I don’t have a ton of time to react to the departure of California Golden Bears athletic director Michael Williams (who will still be with us through the 2017-18 season), but a few quick thoughts.
Jury’s still out on whether Mike Williams was a good athletic director or a bad one. Williams will have been here for approximately three years when he steps down next May (and he essentially was running the athletic department as the interim AD the year before that after the departure of Sandy Barbour). In that time, he has hired a basketball coach and a football coach. He has pushed a ton of financial deals that will be good for Cal in the long-run.
But at the moment he leaves the Cal Athletic Department without a concrete plan for cutting deficits and (eventually) the overall debt. A task force deployed on the subject came back with Catch-22 conclusions (probably should cut sports, but probably would lose revenue). Alternatives are being explored, but there is still no concrete way forward. Until Williams’s final year is complete, this grade is still an incomplete.
The Wyking Jones hire did not please many donors. Jones might be a good coach at Cal. He might be a bad one. But all the scuttlebutt indicates that the Cal fans that really count were not pleased that this was the hire the Bears chose to replace Cuonzo Martin. There were tons of other candidates speculated that apparently didn’t hold muster that were better-liked. Williams chose Jones.
Jones might turn out to be quite good at his job, and there are early signs that he knows how to recruit well at Cal. But ending up going back in-house for the eventual hire didn’t sit well with donors and fans who were hoping for a big fish.
I do not know if the displeased donor class pushed Williams out of a job. Williams might simply have wanted to serve his three years and move on. Lots of different possibilities.
The football hire is more complicated. On one hand, Cal fans seem to be more willing to give Justin Wilcox a shot, simply because it meant Sonny Dykes was no longer the head coach. Four years in, Dykes had stagnated, was moving onto his third defensive coordinator and staff overhaul, and the Bears didn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Rebooting the entire staff seemed like a good move, so Cal fans tended to cut Williams a little more slack for making an unusally bold move at the position.
But this also came with a caveat. Williams fired Dykes in early January, long after most coaching hires had been made. Williams didn’t give Cal a ton of great choices in terms of who they could go after. Wilcox was the best of a limited lot, and he’s made the most of it.
Williams did sign a few solid financial deals to help continue the mitigation of the Cal Athletic debt. The Under Armour deal will help provide the Bears $8.6 million a year. The multimedia rights deal with Learfield will pull in around another $10 million a year. These are big contracts that will help Cal go a long way toward balancing their books. They’re not all of the way back, but these are positive steps.
However, this takes us back to the Dykes hire. Williams’s decisions seemed to be financially based, and that leads to his football decision as well.
Williams waited a long time to fire Dykes because (a) he was trying to find a way to make the buyout go away by proving that Sonny was pursuing other jobs, and (b) because Cal ticket sales came in for 2017, and the numbers had plummeted. These are odd factors to weigh your decisions on, considering you knew that both (a) and (b) were probably in a spot.
Carol Christ is the new chancellor, and is supposed to be very keyed in on finances, so expect her to take over the main responsibility of trimming budget (already a new plan is out for how Cal can start moving the deficit in the right direction).
The new athletic director will have a bigger task than financial management. Namely, getting butts in the seats will be the biggest determinant of success. Cal ticket sales have slowly but steadily declined in both basketball and football, and the trend is heading in a dangerous path if a few more seasons of bad results take place on the field. The new AD has to engage new alumni, find new donors, and build relationships on a level past athletic directors simply have not done at all at Cal. This was an area Williams was never very good at.
Finally the coaching-AD hire is out of sync. Starting in 2018, Justin Wilcox and Wyking Jones will now have a new athletic director who didn’t hire them. It’s unclear how either side will react to that, but Crist will have to make it clear to the new athletic director that his priority is outreach, fundraising, and a host of other activities.
There’s a lot of work ahead. The new Cal athletic director won’t have an easy job. But it could be a good change of pace. The university is in need of a jolt in the athletic department. They need to find the right fit fast.
We talk about this for sports teams, but Cal Athletics itself needs a change in culture. The right athletic director could do the trick.