Here we are, stuck in limbo.
Do I feel like trying to write the Cuonzo Martin referendum? No, I do not. He hasn’t even finished year 3 in Berkeley. As best I can tell, a healthy majority of the fan base likes him and wants him to stay, and even his biggest detractors aren’t really advocating that Cal moves on.
However, Cal’s late season swoon, brought about by a misfiring offense, has led more than a few fans to start openly questioning the current regime. Meanwhile our coach may or may not be soon pursued by multiple high profile jobs. There is a not insignificant chance that Cal will have to find a new basketball coach this off-season.
I think that would be somewhere between bad and disastrous for the program. Here’s the argument:
1. Cuonzo Martin is a clearly above average Cal head coach
I don’t really want to get into a Monty-vs.-Cuonzo debate. Both have achieved similar results in very different styles. Monty never had a team as bad as Cuonzo’s first team . . . but Monty also never had a team as good as the 2015-16 Bears, and Monty’s lackluster recruiting had quite a bit to do with Cuonzo’s rough first season.
The important point? They are literally the only two coaches since Pete Newell to get meaningfully above-average results without cheating.
Cuonzo doesn’t get a blank check just because he’s better than, say, Dick Kuchen. But Cal’s history isn’t meaningless either. Cal has had extreme difficulty identifying and luring coaches who are capable of building an above average team. Early indications are that Cuonzo Martin is at a minimum on par with the very best head coach recruiters in Cal history. He has also demonstrated consistent proficiency as a defensive head coach, and has had two teams (2014 Tennessee, 2016 Cal) perform at a top 25 level, something that has only happened at Cal a handful of times over the years.
If Cuonzo continues to recruit reasonably well, and continues to produce excellent defensive performances, it establishes a very high floor of achievement. Even when everything else goes wrong like it did this season, Cal is still a bubble team . . . which as covered above, isn’t something that we can take for granted.
2. Cal basketball is in the middle of a transition year, and the costs of a coaching change could be massive
The worst time to replace a head coach? When you have a whole bunch of talent leaving and a big recruiting class coming in to replace that talent.
Presuming that Ivan Rabb goes pro, Cal will be losing four of their top six rotation players. There will be at least five scholarships available, and maybe more like seven. Cuonzo Martin and his staff have a solid recruiting class lined up that will probably grow.
Having to find a new coach to come in and salvage that recruiting class could very well end up disastrously. True, it’s possible that a new coach would hold on to all of Cal’s current recruits and manage to bring in other valuable players. But it’s probably more likely that Cal would suffer a few decommits and end up either leaving scholarships vacant, or handing out flyer scholarships to marginal prospects.
3. Attracting a good coach may be more difficult than usual
The chance that Cal could lure somebody on the open market that would be better that Cuonzo Martin strikes me as unlikely.
God knows I don’t want to belabor the whole ‘Cal has a massive budget deficit and can’t afford anything’ angle, but did you know that Cal has a massive budget deficit and can’t afford anything?
Cal rarely gets to hire a coach with proven power conference success. Cuonzo Martin fell into our laps, but that stroke of luck is unlikely to happen again.
4. I like him
I like that he coaches defense like a whirling sideline dervish. I like that it’s impossible for Haas to ever find stadium speakers that can make his booming baritone voice audible on videos. I like that he has sweet dance moves. I like that he’s calm, and introspective. I like that he has achieved impressive results as a relatively young coach, which indicates that he may well have room to grow.
I also wish that he might eventually take the parking brake off his offense and not turn games into 60 possession slogs in which a team can score 54 points and win. I also would theoretically wish that Roy Williams would come coach at Cal, but I’m not naive enough to throw out the positives I’ve got in favor of the positives I’ll likely never get.
I would wager that it’s more likely than not that Cuonzo Martin will be roaming the sidelines in Berkeley again next year. I can only speak for myself, but I’d be saddened if he decided to pursue a different job.
When you root for an institution that has seen exactly one revenue sports conference title in your lifetime, hope is a valuable currency. Cuonzo Martin, warts and all, gives me hope in a way that few Cal coaches have done.