Less than a week after firing head coach Wyking Jones, Athletic Director Jim Knowlton quickly landed a replacement to captain the sinking ship formerly known as Cal men’s basketball.
The hire was not the sexy choice of Cal legend Jason Kidd, as some fans had dreamed.
It was not the “Hey, this guy just made an NCAA Tournament — let’s hire him!” pick that UC Irvine’s Russell Turner would have fulfilled.
It was not the local hire that Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s could have been.
It was not the insider choice that hiring former Cal assistant Travis DeCuire from Montana would have satisfied.
It was the conservative, some would argue timid, choice of former Nevada and Georgia coach Mark Fox.
Fox was greeted with ringing endorsements from the likes of Brad Stevens, Geno Auriemma and Jeff Van Gundy that you can read here, but judging from the Twitterverse, the fan and media response was a lot more pessimistic.
The hiring firm that Knowlton tapped to find a replacement for Jones has a penchant for choosing former collegiate head coaches, so it wasn’t entirely surprising that the search firm settled on the veteran Fox to lead the Bears.
At the same time, it stinks of a hire that only came about after a few other choices declined the offer or happened to be out of the Bears’ price range.
Fox is a solid coach and seemingly a high-character guy who was applauded for running a “clean program” in the midst of the dirty world of college basketball. His teams, while never spectacular, were never terrible either.
He made the NCAA Tournament in three of his five seasons at Nevada but only two out of his nine at Georgia. He did, however, manage to finish above .500 for six of his nine seasons in the Peach State. His teams were known for their defensive acumen (a quality sorely missing from the Jones era) and Fox is seen as a talented X’s-and-O’s mind, but his teams often struggled to create consistent offense — a criticism that was also often thrown at Jones over the past two seasons.
Perhaps Fox’s honor clashed with the cynical and corrupt world of college hoops, preventing him from landing top recruits while at Georgia, but the inability to recruit in the talent-rich South does not bode well for a Cal program in need of significant roster upgrades.
Again, the hiring process and the way in which it manifested cannot be separated from the decision itself.
Jones was set to return to coach this team for a third season as recently as two weeks ago, but after a vitriolic fan response, with some donors threatening to cancel their donations and season tickets in act of protests and the players themselves reportedly demanding a coaching change, Knowlton finally cut ties with Jones.
Then, it somehow only takes Knowlton less than a week to find a replacement for a coach he was ready to bring back practically yesterday?
The quick hiring triggered a troubling feeling of deja vu when considering that Jones himself was hired in nearly as short a time frame after the resignation of predecessor Cuonzo Martin.
Now, you could argue that Knowlton was slyly fishing for a public response to the news that Jones was returning, and after gauging public opinion, decided that the situation was untenable.
Or you could argue just the opposite — that Knowlton was really, God-honestly going to bring back Jones and that it took a proto-coup from the players and threats of a boycott by some supporters of the program to finally force Knowlton to confront the inevitable.
The whole Jones era has been defined by slow-moving chaos and questionable decision-making, so it is rather fitting that the hiring process mirrored the same pattern.
A new era has dawned, but has the program learned from its mistakes?
Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].