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As we enter the off-season: Can Cal get out of their own way?

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Cal hired Jim Knowlton just over one year ago, and we now have at least a little sense of who he is as an athletic director.

NCAA Football: Oregon at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The revenue sports season is now truly over, after a brief breaking news extension from Cal MBB’s surprisingly short coaching search. That also means that it’s time for my annual hiatus from regular Monday morning columns. You will of course still see some of my writing from time to time over the next few months when news breaks or the mood strikes, and I’ll be back writing regularly come August, when there will reliably be something worth writing about weekly.

For whatever reason I’ve been looking backwards of late. It’s probably because I somehow realized that I just wrapped up my 10th year of basketball coverage for CGB after I was brought on to cover WBB back in 2009/10. Thinking back on the last 10 years prompted me to tweet this out last week:

I’m holding off on exploring that thesis probably until August because I want to stew on it and do the topic justice. But I think the 2nd half (none of the emotional rewards) is relatively self-explanatory.

Cal football just had a 7-6 season, and I think most Cal fans would agree that the 2018 season was the best/most rewarding season (yikes!) since the Bears went 8-5 in 2009. That is, not coincidentally, the last year the Bears held the Axe. Since that season ended, Cal football is a combined 46-65 (25-56). Yep, that’s a conference winning percentage of 31% over a nine year period.

During that same nine year stretch Cal basketball actually enjoyed the strongest sustained run the program had seen since Pete Newell and the 50s. Alas, it was also a stretch that saw Cal win just two NCAA tournament games. That cathartic, joyful Pac-10 title in 09-10 feels like it happened much longer ago than just a decade.

And, of course, that stretch of consistently above average basketball was just capped by the last two seasons in which Cal put together the worst two year stretch in modern program history.

During Mike Williams’ tenure as athletic director, I became increasingly cynical about Cal’s revenue sports ever consistently competing at the top of the Pac-12. That cynicism grew because barriers both inherent and self-inflicted seemed too formidable. The stadium debt, campus indifference, the failure of the Pac-12 networks, a disastrous athletic director/chancellor combination . . . it all seemed too much.

Even if Cal managed to luck into a good coaching hire or a random recruit that blossomed into a monster talent, the barriers would be too much. The Jared Goff era of Cal football seemed like the perfect distillation of that fear. Cal had the #1 draft pick who made the Super Bowl in his 3rd professional season at the most important position on the field . . . and managed to turn that talent into one Armed Forces Bowl.

Of course, things inevitably change. Nicholas Dirks and Mike Williams departed, to be replaced by Carol Christ and Jim Knowlton. Folks who met with them, or heard them speak at donor events, came away impressed. The new powers that be said the right things, and seemed to be making the right people happy. For the first time campus leadership appeared to be approaching the Memorial Stadium debt issue with actual initiative. I allowed myself some level of optimism about the new regime.

But in the back of my head I knew that we wouldn’t really get a sense of Cal’s new leadership until it was time for a coaching change for a revenue program. Considering that Jim Knowlton was hired almost exactly one year on the heels of a disastrous basketball season, most of us assumed it was only a matter of time.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been using this space to break down everything you might want to know about Mark Fox’s history as a coach with the tools at my disposal. Taken in total, I expect Cal will improve. Hardly much of a leap, that, but the Bears will get better. However, I’m not especially optimistic about Cal MBB’s chances to build back into a program that would regularly expect to finish in the top third of the Pac-12 standings.

But perhaps more importantly, the coaching search conducted by the athletic department has brought back the previous cynicism that started to build during the Mike Williams era.

I don’t want to rehash my previous concerns with the search process for Cal’s new MBB coach. Of course, when I wrote my first take on the matter Jon Wilner’s account of the hire had not yet been published. Some of the key passage that jumped out to me:

Knowlton credited CSA’s work numerous times during his remarks to Cal constituents and then in a follow-up interview.

The search began with a list of 40 candidates, Knowlton explained, which was cut to a handful by CSA.

If Wilner’s reporting is taken at face value (and I see no reason not to) that’s a shocking amount of responsibility to hand over to an outside contractor.

Search firms are only as useful as their customers allow them to be. If you’re using a search firm to facilitate logistics, to act as an intermediary to determine which coaches are interested off of an initial larger list, then I’m sure they’re quite helpful. But if you’re asking them to bring you names, or allowing them to narrow down a list, then you’re basically contracting out the job you were hired to do in the first place. Hiring revenue coaches is probably the single most important aspect of an AD’s job - this hire, conducted in this fashion, doesn’t lead me to believe that Cal’s current regime has any particular vision for men’s basketball beyond the usual bromides.

True, these are still early days for Knowlton and Christ, and there is reason to believe that they may excel in other areas. Perhaps the athletic department will improve fund-raising, or manage to get more facility improvements started. Perhaps the athletic department will do a better job of the sometimes-impossible-feeling task of bridging the gap with the academic side of the house. Perhaps the athletic department will do a better job supporting the coaches they have so that we don’t have to deal with want-away revenue coaches again.

But we now have our first tangible piece of evidence that the new-and-improved athletic department probably isn’t all that different than the old athletic department.

I don’t want to send you into the off-season grind on such a dire note, so it’s worth noting: I’m still very confident that Jim Knowlton will do a better job than his predecessor, and it’s worth noting that even Mike Williams managed to hire Justin Wilcox, even though it was a weird ride to get to that point.

Wilcox may or may not end up being The Guy at Cal. What we know is that he produced maybe the best defense in modern program history, and that defense is largely intact and will be back on the field come September. In a few short months we will all hope against hope that the Cal offense can support that defense, which would make a dark horse run at the Pac-12 North possible.

Yes, despite every single major misstep over the last decade from the Cal athletic department, the Bears will somehow trot out a likely top 10 defense next September. Cal MBB went 6-12 in back-to-back Pac-10 seasons, then won a conference title two years later. things change quickly, and college sports are weird enough and volatile enough that it’s almost impossible for administrative bumbling to eliminate any chance that the athletes themselves might do something special.