This isn’t the sort of March Madness that Cal envisioned, obviously, when Cuonzo Martin was hired to lead the basketball program. Here are the Golden Bears, with two NBA-bound freshmen and their most skilled team in years, positioned to rock out a crazy-wide-open NCAA bracket that presents Kansas — the tournament favorite, you dreamers — in a potential Round of 16 game.
Yet there is Martin’s top recruiter, Yann Hufnagel, accused of sexual harassment and out of a job after the university fired him Monday.
All while Martin continues to work without a signed contract, in part because he was awaiting results of a school investigation into Hufnagel that started last August. Which only encourages big-time programs with vacancies and resources, seeing a successful African-American coach in the competitive Pac-12, to pounce on Martin’s potential availability in a matter of weeks or days.
Complex. Disturbing. And so Cal.
In what always has been an uneven relationship between sports and academia in Berkeley, now we have the collision of a powerful issue on campuses — Cal being at the current center of the sexual harassment storm — and the desire to produce revenues and build a brand via Big Sports. Hufnagel, an ambitious 33-year-old assistant coach who played a major role in luring blue-chip recruits Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb for one-season-and-done stints, denies that he harassed a female reporter who detailed allegations to the university’s Office of the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.
“Right now, the only focus should be on our basketball team! My time to exonerate myself of a fruitless claim by a reporter will come,” tweeted Hufnagel, who won’t be accompanying the team for its first-round game Friday against Hawaii in Spokane, Wash.
Later Monday, Hufnagel told ESPN.com: “I’m crushed. I can’t believe it. I’m blindsided. I never imagined this would be the outcome. Cal has been incredibly slow-moving in the process. I’m in the process of hiring a legal team to exonerate my name.”
Is he a convenient scapegoat amid a sensitive, explosive mood on campus? The university has been jolted by at least three recent cases in which two high-level administrators — the dean of the prestigious law school and a vice chancellor for research — and an accomplished astronomer kept their jobs despite findings of sexual harassment. Not until protests reached a fevered pitch, a tradition at Berkeley, were the three men forced out. Law school dean Sujit Choudhry was banned from campus last week by the University of California system president, Janet Napolitano, after he was served with a lawsuit.
That the university followed days later with Hufnagel’s removal, at the start of the NCAA tournament, is a formidable statement about the priority of safety and a social conscience over basketball. I say that because many prominent hoops schools would have remained hush, at least until March was over. According to a university statement, Martin initiated the termination proceedings against Hufnagel, his partner in recruiting prosperity since the two arrived before the 2014-15 season.
“You’re talking about a guy who’s part of your staff and a family member,” Martin said Monday. “We continue to push forward. It’s not an easy thing, but we’ll find our way.”
It’s hard to believe, on the surface, that Martin would sell out a hired recruiting gun unless there was sufficient evidence against him. That said, maybe Martin was given no choice by Napolitano, the former U.S. Homeland Security secretary. A redacted version of the allegations eventually will be released by the university, which said in a statement Monday afternoon: “The recently completed report was shared for the first time with the complainant this afternoon, who has asked that we delay release so that she has time to read its contents. At the same time, the complainant understands that under the California Public Records Act, a redacted version of the report is a public document and that the University will be releasing it in the near future.”
The profession is filled with people like Yann Hufnagel, known as Yanni until recently, a hustler who was cut from his high school team and then started reading John Wooden books so he could continue in coaching. If you wondered how Cal landed Oakland product Rabb and Brown in tandem — Brown is from Georgia, remember — you first must understand Hufnagel’s high energy. This past New Year’s Eve, Martin and Hufnagel landed a commitment from Jemarl Baker, an elite shooting guard in Southern California. Baker’s high school coach, Ryan Silver, told the scouting service Scout.com: “Cuonzo is terrific. Yanni Hufnagel was relentless. They did a great job recruiting him. Jemarl really liked Cuonzo, Yanni and the coaching staff. Cal also has great academics.”
Great academics that should not be compromised by any tolerance of harassment, even a hug. Which made another urgent piece of local sporting news more fascinating. On the day Cal made an important declaration, Stanford made its own: Basketball is underachieving on The Farm. Johnny Dawkins, he of the Mike Krzyzewski tree, was fired after eight seasons because he stopped taking the Cardinal to the promised land where Martin and Hufnagel have taken Cal: the Big Dance, baby. The bosses liked Dawkins’ academic record. They sort of liked his two NIT championships. But he missed the NCAAs for the seventh time, finishing 15-15, and at a place where David Shaw is shooting for national football titles, being average is unacceptable.
Said athletic director Bernard Muir: “There are so many great things that Johnny was able to accomplish, including improving the graduation rate, achieving an Academic Progress Rate of 1000, an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance and two NIT championships. The student-athletes Johnny coached during his tenure at Stanford represented the university with class and humility.”
As did the assistant coaches.
“While I am disappointed that we could not achieve the desired high level results, I leave proud of the tremendous young men who have given their all to the program and I know the future is bright for Stanford basketball,” Dawkins said.
What’s interesting is that Cal longs to be Stanford. For proof, examine football coach Sonny Dykes’ new contract, which allows for a $25,000 bonus if he beats the Cardinal in the Big Game. Now, Cal has the superior basketball program, and with victories over Hawaii and (probably) Maryland, Martin’s team would advance to the hottest of national spotlights next week against the top-seeded Jayhawks.
But in the process, as often happens in Berkeley, a measure of dignity has been lost. For a change, at least the school is reacting instead of standing still.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.