Brains & Brawn: Ben Braun has left his mark on college hoops

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Joshua Jordan/Senior Staff

Ben Braun knows what it takes to build.

 

Over the course of his nearly four decades of coaching, Braun has left his mark on the collegiate level in more ways than winning.

Wherever Braun has taken his clipboard and whistle, from the Michigan to the heart of the Bay Area, he has curated excellence. Building something from nothing, Braun has birthed gems from rubble.

Braun’s collegiate coaching career began not under the bright lights of Haas Pavilion, but in a bingo hall in Adrian, Michigan, at Siena Heights College.

In 1977, Braun became the head coach of Siena Heights, a young program entering its third season. Braun had to nurture a newborn baby of a basketball program, and that task was all the more difficult when he lacked an important resource.

“We didn’t have a gym. We were playing in a bingo hall the first couple years,” Braun says.

Braun couldn’t sell recruits on a rich history, nor on state-of-the-art facilities — Siena Heights possessed neither. Bringing on talent wasn’t any easier after the Saints went 8-21 in Braun’s first season.

There was no silver bullet to establishing legitimacy as a program. Recruits needed to be recruited. Chemistry needed to be developed. Courts needed to be built. But Braun transformed his situation into an illustrious sales pitch.

“We said, ‘This could be very special,’ ” Braun says. “ ‘You have a chance to put your mark on this program.’ ”

After venturing for three seasons through a desert of mediocrity, the Saints finally found their oasis.

In the 1978-79 season, Siena Heights went 24-6, the program’s best record in a decade. That success was the beginning of a seven-year stretch of dominance in which Braun’s Saints went 140-84, winning five Maple City Classic championships in the process.

“Ben took us to a whole other level. … He was a tireless worker that demanded excellence out of his players,” says Fred Smith, Braun’s assistant coach at Siena Heights who doubled as his athletic director.

Under the direction of Braun, Siena Heights was transformed from a doormat into a powerhouse primed for nearly three decades of dominance.

And yes, Siena Heights got its gym.

When Braun took his coaching talents about 40 miles north for the next chapter of his career, he’d have to call upon the lessons he learned at Siena Heights.

Eastern Michigan University, a Division I program, had a much more extensive history, but it needed a spark. In the 10 seasons prior to Braun’s arrival, the Eagles (called the Hurons until 1991) were 116-158 with only two winning seasons.benbraun_jjordan_ss-jpg2

Braun joined as an associate head coach alongside head coach Jim Boyce, but midway through the 1985-86 season, Boyce suddenly resigned, catapulting Braun to interim head coach.

The coach already had the blueprint — as with most programs whose fortunes change for the better, that blueprint starts with culture.

“We had players that weren’t very dedicated, both to basketball and academics,” Braun says. “I came in and I made some changes.”

Braun’s beginning at Eastern Michigan was rocky, finishing the remainder of the ‘85-86 season with a record of 5-10 (9-18 overall). But his Eagles showed life in his first full season, improving to a 14-15 record.

The foundation was in place for Braun’s Eagles — all they had to do was fly. And fly they did.

In 1987-88, Eastern Michigan won 22 games and cracked the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the team’s history. Grant Long’s stellar season was the cherry on top, as he became the first Eagle to ever win Mid-American Conference Player of the Year.

That campaign set the tone for Braun’s tenure. From 1987-88 to 1995-96, the Eagles compiled a record of 166-97, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament three times and winning three conference championships.

Braun and the Eagles saved their best for last. In 1995-96, Braun’s final season as head coach, Eastern Michigan upset legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke in the first round, 75-60.

“Eastern Michigan is very well-coached, much deeper than we are and, today, much quicker than we were,” Krzyzewski said after the game.

When Braun departed from Eastern Michigan after that magical season, he left the program a winner. As of today, Braun holds the program records for games won and games coached.

Siena Heights and Eastern Michigan both provided Braun with unique challenges, as well as an opportunity to build up both programs, but his time at those schools couldn’t have prepared him for what was to come.

With about two decades of head coaching experience under his belt, Braun left the state of Michigan to take the reins at Cal, a challenge unlike any other.

“We thought that if he could build something of that quality at a small school with limited resources, that we could be very successful with him at Cal,” says Bob Driscoll, who was the executive associate athletic director when Cal hired Braun.

Unlike at Siena Heights or Eastern Michigan, Braun didn’t need to build the program from the ground up, but rather to continue the legacy already in place.

Every program is unique, but the situation Braun inherited would throw even the greatest coaches for a loop.

Braun took over after Todd Bozeman, who resigned after the 1995-96 season amid allegations that he paid the parents of point guard Jelani Gardner.

Bozeman’s tenure at Cal ended in 1996, but the NCAA did not penalize Cal until 1997. This delay allowed Braun to coach his first full season at Cal with some degree of normalcy.

Braun kicked off his first year at Cal with a bang, winning Pac-10 Coach of the Year and leading his team to the Sweet 16, where it ultimately fell to Vince Carter and North Carolina.

Getting that far in the tournament was all the more impressive considering Cal was playing without Ed Gray, the team’s star guard and the Pac-10 Player of the Year.  Braun strongly believes that if Gray hadn’t have succumbed to injury, Cal would have made the Final Four, at minimum.

