Cal athletics has itself to blame for continual mediocrity

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Given our fascination with “would you rather” questions that involve choosing between two contrasting scenarios, I’m going to kick this column off by presenting you with a two-option hypothetical.

Option A: You can live in the beautiful Bay Area (just a BART ride away from San Francisco and all of its wonders) and enjoy a consistently cool climate and glamorous views of the Pacific Ocean, all while earning an education at the world’s No. 1 public university.

Option B: You can live in a swampy, humid, Southern state, some of whose residents proudly fly the Confederate flag, while attending a university with no scholarly prestige and average-at-best academics.

Which did you pick?

Yeah, I thought so, because no sensible person would choose the latter over the former, especially if neither option was happening on your dime.

If this is the case, it’s surprising that universities located throughout the United States’ Bible Belt (e.g. LSU, Kentucky, Bama, etc.) have been able to lure in the nation’s finest high school athletes and establish dominant athletics programs, especially in the most lucrative sports on campus. UC Berkeley, on the other hand, has put together an athletics program so pitiful that even the campus newspaper feels the need to roast it at every opportunity.

Some would argue that Berkeley’s academic standards make it difficult to attract top-notch high school athletes who may have trouble meeting the university’s stringent admission requirements. But considering the athletic success of academically prestigious Pac-12 schools such as Stanford, USC and UCLA, that argument isn’t very convincing.

The simple truth is that, despite all of its resources, the University of California, Berkeley has done a poor job branding itself as a premier athletic institution, and has therefore struggled to carry any weight in discussions of collegiate sports.

In a conversation with a British coworker a while back, he told me, “If you ever go to England, don’t say you went to ‘Cal.’ Nobody knows what the fuck ‘Cal’ is. Say you went to Berkeley, though, and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.”

Truth be told, the cursive “Cal” logo plastered all over Berkeley elicits hardly any feelings of familiarity outside of the Bay Area. In fact, most people where I’m from (just east of Los Angeles) mistake the logo for the “Cali” icon printed on hoodies sold to tourists at the beach.

The universities that have established themselves as athletic powerhouses have all developed a unique brand that grants them a universal distinction and familiarity. Cal, unfortunately, lacks this familiarity.

Every college football fan knows the iconic silver helmet littered with green stickers donned by the Ohio State Buckeyes, just as every college hoops fan immediately recognizes the blue and gold UCLA basketball uniforms worn by legends such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Aside from the 57 fans who turn out to Cal football games, however, few will recognize the Campanile-inspired “Sather Stripe” that decorates the players’ jersey sleeves and pant legs.

With rare exceptions, such as Cal’s Joe Roth uniforms worn during either the USC or UCLA football games, no particular set of threads has inspired any sort of nostalgic sentiment or gained any recognition on the national stage. Jokes aside, the Sather Stripe may actually be a step in the right direction, and if Cal athletics feels that the Stripe offers a stylish opportunity for its uniforms to pay homage to the university’s signature landmark, then it should roll with the design and stop making changes.

Another contributing factor to Cal’s lack of athletic clout is the university’s failure to bring in top-of-the-line coaches who can attract premier high school talent.

High school football players across the United States flock to Alabama because they want to play for Nick Saban, just as high school basketball stars dream of suiting up for Coach K at Duke. With the exception of men’s swim coach David Durden, Cal has no Saban or Coach K on its campus.

Because of Durden — who, by the way, was recently named head coach of the 2020 U.S. men’s Olympic swim team — Cal men’s swim has been able to attract the finest recruits from all across the United States, and has accordingly established itself as inarguably the most successful team on UC Berkeley’s campus. Obviously, top-of-the-line coaches like Durden don’t just grow on trees, and bringing in these elite individuals is a task that’s easier said than done. But at the very least, Cal athletics should understand that coaches like Wyking Jones, who has amassed an abysmal 16-47 record in two full seasons as the men’s basketball coach, are dramatically hurting the university’s recruiting allure.

It is indisputable that UC Berkeley has done a fine job establishing itself as an elite academic institution. When it comes to athletics, though, Cal has squandered its opportunities to brand itself as a desirable destination for the nation’s top high school stars. With a plethora of advantages ranging from a rich history to a beautiful Bay Area setting, it will be a true shame if Cal Athletics cannot pull its resources together and shake its legacy of mediocrity.

Joey Patton covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected].