Who will be the next Cal men’s basketball coach? He should have a record of success as a head coach, yet be young enough to have the energy to compete in the Pac-10 Conference, perhaps the best basketball conference in the country. He should be a coach for whom Cal would be a step up.
There are some strong candidates, especially just from the West. Among them:
» Mark Few, Gonzaga: Few is a Northwest type of guy. The Gonzaga campus is referred to as his “home away from home” because he was born in Oregon and went to college in the state. He has been approached by other schools, including Indiana before the regrettable hiring of Kelvin Sampson, and has turned them down.
Few has built Gonzaga into a national power and he’s getting better players as a result, but Gonzaga has been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in the last two years. Also, he recently lost his right-hand man, Bill Grier, to San Diego, which may be a signal that Few is finally thinking of moving on.
» Randy Bennett, St. Mary’s: Bennett, the only coach on my list with whom I’ve talked to in person, is a personable, unassuming man who also happens to be an excellent coach. He says he hasn’t finished the job at St. Mary’s, but let’s face it — St. Mary’s is a backwater stop. Bennett’s predecessor, Ernie Kent, used his success there to move up to Oregon. Bennett could do the same with Cal. » Tony Bennett, Washington State: Bennett could be a blast from the past for older Cal alumni because his style of offense is similar to Pete Newell’s and, like Newell, he has been successful with less-talented players than opposing coaches have. His ties to Washington State are not deep because he played at Wisconsin-Green Bay under his dad, Dick Bennett, and was also an assistant coach there. He followed his dad to Washington State and succeeded him as coach. Though Cal is in the same conference, moving to Berkeley would be a definite step up in prestige.
» Mark Fox, Nevada: Fox succeeded Trent Johnson as coach and has had great success there, including a school record 29 wins in the 2006-07 season.
» Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh: The one coach from another region, Dixon is intriguing. He was an assistant to Ben Howland at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh. When Howland left for UCLA, Dixon replaced him and has had four straight NCAA appearances. He was born in Burbank. Maybe he’d be ready to come home.
Many Cal fans like the idea of Mike Montgomery coming across the Bay, but Montgomery is a Stanford loyalist. Also, I doubt he’ll return to coaching. The Warriors have funded his retirement. Steve Lavin, now working in TV, would love to get back into coaching and he’s originally from the Bay Area. But at UCLA, Lavin was known as a great recruiter, but a weak coach. Not a good fit.
Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour may select somebody not even mentioned yet, but I respect her judgment. She did an excellent job with a difficult situation with Ben Braun, supporting him publicly until the end but then moving decisively as soon as the season ended. I expect her to make a coaching decision that will help get the Bears back into conference championship contention.