But looming behind that success were the imposing sanctions. As expected, the hammer fell hard.

In summer 1997, the NCAA issued its sanctions. Cal was banned from postseason play in 1998 and lost four scholarships: two for the 1998-99 season and two for the 1999-2000 season.

Braun not only had a limited number of scholarships, but no true home gym — again. After that season, Cal’s gym underwent a $57.5 million renovation, forcing the Bears to play many of their games in what is now Oracle Arena in the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons.

“We were jumping on the bus every day after school, going to Downtown Oakland, practicing at the Warriors’ facility. Then we would go downtown and eat, do the training table down there and then get back home,” says Louis Reynaud, Braun’s associate head coach at Cal. “There were some long nights for a couple years.”

Despite the challenges at hand, Braun never wavered, turning his situation into a marketing pitch, one he’d use on program legend Sean Lampley.

“I said, ‘All right, Sean, use your imagination. … This is where Haas Pavilion is going to be,’ ” Braun says. “ ‘It’s going to seat 12,000 — use your imagination. Here, hammer this in, be part of the process. Build our arena, build our program back up.’ ”

The sanctions and loss of Gray hit the Bears hard during the 1997-98 season, but the next year, they performed well enough to qualify for the National Invitation Tournament. It wasn’t March Madness, but an opportunity was an opportunity.

The Bears ran the table, winning all five games to capture the NIT championship and ending a lengthy championship drought.

For Braun, that championship was Cal’s watershed moment, a glimmer of sunshine that expelled the gloom.

From the 2000-01 season to the 2002-03 season, Braun’s Bears went 65-29 with three straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament. In 2002 and 2003, Cal advanced to the second round before being eliminated by a pair of tough teams in Pittsburgh and Oklahoma, respectively.

While Cal looked to be a team on the rise, Braun’s Bears wouldn’t match that success in subsequent seasons. From 2003-04 to 2007-08, the Bears qualified only once for both the NCAA Tournament (2006) and NIT (2008), compiling a record of 79-75 in that span.

Cal’s elimination to Ohio State in the 2008 NIT tournament wasn’t pretty, but Braun hadn’t shown any indications that he was incapable of fronting a program.

The 2007-08 campaign marked Braun’s eighth winning season at Cal. While he experienced four losing seasons, they were all within three games of the .500 mark.

Cal was set to return a solid core for the 2008-09 season, but Braun wouldn’t have the opportunity to lead his troops.

In the days following Cal’s loss to Ohio State, Braun was fired as head coach of Cal men’s basketball.

The coach’s storybook time at Cal came to a sour end, but what he did for the program is irreplaceable. Braun ended his 12-year career at Cal with the second-most total victories, the most postseason appearances, the most postseason victories, the record for most 20-win seasons and an NIT championship.

“He never broke a rule; we never went on probation. I’ve never heard anybody ever say a bad word about him,” Driscoll says. “He loved the college.”

For all of Braun’s accomplishments on the basketball court, some of his best decisions have come outside the realm of X’s and O’s. When he found himself at the center of matters of racial injustice, he rose to the occasion.

In the late ‘70s, Braun and the Siena Heights baseball team traveled down to Georgia for a seemingly inconspicuous regular-season game. During the course of the game, racial slurs were spewed in the direction of Braun’s Black players.

Braun expected the opposing coach to hold his players accountable, but according to Braun, his opposite took no such action.

Instead of letting the comments fall by the wayside, Braun stopped the game dead in its tracks. He threatened to take his players off the field if the opposing coach didn’t force his players to cease.

“If it continued, I would have stopped the game,” Braun says. “There’s no way I would have subjected the team.”

According to Braun, the opposing coach extended an olive branch in the form of a postgame dinner, but Braun declined the offer. Instead, Braun and the team traveled to the nearby Morehouse College, a historically Black college, for dinner.

In 1995 at Eastern Michigan, Braun found himself playing the role of mediator when students took to the court at halftime to protest the arrest of a fellow student.

“They said, ‘Coach, I’m sorry, I don’t want to do this to you and your team,’ but the racial injustice that was going on at the time was greater than the basketball game,” Braun says. “I respected that. I let them do their thing.”

For Braun, taking these stands was hardly an act of heroism, but rather acting upon the values that he was taught, values passed down from both his grandfather and father.

“Basketball is just a microcosm of the game of life,” Braun says.

Braun has generated plenty of interest in returning to the hardwood, but he has no plans to make a comeback anytime soon. For now, he’s content to remain in Berkeley raising his two children, Julius and Eliza, a duo he has called two of his best recruits.

Should he be done with coaching for good, he’ll have finished his career in the upper echelon of collegiate basketball with 615 victories and eight appearances in the NCAA Tournament to his name.

And it’s not just about the quality of the wins, but what those wins meant for the program. For Siena Heights, Eastern Michigan and Cal, the victories doubled as a transformation of culture, of expectation, of pride.

“As I look back, I’ve had the fortune — the challenge, but also the fortune — of being able to build programs wherever I’ve been,” Braun says.

And build he has.

Justice delos Santos covers baseball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos