Looking back at the Braun years

The departure of Ben Braun as Cal's men's basketball coach will for the time being put a stop to all of the hand-wringing about the future of the program. In time, the athletic department will sort through applications and identify the one candidate who is best positioned to help chart a new direction for the team.

While the end of the Braun era fell short of expectations, which in the eyes of athletic director Sandy Barbour is a team that can regularly contend for championships, one can't give an honest evaluation of his 12 years at Cal without looking at the circumstances that brought him here.

Consider this: for the first time in more than two decades, Cal's athletic department will be able to hire a men's basketball coach without duress.  It hasn't been since the spring of 1986, when the Bears hired Lou Campanelli to replace Dick Kuchen that there's been some time and space to change coaches. 

Campanelli was fired in the middle of the 1992-1993 season under the flimsiest of pretenses and was replaced by assistant Todd Bozeman.  The euphoria of the Bears' subsequent sweet 16 run and its Sports Illustrated cover-making upset of Duke enabled him to keep his job, until the weight of an NCAA investigation and the ugliness of sexual harassment suit caused his departure in 1996.  With only a couple of months to go before the season, NCAA penalties looming ahead of them, it was going to be a challenge for the Bears to get a proven coach.   For the Cal to land Ben Braun, an established coach at Eastern Michigan, was considered a coup.

Although Cal was faced with NCAA penalties and the prospect of  eventually having to play no home games for a season, Braun had something to work with. Development work had begun on Haas Pavilion, a new facility that would accommodate the enlarged fan base that was energized by Campanelli and taken to new levels of headiness by Bozeman, and there was considerable will to see the basketball team succeed and do so cleanly.

In retrospect, it appears as if Braun's first year at Cal might have been his best year.  While the parade of high-school all-americans that ventured through the Bozeman years had stopped, Braun's early teams compensated for a lack of offensive firepower with defense and rebounding. With Randy Duck, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Stewart, the Bears finished an impressive 23-9 in 1996-1997, with a 12-6 conference record, a tie for 2nd-place in the Pac-10, and Cal's only Sweet 16 finish during the Braun years.

During the summer of 1997, the NCAA penalized Cal for violations regarding former head coach Bozeman and payments to Jelani Gardner's father. The resulting penalty was three years of probation, no post-season play in 1997-1998, the loss of two scholarships in 1998-1999  and 1999-2000 and forfeiture of all 28 wins that Gardner played in.

With the core of the 1996-1997 team leaving, Braun scrambled to put a team of players who had to made aware that Cal would be facing severe NCAA sanctions. The result was an odd patchwork of junior college players and transfers including Geno Carlisle, Thomas Kilgore, Michael Gill and Carl Boyd who while not talented to compete game-in and game-out for the Pac-10 title, was capable of putting together a few upsets as they did in 1998-1999 when they defeated 9th-ranked North Carolina, 9th-ranked UCLA, and 7th-ranked Arizona, which culminated with an NIT title.

The perception was that after the one year of coaching holdovers and two years with a goulash of a team, that Braun and his staff had now established their bona fides. They brought in a class of freshmen that was hoped would serve as a foundation for Cal basketball for years to come.  By taking three top players from a southern California AAU team - Shantay Legans, Brian Wethers, and Nick Van der Laan, and adding Joe Shipp late in the recruiting class to join a Cal team that was returning Sean Lampley, the Bears began making progress, and postseason play began the norm.  Shipp and Wethers blossomed under Braun, and Ryan Forehan-Kelly's progress from walk-on to major contributor has to be one of the greatest success stories of Braun's tenure. Those teams went to the NCAAs in three of their four seasons, with a 23-9 record in 2001-2002 and a 22-9 record in 2002-2003. But with the league's top talent still going to Arizona, Stanford and a faltering UCLA, the Bears still needed that one recruiting breakthrough to make inroads on the conference's upper echelon.

