It’s an easy question to ask — THE question to ask about this pitiable Cal basketball season.
Finding the right answer is more complicated.
Should coach Wyking Jones be fired when the season ends next month?
An easy call on the surface: Jones is 13-44 nearing the end of his second season, just 2-29 in Pac-12 Conference regular-season games, and his team has lost 14 games in a row dating back to before Christmas.
No coach in 110 years of Cal basketball assembled such an ugly resume.
Who could survive such a gruesome ledger?
The decision will be made, sometime after the Pac-12 tournament, by first-year athletic director Jim Knowlton. It will be his first major personnel decision and will tell us something about his vision for the basketball program.
Knowlton declined a request to talk to us for this story, saying he stands by what he told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month.
He didn’t give anything away there, and why would he? He likely had not come to a decision on this, and to tip his hand benefits no one.
“I’m hoping that no one has given up on them,” Knowlton told the Chronicle. “I certainly haven’t. The coaches haven’t.”
Some fans clearly have given up on this season. Cal’s average attendance of 5,442 through 13 home games is its lowest by nearly 2,000 since Harmon Gym was transformed into Haas Pavilion before the 1999-2000 season. Just three years ago, the Bears drew more than 10,000 per game.This is more than lost money, it’s fleeing support. When the Bears played Arizona at Haas last month, the U of A crowd often was louder than the home fans.
The age of social media gives disgruntled fans an outlet to vent their frustration, and many of them haven’t been shy. Jones says he tunes it out.
“I don’t really hear anything,” he said Wednesday. “I don’t get caught up in talk outside the program. I don’t go on Twitter. That would distract me. I'm more concerned with us getting better.”
Whatever progress the Bears have made has not shown up in the standings.
“It weighs on everybody,” Jones said of the losing. “We’re all competitors. We all have pride. I played the game. It doesn’t feel good to not win.”
Let’s examine the situation, starting with the case for Jones and the case against Jones, and a look at how money complicates things.
And finally, we’ll explore the key question Knowlton must ask himself: What does he expect and want from his basketball program?
The argument for Wyking Jones
Former athletic director Mike Williams understood the task facing his next coach after Cuonzo Martin left two years ago. The cupboard was bare. Four players turned pro and two more transferred.
Although he is the Pac-12’s lowest-paid coach at $1 million per year, Jones was given a five-year contract for a reason: No one expected instant success.
He is playing this season with just 10 scholarship players — eight of them freshmen or sophomores — and all them will return a year older next season, joined by a three-man recruiting class that is ranked No. 7 in the Pac-12.
To their credit, the Bears have continued to fight most nights. An exception was last Saturday, when Cal was routed by 23 points at home by USC. Jones said he and Knowlton talked after the game, as they do after each game, and “neither of us was happy about what happened out on the court.”
Two days earlier, the Bears led most of the game against UCLA before losing in overtime. “The effort was there,” Jones said, “but we have to learn how to make plays at the end of the game to get a win.”
The argument against Wyking Jones
As much as they’re giving it the old college try, the Bears aren’t getting much done in the bottom-line business that is big-time Division I sports. The Bears’ record the past two seasons is worse than anyone could have predicted, and it will have repercussions on ticket sales, donor contributions and recruiting.
The Bears already have lost 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time ever — the program produced just two 20-loss seasons in 108 seasons prior to last year. They are on the verge of back-to-back single-digit win totals for the first time in 39 years.
Perhaps worse yet, the Bears have just five more chances — beginning Thursday night at Arizona — to get a victory that averts them joining Oregon State in 2007-08 as just the second team to go winless in conference play since the Pac-8 expanded to the Pac-10 in 1978-79.
A year ago, Cal was capable on defense and woeful on offense. The Bears are somewhat better offensively this season but probably the worst defensive team in Division I. With limited size, they struggle to defend the paint and are the Pac-12’s worst rebounding team. And against USC, they gave up 19 three-point baskets.
The complicating factor: $$$
Simply saying goodbye to Jones and wishing him well in his future endeavors won’t work.
Cal, with financial constraints due to a huge stadium debt, would owe Jones $3 million over the next three seasons if they cut ties. Then there’s whatever costs come with searching for a replacement, a possible buyout fee if that coach is employed elsewhere, and his new, presumably higher, contract.
Take for example, if Cal were to try hiring Oregon State’s Wayne Tinkle, who may not have any reason to view Berkeley as a step up. Tinkle is due to make $6.3 million the next three seasons and has a $1 million buyout.
Add up the payoff, buyout and Tinkle’s current pay, and Cal would be at $10.1 million when it begins contract negotiations.
Would Cal even go after an established coach who will cost considerably more than Jones? Or would they again look for an unproven, first-time head coach that can be hired, relatively speaking, on the cheap, simply to pacify a grumpy fan base?
In his interview with the Chronicle, Knowlton said the athletic department’s huge debt won’t dictate how he proceeds, but it is a factor. Cal recently rewarded football coach Justin Wilcox — and key assistants — with new contracts, and is seeking funds to construct new softball and beach-volleyball facilities.
“Finances play into everything,” Knowlton said.
What Knowlton must ask himself
It’s fair to assume the Bears, with everyone returning and three new players on the way, will be improved next season.
But how much progress can they demonstrate? And what is the goal?
Cal talks about striving for excellence in all things, but where is the basketball team likely to be at this time next season?
Does anyone really believe they will compete for a Pac-12 championship in 2019-20?
And, if not, is a move up from 12th place to, say, eighth or ninth, going to satisfy anyone?