Berkeley’s basketball coaches build a winning culture, on and off the court

UC Berkeley’s basketball coaches Mark Fox, left, and Charmin Smith, right, talked about their commitment to creating a winning mentality on their teams at Tuesday’s Campus Conversation. (UC Berkeley video by Stephen McNally)

The success of UC Berkeley’s student-athletes should be measured by their accomplishments off the court as much as by their accomplishments on the court, according to Cal basketball coaches Mark Fox and Charmin Smith, who spoke Tuesday at the first of this year’s Campus Conversations.

At the monthly hour-long discussions, students, staff and faculty hear from and question campus leaders. Both Fox and Smith stressed their desire to build a team culture that attracts players who value achievements beyond basketball.

“We’re preparing you for what’s going to come after Cal, and this degree sets you up for that in a way that you can’t even imagine,” Smith said, referencing the pitch she makes to her players. “We’re looking for those student-athletes (who) understand that, who want that and then who have the commitment, the drive and the skill set to help us compete in the Pac-12 and get to that national level where we’re winning championships.”

Smith was named head coach of the women’s basketball team in June after more than a decade as an assistant coach. A St. Louis native, Smith played college ball for Stanford University in the mid-1990s and professionally as a guard in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) for the Portland Power, Minnesota Lynx, Seattle Storm and Phoenix Mercury.

Fox came to Berkeley last year with nearly 15 years of experience and 10 tournament appearances as a head coach for teams at the University of Georgia and University of Nevada, Reno. He stressed the importance of giving student-athletes the resources to thrive after basketball.

“In our sport, so many kids are of the belief they’re going to make money playing professional basketball,” said Fox. “We have to have young people who understand, even if that part of their life comes true, there’s 30 or 40 years of something else, and part of our responsibility is to prepare them for that something else.”

Should student-athletes get paid?

Both coaches said they worried the Fair Pay to Play Act, a California bill signed into law last October that will allow student-athletes to benefit financially from the use of their image and likeness starting in 2023, may have unintended consequences.

“It’s the can of worms where we don’t quite know what kind of worms are inside,” Fox said.

Smith added that this change could exacerbate gender inequities between men and women student-athletes, a situation that already exists in professional sports.

“Out of the 100 highest paid athletes, how many females are there?” Smith asked the audience. “One. Serena (Williams). That’s it. So, I just think there’s a lot of discussion that still needs to be had around what the intentions are, what we are exactly trying to accomplish, and then what the repercussions are.”

Leading to the future

Both coaches said they encourage their squads to focus on achievable goals, like clean play and team spirit.

“It has been a ton of fun, because we are a group that is committed to one another, and we’re a group that understands the value of being at Cal, and what that means,” Smith said.

Fox advocates a collective pathway to success for his team.

“I try to educate them on the fact that everyone’s role may be of a different size, but everybody has value,” he said. “I try to get players to buy into the cause of something bigger than themselves.”

That struck a chord with Berkeley staff member Bobby Thompson, who described Fox’s leadership style as “selfless.” Thompson also praised Smith, the women’s team’s first black coach.

“Her whole energy is something I really appreciate, because we have to remember that she’s a leader of 18- to 22-year-old female student-athletes, many of them women of color,” said Thompson, director of athlete development at Berkeley. “All those intersectionalities that she is able to support on a day-to-day basis is phenomenal.”

Campus Conversations will continue on Feb. 24 with Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s first chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. More information is available on the Campus Conversations website.