Cal basketball. The coming months will tell us whether Cal has given up on its basketball team succeeding too.