Jim Knowlton did the right thing, the increasingly obvious thing, really the only thing he could do.
Cal’s first-year athletic director fired basketball coach Wyking Jones on Sunday, even while saying he really likes the man.
I like the guy, too. But that’s not really the point.
Here is what matters in the big picture:
If you want your Power Five basketball program to be taken seriously by your fans and donors, by recruiting prospects, by your current players, by future coaching candidates and by your accountant, you cannot stay the course with a coach who was 16-47 in two seasons.
Who was 5-31 in Pac-12 play.
Whose team lost 16 straight games — worst-ever in a program more than a century old.
I asked Knowlton whether, given all those factors, he no longer had any choice but to make a change.
“We strive to be exceptional in everything we do here at Cal,” Knowlton said. “And as we look at our last two seasons, we made some fits and starts, made some progress, but we just didn’t have a wide path that would really help us become exceptional.
“I just felt like it was the time to make my decision.”
Knowlton is a smooth talker, which means he says a lot sometimes without actually giving you a direct answer to your question. I get that. It’s what he has to do.
He cannot simply say, we had to fire the guy because our program sucks.
But he is smart and he knows that’s what a majority of Cal’s fans have been thinking since about mid-season last year. And he sees that many of those fans have stopped coming to Cal games. Average attendance at Haas Pavilion this season was down to an all-time low of about 5,600 from nearly 10,200 just two seasons ago.
Do the math: That leap off the attendance cliff has a dramatic and immediate financial impact that is impossible to ignore if you’re responsible for an athletic department with an ongoing history of money problems.
Many of you are sure you have the solution for fan apathy: Jason Kidd.
Yes, he would sell tickets and perhaps recruit well.
But I’m telling you, it’s not going to happen.
Is that because he attended Cal for just two years and does not have a degree? That’s been a requirement of all Cal coaches in the past, to the best of my knowledge.
Surprisingly, Knowlton admitted during a teleconference with reporters that he's not sure if a college degree is a requirement.
But while stating the many qualities he said he’d be looking for — including being “a teacher at heart” and “a program builder” and someone who understands how the Berkeley campus functions — Knowlton also used the word “integrity.”
And that may be an stumbling block for Kidd. He is a local hero, a triple-double genius and a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer, but he also has an unfortunate history that includes a domestic violence incident involving his now ex-wife Joumana, and a strong link to the controversial Todd Bozeman coaching era.
Cal already has begun the process of finding its next coach, said Knowlton, adding that the athletic department has hired a search firm to help in the process. He called Cal’s donors “the lifeblood” to all the department strives to do, so we can assume that outside money may help pay off the remaining $3 million on Jones’ original five-year contract and assist in securing the next man.
Knowlton labeled his timetable as “ASAP,” perhaps partly a nod to concerns about keeping the current roster intact. Already, sophomore guard Darius McNeill has announced he is transferring, and rumor is one or more other players are weighing their options.
Assistant coach Marty Wilson, a former head coach at Pepperdine, will serve as interim coach, but Knowlton admitted the permanent coach may have to “re-recruit” the current roster.
The AD said he met with players on Tuesday, before he had made any decision on Jones. Then he met with them again Sunday to share his plans.
“These are hard times for young men to understand,” he said. “This is something different. Most of them know only coach Jones. Having said that, they also want to be exceptional.”
The fact is, Cal is far from being exceptional on the basketball court. The Bears have had great moments over the years, but most of them were fleeting. The program has not been truly exceptional on a consistent basis since Pete Newell left coaching a year after leading the Bears to the 1959 national championship.
That may be setting the bar much too high for the next coach. I believe most Cal fans would be happy with a program that consistently competes in the upper half of the Pac-12, occasionally wins a conference championship and has the potential to play beyond the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Knowlton took a moment Sunday to mention that he attended West Point and is friends with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
So I asked him, “You plan to try hiring Coach K?”
Knowlton just laughed. We all did.