Six years, zero winning seasons. Three wins and 29 losses since November. Four years of recently-fired Cal men’s basketball head coach Mark Fox berating everything around him from his spot next to the scorers table in Haas Pavilion with nothing to show for it but a program that is well and truly dead and buried — at least for now.
This may seem like hyperbole, a college reporter falling victim to sensationalism. But the severity of the condition of Cal’s revenue sports cannot be understated. Now is not the time to trust leadership, or to qualify statements.
There is something seriously wrong about football and basketball going a combined 7-37 over the course of a single year.
Cal fans who aren’t angry enough yet might not understand the full story behind Cal men’s basketball’s demise. A similar story can be told about the football program — a story that won’t be told here. But keep one word in mind: apathy.
The beginning of the end starts in 2018 when, following two consecutive eight-win seasons under former head coach Wyking Jones, Athletic Director Jim Knowlton suddenly fires Jones after planning to bring him back. Then, a little over five days later, Knowlton hires Fox, who had been out of a job for a year since being fired at Georgia.
It took five days for Knowlton to settle on Fox — but four years to fire him. Knowlton sat on his hands for four years (except to inexplicably offer the former head coach a one year contract extension in 2021) while Fox’s teams consistently finished at or near the bottom of the conference.
To make matters worse, Knowlton, perhaps unwittingly, betrayed his spinelessness in his statement regarding Fox’s firing.
“This was a difficult decision,” Knowlton said in his statement. “And one that I do not take lightly.”
Was it really a difficult decision? What might there have been to gain from allowing Fox just one more shot at resurrecting a program he’d buried with his own two hands?
Swinging and missing on your first-ever football or basketball head coaching hire as the Athletic Director of a major program is forgivable. But rushing into a hiring decision and then watching and waiting while a revenue program slowly implodes for not one, not two, not three but four years is indefensible.
Maybe it’s unfair to criticize an Athletic Director who is operating under a suboptimal set of circumstances. Cal is, after all, a prestigious public school with a commitment to academics, oftentimes at the expense of athletics. And Knowlton’s boss, Chancellor Carol Christ, told The Athletic last year that while revenue sports are important, there are other measures of athletics success.
Maybe Knowlton hoped that, if he waited long enough, Fox’s teams would go from bad to mediocre — or maybe he felt that the program’s 100% graduation rate might forgive all sins. By the sounds of it, his boss might not have cared all that much if Fox won even fewer games next year.
So maybe that’s where the pressure needs to be. Because the “Cal can’t do it all” story is both tired and flat-out wrong.
Cal did not become a prestigious school in 2016. It has always been academically rigorous, and the Bears appeared in 13 NCAA tournaments between the early 1990s and 2016. And while UCLA, another rigorous public school, heads to the tournament as a No. 2 seed, the Bears will watch from their couches for a sixth consecutive season.
It can be done. It has been done. But apathy has slowly poisoned a university administration and athletics department that does not seem to care about the passionate, devoted community of Cal football and basketball fans.
Knowlton and Christ won’t resurrect the programs fans love — not without experiencing the shame Cal fans feel.