Berkeley, CA

Opinion: Cal at the crossroads -- Part I

Clay Kallam

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Will Memorial Stadium ever be full again?(Photo by Anthony Hall on Unsplash)

The hits just keep on coming at Cal – and no, we’re not talking about No. 1 singles.

The football team is struggling, the basketball teams are weak and the Pac-12 is disintegrating, all part of the dark cloud hovering over the University of California’s athletic program. Is there a path back to the sunshine of Cal’s one-time football and basketball success? Or has the landscape changed so much that the Golden Bears will be better off hibernating rather than battling with the big boys?

To answer those questions requires two things: First, a look at where Cal is now; and second, what choices does the administration have once USC and UCLA join the B1G. So we begin with a look at Cal today, starting at the micro level and working our way up.

Football assistants: Normally, the heavy guns fire at the head coach, but since Justin Wilcox is so popular with the Berkeley community, the blame for this year’s disappointing season – to put it mildly – has been shifted to offensive line coach Angus McClure and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave.

For those who have been blissfully unaware of the football team’s struggles, which include a loss to Colorado, one of the worst programs in the Power 5, and an offense that hums like a ’63 Volkswagen Bug, let’s just say the 3-4 record is vastly misleading. Wins over UC Davis (3-4 and just 2-2 in the Big Sky) and UNLV (4-4 with a 40-7 loss to San Jose State) aren’t exactly statement games, and with No. 8 Oregon, No. 10 USC and No. 12 UCLA still on the schedule, bowl eligibility seems unlikely.

The primary culprit in this high-scoring era has been the offense, which is stolid, unimaginative and rendered all but helpless by an injury-plagued and undertalented offensive line, as Pac-12 statistics show. McClure is blamed on message boards such as Bear Insider both for not recruiting enough talent and then not developing whatever talent there is, while Musgrave is blamed for his old-fashioned West Coast offense and calling plays designed to get five yards on third-and-ten.

But move the camera back a little and another issue comes into focus: Cal does not pay its assistants as much as other Pac-12 programs, according to published reports, so it’s not surprising Wilcox doesn’t have a great staff. The Oakland A’s don’t pay their players much, and they don’t play very well – why should coaching be any different?

Justin Wilcox: First, Wilcox is an OKG – shorthand for Our Kind of Guy. He’s everything Sonny Dykes (now with an unbeaten, top ten team at TCU) was not. He’s got a West Coast pedigree, he clearly wants to be in Berkeley and the administration and big-money alumni love him, according to those in the know.

But after six years, Wilcox hasn’t moved the needle. And this year, with the house falling apart around him, he has stayed the course despite calls for change. Musgrave and McClure are still gainfully employed, and the same flaws that plagued the Bears in game one plague them now. The defense is still solid, the offense is both boring and bad, and OKG or not, Wilcox’s seat should be getting warm.

It, however, is not because of a horrid contract negotiated by athletic director Jim Knowlton that fully guarantees the remainder of Wilcox’s $25 million deal. Yes, that’s right: Wilcox has a bigger buyout than Nick Saban, so he’s not going anywhere. Which leads us to …

Mark Fox: The head men’s basketball coach isn’t going anywhere either. The team is awful, as the record shows, and the recruiting is in the tank, as the recruiting services report, but Knowlton has made it clear Fox is here for at least two more years. His contract runs through 2025, and though it’s not fully guaranteed, a buy-out is still an expensive option, especially since a new coach’s salary would have to be paid as well.

Fox has been mediocre throughout his career, as his record attests, and when Knowlton hired him, eyebrows were raised. Nothing Fox has done has caused them to be lowered, and his dull-as-dirt personality and lack of engagement with the Cal community, according to fans and alumni, hasn’t helped. Which brings us to …

Jim Knowlton: Knowlton came to Cal from the scandal-plagued Air Force program, which is known for little except an old-fashioned football offense and a lovely location. He was originally given a five-year contract, but for no apparent reason was extended until 2029 at an annual salary of close to $700,000.

Under his watch, the two primary programs – football and men’s basketball – have been dismal. And he “negotiated” the fully guaranteed Wilcox deal.

Even worse, though, for many, is his handling of women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever. Aquatics is one of the few athletic areas Cal excels in, but from all reports, McKeever’s success came at the cost of the mental health of her athletes, who bore the brunt of her manipulation and some swimmers claim, mental abuse.

There had been whispers of issues with McKeever prior to Knowlton’s arrival, but he stuck with her until the cone of silence was broken with a detailed story about her treatment of her players emerged in the Orange County Register in the spring. Knowlton said little, but didn’t deny that McKeever had crossed over the line. But if he didn’t know about McKeever’s treatment of her athletes, what kind of athletic director is he? And if he did know and did nothing, that’s even worse.

In short, the best that can be said about Knowlton is that he made a bad situation only marginally worse. Many disgruntled alums, though, claim he has taken Cal from marginal to unmarketable.

Carol Christ: Christ is the chancellor, and the one ultimately responsible for Knowlton’s extension. She has been cast as a supporter of Cal’s athletic program, unlike some past chancellors, but in an interesting recent move, has formed a committee to look into exactly how Cal should be branded.

The issue, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is that some faculty feel that “Cal” as a brand does not accurately reflect the academic excellence of the campus, and would like to see “Cal” eliminated and replaced with the “University of California” or “UC Berkeley.”

This may seem trivial, and in fact may not be that important, but if the chancellor is considering dropping “Cal,” which is emblazoned on almost every piece of athletic gear, is it possible she’s considering changing the university’s relationship to its athletic programs? Is a downgrade from pursuing Power 5 excellence in the cards? Does the Big West beckon?

We’ll look at all the options next time …

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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