Cal was considered close in some respects. Jamal Sampson spurned UCLA to come to Cal,  there was the interminable Mother's Day saga of Lavelle Blanchard who ended up at Michigan, Dirk Nowitzki considered coming to Berkeley before choosing the NBA, and Lebron James, who'd played in a club tournament in RSF for two summers, had Cal on his short list during the few short weeks after his sophomore year of high school when the thought of him going to college was still plausible.

Braun's star was such that there was concern that he would leave Cal to take a job back in Michigan.  With the Bears apparently nearing a breakthrough, Braun was given a lengthy contract extension that would not just keep in Berkeley for years to come but would also establish the Bears' commitment to its basketball team and hopefully dissuade potential suitors.

It appeared that the Bears were on their way when they brought in McDonald's All-American Leon Powe, along with highly touted prospects Marquise Kately, Dominic McGuire, and Ayinde Ubaka.  On top of that, Julian Sensley, who was being touted by some as a surefire NBA player, appeared likely to be joining them after a year at prep school.  Thoughts of the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four were derailed by a humiliating 63-62 home loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 2003-2004 home opener, and the team took a big hit when Powe started having knee issues later that season.  A team that was expected to thrive with Amit Tamir's shooting and passing ability along with a group of athletic players never seemed to jell as there were several times on the court that the players looked like they'd just met for the first time.

Just as a high profile recruiting class seemed to be the beginning of Lou Campanelli's undoing a decade ago, the same seemed to happen with Braun.  While he couldn't be faulted for Powe's injury, chemistry and other issues resulted in the departure of Kately, McGuire, and David Paris. Sensely never made it to Cal and end up finishing up his eligibility in his home state of Hawaii. Powe missed all of the 2004-2005 season and the Bears missed out on postseason play. The team enjoyed a brief spark when Powe returned for his sophomore year, highlighted by a 22-point, 20-rebound game against USC and a 41-point game against Oregon as the Bears reached the final of the Pac-10 tourney.  Following a first-round loss at the NCAAs, Powe declared for the NBA draft.

Yet by the time the heralded recruiting class reached its senior year, only Ubaka remained. Of the four, the one who ended up being a first-round draft choice was McGuire, who finished up at Fresno State.  The heights that were expected never materialized as the Bears found themselves on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament three out of the four years.  The mid-class departures left the Bears with large holes on the team that they couldn't immediately fill.  No longer perceived as a program on the rise, the Bears found recruiting to be a lot tougher.  During this time, Washington, Oregon, and even Washington State had seen vast improvement, UCLA had turned their fortunes around, and USC was shaking off its post-Bibby funk. Although Braun and his staff did an excellent job in recruiting and developing Ryan Anderson and Patrick Christopher, the Bears still found themselves woefully thin at key positions, and when swingman Theo Robertson, who came to Cal as a walk-on, suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury, Cal had to force feed Eric Vierneisel and transfer Jamal Boykin into the role.

Although the Bears finished this season above .500, its ninth-place conference finish and it's inability to finish out close games frustrated the fan base to the point that attendance numbers diminished throughout the season causing a noticeable lack of energy in Haas Pavilion, which reached a low when 1,906 fans came out to watch Cal's NIT win over New Mexico.  The only time Haas Pavilion buzzed all season was for a women's basketball game where a Pac-10 record of 10,525 would have been the second highest attendance among men's games, topped only by the UCLA game.

With several teams in the Pac-10 expected to be weaker next year and the Bears returning most of their players next year, the likelihood of them doing better next year is strong.  One could even say that the Bears were just a few breaks away from making the NCAA tourney this season, and that while it wasn't a magnificently successful season, it wasn't bad.  If the Bears could have turned around half of their close losses they easily could have had a 20-win season.

Yet seasons can't be judged on their individual merits and eventually the entire body of work has to be taken into consideration.  Braun did a very good job of leading Cal out of the Bozeman haze, he's run a clean program and always conducted himself professionally. Although he might have seemed bland to those that prefer their coaches to breathe fire, in his postgame comments to the press, he was always quick to thank the crowd, thank the students, speak well of his players, be respectful of the opponents, and not pin a bad night on the officials. 

