None of this is a secret. It’s been pretty well understood for years.
It was obvious in 2011, when Cal Athletics announced that five teams would be either cut or downgraded in status.
It was obvious in 2014, when Twist asked Cal fans (and really, by extension, Cal itself) what our vision for athletics is.
It was obvious in 2016, when the specter of sports cuts became common knowledge once again amidst a daunting deficit.
It’s obvious now, even to people outside of the Cal family, because Deadspin announced Cal’s plight to a national audience.
Cal athletics is bleeding and years of indecision and can-down-the-road-kicking have not improved matters. And it’s time for somebody to step up and make a decision.
Crowing about apparel contracts and marketing agreements is all well and good. But those contracts were due to be renegotiated regardless and don’t address the fundamental issues in question.
I get why this is tough. I get why nobody has swallowed the pill yet. The options suck. There’s a ton of nuance that I’m not going to get into—extreme versions and moderate versions—but there are basically two options. Either Cal makes massive cuts to the athletic department—chopping programs, coaches, and athletes in one massive swoop—or the academic side of the house takes on a whole ton of debt.
One option means that many people lose their jobs, and many athletes have to make an awful choice of staying at Cal or leaving. The other option is a political firestorm that will enrage stakeholders, taxpayers, voters, and politicians on both ends of the political spectrum.
But the decision must be made—now. There is no more information to collect, no more surveys to conduct, no more interviews. The task force called for by former Chancellor Dirks took a full year and have released their report, but it is here. Now all we need is somebody with the ability to determine the best course of action and the courage to stick with that course of action regardless of criticism.
Carol Christ certainly seems decisive. She’s already debuted initiatives to deal with the current debate regarding ‘free speech’ on campus. She has spoken forcefully about solving Cal athletic’s structural debt. Some of the ideas floated to help close the athletics deficit are certainly more novel than anything we have seen recently. But words and actions are different things and acting decisively doesn’t necessarily mean acting correctly.
Still, there are reasons for optimism and this seems to be a change in direction from Chancellor Dirks, who increasingly seemed to pawn off decision making to committees and tasks forces, seemingly paralyzed by the sheer depth of passionately held opinions about any hypothetical decision.
Dirks is gone. By next May, so to will Michael Williams.
Is it Michael Williams’ fault that the athletic department wasn’t able to make a dent in Cal’s structural debt? I don’t know. When Williams was hired after a successful finance career, I assumed he was brought on specifically to fix that debt. And yet as of today he’s more likely to be remembered for his success on the sports side of the coin than for financial stewardship.
In Williams’ defense, he was not at Cal when the stadium finance deal was put in place, nor when Sonny Dykes was hired. He didn’t create the original structural debt and he didn’t exacerbate the issue with a coaching hire that never built any momentum with fans or donors.
On the other hand, he is the guy who gave Sonny Dykes a contract extension in 2016, only to fire him a year later. And he is the guy who wasn’t able to do much to change Cal’s financial outlook. Contracts with Learfield and Under Armour are fine. Neutral site games are fine. They aren’t special—they are strategies that every program in the country use, something that any athletic director would be expected to accomplish. We needed a visionary in a time of crisis.
Maybe Michael Williams knows what needs to be done, but was hamstrung by dithering superiors. There’s a reason that bureaucracies tend to get blamed collectively. All we really know is that Cal is now three years closer to debtmageddon.
Remember when Sonny Dykes was hired and everybody said that he had to succeed for the good of the athletic department? Our current reality is a direct result of the fact that he was ultimately, perhaps harshly, a failed hire.
And so, paradoxically, Cal is left to rely on the other side of Michael Williams’ legacy. The finance guru with limited experience in the business of athletics hired two revenue coaches. It’s even more true now: Justin Wilcox and Wyking Jones have to succeed. Cal has to start putting butts into seats, preferably the expensive ones. Cal athletics has to do a ton of legwork to repair a broken relationship with its donor base and winning revenue teams is likely a required step.
No pressure, guys.
Really, the parallels between Cal on-the-field and Cal behind-the-scenes are poetic.
The last four years for Cal sports should forever be known as the years of chaos. Sonny Dykes brought the chaos of his offensive system and the chaos of a total lack of defense. Cuonzo Martin embodied the opposite of chaos on the court, but his whirlwind makeover of Cal’s roster and his sudden departure made for a constantly shifting MBB narrative.
And presiding over all of it was the chaos of an occasionally rudderless athletic department, saddled with debt and without obvious solutions. The chaos of a sudden departure of a long-time athletic director and the chaos of a long-term interim. The chaos felt by every smaller program knowing that the budgetary ax could fall at any moment.
The question for you to ponder is this: Is the era of chaos over?
Stability is desperately needed throughout the department. Certain programs with new coaches may have found that stability. Others are still waiting to hear if their programs will continue, and with a full set of scholarships. And there will likely be a lengthy wait while Cal conducts a search for a new athletic director.
I hope the era of chaos is coming to a close. I think that leaders like Carol Christ and Justin Wilcox and Wyking Jones could very well be the right people to steer through the rapids.
But the big decision still needs to be made. And until that happens, I don’t think the era of chaos ends.