In the latest installement in his coaches interview series, CHN writer spent some time with current Rice head coach Ben Braun, who also made stops at Eastern Michigan and Cal. At EMU Coach Braun led the Eagles to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 in 1991. Now in his second season at Rice, Coach Braun and his staff are looking to build a program that can compete with Memphis atop Conference USA.
Jon Teitel: You graduated from Wisconsi with a teaching degree in English and a minor in African-American Studies. Why did you choose those courses of study?
Ben Braun: I was fortunate to focus on academics at Wisconsin, and I met some professors in those fields who motivated me to become a good student. I just wanted to teach and coach high school basketball.
JT: Midway through the 1986 season you became interim head coach at Eastern Michigan. How did it feel to take over a program in the middle of the season?
BB: Jim Boyce had brought me in as his assistant, but he resigned during the year. I had previously been the head coach at a small college called Siena Heights, so I was able to draw on that experience. When you are an "interim" there is no guarantee for the future, but I treated it as if I was the head coach.
JT: What are your memories of the 1988 NCAA Tournament (Charles Smith scored 31 points in a Pittsburgh victory)?
BB: I remember us shooting the ball well and holding our own in the first half. We had beaten Michigan State earlier that season (who had Steve Smith), so we had some experience against good competition. It was a special group of guys who came together.
JT: In 1989, you served as head coach of Team USA at the Maccabiah Games and lost to the host country of Israel in the title game. How did you like the gig, and how close did you come to winning it all?
BB: We were ahead at halftime, despite playing against a team featuring pros like Nadav Henefeld. I remember it being one of the longest halftimes I had ever seen, as it took about 20 minutes to get back on the court! We had a group of former college players who had been out of the game for a few years. Seth Greenberg was my assistant, and was a good coach even back then. We had beaten everyone else in that tourney pretty handily, but I think we got tired from playing games all over the country. It was 1 of my better experiences as a coach, as it was very special to represent my country.
1991 NCAA Tournament
JT: Marcus Kennedy scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a 20-point upset of 5-seed Mississippi State. How big a deal was it to win a tourney game, and how were you able to destroy the SEC champ?
BB: We won 26 games that year, and the MAC was one of the best mid-major conferences in the country back then. Mississippi State was well coached and talented, but we just played better that day.
JT: Kennedy scored 21 points before fouling out in a three-point overtime win over Penn State. How were you able to pull out the win, and did you think you were going to lose after Kennedy fouled out?
BB: When you come that far, it means that you have been in that position before. Winners know how to win, so we did not think for a second about losing that game.
JT: Eric Montross had 17 points in North Carolina's win in the Sweet 16. Was Montross just too big for you to handle?
BB: We played extremely well and were sailing along in the first half, but they had several future NBA players in addition to Montross and pulled away in the 2nd half.
JT: What are your memories of the 1996 NCAA Tournament (Earl Boykins scored 23 points in Duke's first loss in the first round in over 40 years, and Brian Tolbert scored 36 points [7-13 3PM] in a loss to 1-seed Connecticut)?
BB: Our guys were not intimidated by Duke, as most other teams are. We won 15 games in a row that season, and were one of the highest scoring teams in the country. We had some good forwards to complement Earl and Brian. We were up by double-digits over Connecticut at halftime, but Doron Sheffer brought them back in the second half. We had a lot of things going for us at EMU: a great fan base, a supportive administration, etc.
JT: You replaced Todd Bozeman as the head coach at California in 1996 after he resigned in the wake of an NCAA investigation, and your 23 wins were the most by a California coach in his first year with the program. Why did you decide to go to Cal, and how were you able to be so successful so quickly?
BB: It was hard to pass up an opportunity to coach at a Pac-10 school and compete on a national level. We were in the postseason almost every year, which was fun, and it was a chance to build a program. It was a hard decision to leave EMU, as I had developed a lot of great relationships during my time there.
JT: In 1997 you were named Pac-10 Coach of the Yeal (the first Cal coach to ever receive the award). What did it mean to you to win such an outstanding individual honor?
BB: It was nice to get that award, as the Pac-10 often has some of the best coaches in the country (Lute Olson, Mike Montgomery, etc.).
1997 NCAA Tournament
JT: Alfred Grigsby blocked a three-point shot by Gabe Lewullis to seal a three point win over Princeton. What did you tell your team at halftime when you trailed by six points, and where does Grigsby's block rank among the most clutch defensive plays you have ever seen?
BB: We were a good defensive team that year, and Alfred was back for his sixth year after being injured for much of his career. I think we were the last team to beat Arizona that year before they won the title. If you have never coached against Princeton, let me tell you: they are a difficult team to coach against. They were not just smart; they also knew how to play.
JT: Future NFL All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez scored 23 points while holding Tim Thomas scoreless in the second half in a seven point win over Villanova. How were you able to go so far after Ed Gray broke his foot, and is Gonzalez the best two-sport athletes you have ever seen?
BB: Ed had 48 points with 12 minutes left in his last game against Washington State before breaking his foot, so we just had to come together as a team without him. Tony would rank at the top of my list. He had a killer attitude in both sports; he found ways to get into the end zone and to get to the basket.