In another era that might have been enough.  But as athletic departments face increasing budgetary pressures, it's more important than ever to have strong football and men's basketball programs.  As ticket sales climb, scarcity increases, which enhances the department's ability to generate revenues, whether it's from increased season ticket sales or donations made to secure those seats.  Athletic directors can't afford to let thousands of tickets go unsold game after game with little prospect of a turnaround. 

The days of when a coach staying at a school for 20 years with a couple of better than average seasons being sufficient to weather a below average season from time to time are gone forever. LSU let John Brady go less than two years after reaching the Final Four.   Mike Davis resigned from Indiana less than four years after reaching the NCAA title game.   For Ben Braun, the result after 12 years of coaching was a 219-152 record, a 110-106 conference record, two 2nd-place Pac-10 ties (1997, 2002), and five NCAA appearance.  Yet just taking the past five years, Braun was 79-73, with a 39-51 conference record, one NCAA appearance and three seasons with a Pac-10 finish of 8th or worse.

Coming into this season, the list of coaches that had lasted more than 12 seasons heading a major conference team consisted of this: Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams, all who've won national championships. 

Almost every college coach's career plays out like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music only without the final segment.  There's the ascent, the peak, and the inevitable decline.  While they'd all like that last 15 minutes; the chance for redemption, the opportunity to make one more run at the top, doing it their way and having the last word with all of their critics before walking off into the sunset with their head held high, if they ever get that chance, it inevitably happens elsewhere.

Eventually coaches are judged by their win-loss record, and the strength of Braun's first seven years wasn't enough to offset his recent run of form.  While the most recent memory of Cal men's basketball will be of a team that had a lot of solid parts but wasn't quite good enough, it would be a shame to let that entirely taint his accomplishments at Berkeley.


©Copyright 2008, TheBearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this online community and get access to the members-only content from the nationwide Insiders network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.


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While the end of the Braun era fell short of expectations, which in the eyes of athletic director Sandy Barbour is a team that can regularly contend for championships, one can't give an honest evaluation of his 12 years at Cal without looking at the circumstances that brought him here.

Consider this: for the first time in more than two decades, Cal's athletic department will be able to hire a men's basketball coach without duress.  It hasn't been since the spring of 1986, when the Bears hired Lou Campanelli to replace Dick Kuchen that there's been some time and space to change coaches. 

Campanelli was fired in the middle of the 1992-1993 season under the flimsiest of pretenses and was replaced by assistant Todd Bozeman.  The euphoria of the Bears' subsequent sweet 16 run and its Sports Illustrated cover-making upset of Duke enabled him to keep his job, until the weight of an NCAA investigation and the ugliness of sexual harassment suit caused his departure in 1996.  With only a couple of months to go before the season, NCAA penalties looming ahead of them, it was going to be a challenge for the Bears to get a proven coach.   For the Cal to land Ben Braun, an established coach at Eastern Michigan, was considered a coup.

Although Cal was faced with NCAA penalties and the prospect of  eventually having to play no home games for a season, Braun had something to work with. Development work had begun on Haas Pavilion, a new facility that would accommodate the enlarged fan base that was energized by Campanelli and taken to new levels of headiness by Bozeman, and there was considerable will to see the basketball team succeed and do so cleanly.

In retrospect, it appears as if Braun's first year at Cal might have been his best year.  While the parade of high-school all-americans that ventured through the Bozeman years had stopped, Braun's early teams compensated for a lack of offensive firepower with defense and rebounding. With Randy Duck, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Stewart, the Bears finished an impressive 23-9 in 1996-1997, with a 12-6 conference record, a tie for 2nd-place in the Pac-10, and Cal's only Sweet 16 finish during the Braun years.

