Coaching contract decisions run the gamut from obvious to exceedingly difficult. Firing Tom Holmoe was a pretty clear choice. Ending the Ben Braun era wasn’t quite as simple, though it was the right move.
The decision to retain or fire head baseball coach David Esquer might be the most complicated I’ve ever seen. Depending on who you ask, Coach Esquer has been on the proverbial hot seat for a long time. Heck, there was evidently substantial opposition to his initial hiring! Then, suddenly, a College World Series appearance and a National Coach of the Year award.
To break this down we’re going to have to go into full point/counterpoint. Note that we will be playing devil’s advocate with many of the following arguments on both sides of the debate.
Point: This isn’t a serious debate, right? How can we actually consider firing the national coach of the year after he led a team facing massive internal turmoil to Omaha?
Counterpoint: Ah, but is it really that simple? Consider that prior to this year Cal had made the playoffs just three times in Esquer’s eleven years. Even Ben Braun made the NCAA tournament five times in his twelve years in Berkeley, and he picked up more wins in the playoffs to boot.
Point: True, but the baseball Bears were screwed out of a post-season berth in 2005, and Esquer inherited a team that had suffered four straight losing seasons. That’s a little different than Ben Braun inheriting a team with Sweet-16 caliber talent. You’ve got to focus on the most recent results, and that clearly shows a coach that has built his own program. Three playoff appearances in four years and a trip to Omaha. The vast majority of programs would kill for results like that.
Counterpoint: But what about his Pac-10 record? Cal’s best finish in the last 12 years was a 3rd place tie in 2001. The average finish is somewhere around 6th place, which also happened to be where this year’s team finished. Can one magical run really over-rule 12 years of mediocre conference records?
Point: But you’ve got to acknowledge how ridiculously talented the Pac-10 is every year. The conference sent five teams to super-regionals this year, and UCLA was three outs away from making it six. And besides, coaching is about much more than wins and losses. Right now Cal has somewhere around 10 active major leaguers. If you look at a list of Cal players that signed pro contracts, almost half graduated during Esquer’s tenure. He’s getting talented players and doing a great job preparing them for the challenges of pro baseball.
Counterpoint: Then why isn’t he getting more out of that talent? Nobody is going to deny that players like Tyson Ross, Conor Jackson and Brandon Morrow are spectacular. But why didn’t that result in Pac-10 titles or more playoff success? It seems to me that all of the Bears in the pros indicates a failure to maximize that talent at Berkeley.
Point: Man you’re a cynic. Surely even you can give Esquer credit for academic success – he’s had an APR score of 959 or higher since the rating was developed, and in a sport that commonly has players leave after their junior year prior to graduating.
Counterpoint: But this is Cal! Good academics isn’t a triumph, it’s a baseline expectation! But we’ve been avoiding the elephant in the room right now, and it’s a doozy: under Esquer’s stewardship Cal baseball was nearly eliminated.
Point: Oh come on! You can’t honestly be arguing that Esquer is to blame for state funding cuts and rising tuition costs?
Counterpoint: No, the conditions that led to sports being on the chopping block were external issues. But the decisions regarding which sports to cut were informed by team success and financial stability. Isn’t it Esquer’s job to insure that Cal baseball is successful and financially viable?
Point: I don’t think you can blame him for baseball’s financials. For one thing, Evans Diamond is decrepit. Maybe a pristine new stadium wouldn’t rake in the cash but I think we can all agree that our current facilities are incapable of bringing in any meaningful revenue. And what about the reports that prominent baseball supporters have been withholding support because of Bob Milano’s misguided opposition to Coach Esquer? Clearly the deck was stacked against Cal baseball’s success the minute Esquer was hired.
Counterpoint: It’s his job to keep boosters on board and donating. If the results on the field had been better I’m sure donors would have stepped up.
Point: If you’re going to blame him for almost getting baseball cut then you need to give him credit for running the team this season and helping to save it. Think about everything he did this year. He coached a baseball team to Omaha. He tried to recruit for next year. He had to reverse-recruit his current players to other programs. He had to work with fundraisers to help save Cal baseball. And evidently it’s all been phenomenally successful!
Counterpoint: I’m much more inclined to give Stu Gordon and the families and friends of current and former Cal baseball players the credit for raising 10 million dollars rather than Esquer.
Point: Well of course you are! Esquer may not have your support, but he has the support of those who matter most – his current and ex-players. Just read how players like John Baker talk about Esquer:
I was a walk-on at Cal. I had the intention of heading to UCLA to study political science before law school, but one phone call changed my mind. Dave Esquer believed I could hit at the Division-I level, even though I batted seventh in high school. I had some ability and loved the game, but coach Esquer inspired a newfound confidence in me. If a successful college coach (and before that, a player) believed in me, I should believe in myself.
After professing faith in my hitting ability, he asked if I had ever caught. I hadn't, but he responded: "You will." He realized that, with a little fine-tuning, I could be a contributing player on a D-1 team in the Pac-10. Without Dave Esquer I would have never played in the big leagues. Playing for him shaped my career.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the whole package – a coach that can produce results on and off the field and that has the support of his players.
Counterpoint: It's great that his players like him, but that's not what he's being judged on. As far as I'm concerned it's all about the wins and losses.
Point: No matter how you feel about the Coach Esquer era before this year, there's no way Sandy could fire Esquer right now. No way. Cal has reaped goodwill in the media and was the feel-good story of the College World Series. You saw how much positive spin we were getting from ESPN during the broadcasts. Firing Esquer -- the national coach of the year and a guy who was a "good soldier" throughout the elimination and reinstatement ordeal -- would look very bad. Cal athletics and the University would take a tremendous public relations hit if Esquer were let go.
Counterpoint: That might be. And that might be the best reason to keep him at this point. If it were too much of a public relations nightmare, it might not be worth it. But isn't the long term health and viability of the program the number one thing we must consider? If so, Sandy really must visit the question of whether Esquer is taking this program as far as it can go, this year's College World Series appearance notwithstanding.
What say you, CGB readers?