JT: Antawn Jamison had 21 points and eight rebounds in a six-point North Carolina victory. Were you getting sick of playing North Carolina in the tournament?
BB: We were leading most of the game. Coach Smith was always a nice guy, so I would joke with him and wonder if he would be as nice if we ever beat him...and he said maybe not! We finally got even with North Carolina when we beat them a couple of years later after we had been put on probation.
JT: What are your memories of the 1999 NIT (Willie Coleman missed a 17-foot shot at the buzzer in a one-point win over DePaul, and Cal went on to win the title)?
BB: We were down 17 points at the half at DePaul, and came back to win it even though DePaul had about four future NBA guys on that team. We felt we could have gone to the NCAA tourney that year, but when we did not get an invite we just decided to do our best in the NIT.
JT: What are your memories of the 2002 NCAA Tournament (seven-point win over Penn, then lost to Pitt)?
BB: Fran Dunphy is a great coach and a great guy, so it was big for us to beat Penn. Those Penn and Princeton teams in the past couple of decades could play with anyone in the country. Fran got us back by winning the Golden Bear Classic soon after that. We had to play Pitt in Pittsburgh, which was not easy.
JT: What are your memories of the 2003 NCAA Tournament (Richard Midgley made a three-point shot with four seconds left in a two-point overtime win over NC State, then you had a nine-point loss to Oklahoma)?
BB: Midgley's shot was a big thrill: he was only a freshman, which was huge. We had to play Oklahoma in Oklahoma, which was also not easy.
JT: In 2008 you became head coach at Rice. Why did you take the job and what has been the biggest challenge so far?
BB: I welcomed the opportunity to go to Rice, which is a world-class institution.
JT: ESPN.com ranked your first signing class as #3 among Division I mid-major programs. What is the key to being a great recruiter, and do you consider your program to be a "mid-major"?
BB: I think we are a mid-major program that plays a high-major schedule, so our goal is to get to the top of our league and compete with teams like Memphis. We are the one private academic school that stands out from the rest of the conference, so we have to find our niche to appeal to elite student-athletes.
JT: You have several former assistants who now serve as Division I head coaches. What do you think that says about you, and which of your former assistants do you think will turn out to be the best head coach?
BB: Any coach will tell you this, but I had some great assistant coaches (Gary Waters, Keith Dambrot, Charles Ramsey, Joe Pasternack, etc.). Keith is one of the most unsung coaches in the country right now. Louis Reynaud, my associate head coach at Rice, has turned down several head coaching jobs to remain as my assistant, and even some of former players like Stan Heath have become good coaches. I do not think that it changes my legacy no matter how many of my assistants become head coaches themselves. Even Dean Smith had a guy like Bill Guthridge; it is a great help to build a program with guys who are loyal to you, competent, unselfish, etc., but sometimes it is just good fortune. I am proud that a lot of my coaches/players have gone on to success. If you coach long enough you are going to win some games. I made a lot of mistakes when I was a young coach, but nobody noticed because we played in a gym which was a bingo hall! I am in my 50s, and still feel the passion for the game.
The greatest thrill is to rally my players around a single cause, build some camaraderie, and teach them how to carry themselves like winners. I do not want my guys to win some basketball games and then fall flat on their faces upon entering the real world. I want them prepared for life, so we help them with internships/interviews, as they will end up doing more than just playing basketball. That is the biggest joy, and I hope it continues. My current AD Rick Greenspan is a veteran guy who I enjoy being around because he understands what real college athletics should be about. Arsalan Kazemi scored 14 points for Iran against Team USA this summer, and guys like him will open the door for future players from the Middle East and maybe even help mend diplomatic relations.
To show his support, our school president David Leebron invited the team to his house for dinner despite the fact that we finished last in the conference! We are the second smallest Division I program in the country (behind only Davidson), but it is kind of like being in basketball heaven, because our school wants to win the right way. We have not been to the tourney in 40 years, and if we can do that, it would be very rewarding. Obviously it will be a challenge to turn around this program, but I feel that Rice is committed to supporting basketball.
Coach Braun is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MAC history.
Akron: Keith Dambrot (2004-present) 139-62, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title
Ball State: Ray McCallum (1993-2000) 126-76, two NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles
Bowling Green: Harold Anderson (1942-1963) 362-185, three NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles
Buffalo: Reggie Witherspoon (1999-present) 144-183, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Central Michigan: Dick Parfitt (1972-1985) 178-168, two NCAA Tournament appearances, two conference titles, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Eastern Michigan: Ben Braun (1985-1996) 185-132, three NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year
Kent State: Jim Christian (2002-2008) 137-59, two NCAA Tournament appearances, four conference titles, two-time conference Coach of the Year
Miami (OH): Charlie Coles (1996-present) 241-188, three NCAA Tournament appearances, three conference titles, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Northern Illinois: John McDougal (1976-1986) 136-141, one NCAA Tournament appearance, one conference title, one-time conference Coach of the Year
Ohio: James Snyder (1949-1974) 354-245, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, seven conference titles, two-time conference Coach of the Year
Toledo: Bob Nichols (1965-1987) 375-213, three NCAA Tournament appearances, four conference titles, three-time conference Coach of the Year
Western Michigan: Herbert "Buck" Read (1922-1949) 345-169