During the summer of 1997, the NCAA penalized Cal for violations regarding former head coach Bozeman and payments to Jelani Gardner's father. The resulting penalty was three years of probation, no post-season play in 1997-1998, the loss of two scholarships in 1998-1999  and 1999-2000 and forfeiture of all 28 wins that Gardner played in.

With the core of the 1996-1997 team leaving, Braun scrambled to put a team of players who had to made aware that Cal would be facing severe NCAA sanctions. The result was an odd patchwork of junior college players and transfers including Geno Carlisle, Thomas Kilgore, Michael Gill and Carl Boyd who while not talented to compete game-in and game-out for the Pac-10 title, was capable of putting together a few upsets as they did in 1998-1999 when they defeated 9th-ranked North Carolina, 9th-ranked UCLA, and 7th-ranked Arizona, which culminated with an NIT title.

The perception was that after the one year of coaching holdovers and two years with a goulash of a team, that Braun and his staff had now established their bona fides. They brought in a class of freshmen that was hoped would serve as a foundation for Cal basketball for years to come.  By taking three top players from a southern California AAU team - Shantay Legans, Brian Wethers, and Nick Van der Laan, and adding Joe Shipp late in the recruiting class to join a Cal team that was returning Sean Lampley, the Bears began making progress, and postseason play began the norm.  Shipp and Wethers blossomed under Braun, and Ryan Forehan-Kelly's progress from walk-on to major contributor has to be one of the greatest success stories of Braun's tenure. Those teams went to the NCAAs in three of their four seasons, with a 23-9 record in 2001-2002 and a 22-9 record in 2002-2003. But with the league's top talent still going to Arizona, Stanford and a faltering UCLA, the Bears still needed that one recruiting breakthrough to make inroads on the conference's upper echelon.

Cal was considered close in some respects. Jamal Sampson spurned UCLA to come to Cal,  there was the interminable Mother's Day saga of Lavelle Blanchard who ended up at Michigan, Dirk Nowitzki considered coming to Berkeley before choosing the NBA, and Lebron James, who'd played in a club tournament in RSF for two summers, had Cal on his short list during the few short weeks after his sophomore year of high school when the thought of him going to college was still plausible.

Braun's star was such that there was concern that he would leave Cal to take a job back in Michigan.  With the Bears apparently nearing a breakthrough, Braun was given a lengthy contract extension that would not just keep in Berkeley for years to come but would also establish the Bears' commitment to its basketball team and hopefully dissuade potential suitors.

It appeared that the Bears were on their way when they brought in McDonald's All-American Leon Powe, along with highly touted prospects Marquise Kately, Dominic McGuire, and Ayinde Ubaka.  On top of that, Julian Sensley, who was being touted by some as a surefire NBA player, appeared likely to be joining them after a year at prep school.  Thoughts of the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four were derailed by a humiliating 63-62 home loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in the 2003-2004 home opener, and the team took a big hit when Powe started having knee issues later that season.  A team that was expected to thrive with Amit Tamir's shooting and passing ability along with a group of athletic players never seemed to jell as there were several times on the court that the players looked like they'd just met for the first time.

Just as a high profile recruiting class seemed to be the beginning of Lou Campanelli's undoing a decade ago, the same seemed to happen with Braun.  While he couldn't be faulted for Powe's injury, chemistry and other issues resulted in the departure of Kately, McGuire, and David Paris. Sensely never made it to Cal and end up finishing up his eligibility in his home state of Hawaii. Powe missed all of the 2004-2005 season and the Bears missed out on postseason play. The team enjoyed a brief spark when Powe returned for his sophomore year, highlighted by a 22-point, 20-rebound game against USC and a 41-point game against Oregon as the Bears reached the final of the Pac-10 tourney.  Following a first-round loss at the NCAAs, Powe declared for the NBA draft.

Yet by the time the heralded recruiting class reached its senior year, only Ubaka remained. Of the four, the one who ended up being a first-round draft choice was McGuire, who finished up at Fresno State.  The heights that were expected never materialized as the Bears found themselves on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament three out of the four years.  The mid-class departures left the Bears with large holes on the team that they couldn't immediately fill.  No longer perceived as a program on the rise, the Bears found recruiting to be a lot tougher.  During this time, Washington, Oregon, and even Washington State had seen vast improvement, UCLA had turned their fortunes around, and USC was shaking off its post-Bibby funk. Although Braun and his staff did an excellent job in recruiting and developing Ryan Anderson and Patrick Christopher, the Bears still found themselves woefully thin at key positions, and when swingman Theo Robertson, who came to Cal as a walk-on, suffered what turned out to be a season-ending injury, Cal had to force feed Eric Vierneisel and transfer Jamal Boykin into the role.

Although the Bears finished this season above .500, its ninth-place conference finish and it's inability to finish out close games frustrated the fan base to the point that attendance numbers diminished throughout the season causing a noticeable lack of energy in Haas Pavilion, which reached a low when 1,906 fans came out to watch Cal's NIT win over New Mexico.  The only time Haas Pavilion buzzed all season was for a women's basketball game where a Pac-10 record of 10,525 would have been the second highest attendance among men's games, topped only by the UCLA game.

With several teams in the Pac-10 expected to be weaker next year and the Bears returning most of their players next year, the likelihood of them doing better next year is strong.  One could even say that the Bears were just a few breaks away from making the NCAA tourney this season, and that while it wasn't a magnificently successful season, it wasn't bad.  If the Bears could have turned around half of their close losses they easily could have had a 20-win season.

Yet seasons can't be judged on their individual merits and eventually the entire body of work has to be taken into consideration.  Braun did a very good job of leading Cal out of the Bozeman haze, he's run a clean program and always conducted himself professionally. Although he might have seemed bland to those that prefer their coaches to breathe fire, in his postgame comments to the press, he was always quick to thank the crowd, thank the students, speak well of his players, be respectful of the opponents, and not pin a bad night on the officials. 

In another era that might have been enough.  But as athletic departments face increasing budgetary pressures, it's more important than ever to have strong football and men's basketball programs.  As ticket sales climb, scarcity increases, which enhances the department's ability to generate revenues, whether it's from increased season ticket sales or donations made to secure those seats.  Athletic directors can't afford to let thousands of tickets go unsold game after game with little prospect of a turnaround. 

The days of when a coach staying at a school for 20 years with a couple of better than average seasons being sufficient to weather a below average season from time to time are gone forever. LSU let John Brady go less than two years after reaching the Final Four.   Mike Davis resigned from Indiana less than four years after reaching the NCAA title game.   For Ben Braun, the result after 12 years of coaching was a 219-152 record, a 110-106 conference record, two 2nd-place Pac-10 ties (1997, 2002), and five NCAA appearance.  Yet just taking the past five years, Braun was 79-73, with a 39-51 conference record, one NCAA appearance and three seasons with a Pac-10 finish of 8th or worse.

Coming into this season, the list of coaches that had lasted more than 12 seasons heading a major conference team consisted of this: Jim Boeheim, Mike Krzyzewski, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun and Gary Williams, all who've won national championships. 

Almost every college coach's career plays out like an episode of VH1's Behind the Music only without the final segment.  There's the ascent, the peak, and the inevitable decline.  While they'd all like that last 15 minutes; the chance for redemption, the opportunity to make one more run at the top, doing it their way and having the last word with all of their critics before walking off into the sunset with their head held high, if they ever get that chance, it inevitably happens elsewhere.

Eventually coaches are judged by their win-loss record, and the strength of Braun's first seven years wasn't enough to offset his recent run of form.  While the most recent memory of Cal men's basketball will be of a team that had a lot of solid parts but wasn't quite good enough, it would be a shame to let that entirely taint his accomplishments at Berkeley.

©Copyright 2008, TheBearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this online community and get access to the members-only content from the nationwide Insiders network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.

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