The same night in March 2008 that he was let go after 12 seasons as California's basketball coach, Ben Braun picked up the phone and couldn't turn the volume down.
Chris Del Conte, the ebullient former UA associate AD who was then running the Rice athletic department, was calling to see if Braun would fix the broken Owls basketball program.
"He really came at me pretty hard," Braun said. "He showed me when I came in there was a lot of potential the way they do things at Rice. They really want to win and do it the right way."
A few days later, Lute Olson called, telling Braun what a great fit the academic-minded school in Houston would be for him. So did Scott Thompson, a former Olson assistant at the UA who served as the Rice head coach from 1987 to 1992.
"Lute spoke favorably about the school," Braun said. "He said, 'I want you to know it's a good job.' Lute's a pretty good guy for advice."
Before long, Braun was sold. He said he declined to visit some other programs that expressed interest, having been so impressed by not only Del Conte and Olson, but also donor Bobby Tudor, the namesake for the Owls' revamped arena, and the entire Rice community.
"We got everybody involved," said Del Conte, now the AD at Texas Christian. "Ben Braun is a winner. He won at Eastern Michigan. He won at Cal. … He's in the top 10 of the active winningest coaches, is he not?"
Actually, Braun entered the season at No. 11 with 562 wins, coincidentally just behind Mike Montgomery (569), the man who replaced him at Cal. And Braun isn't likely to catch him this season, because Montgomery has a team picked to win the Pac-10 … with a roster full of Braun recruits.
That's the way it goes, Braun said.
While expressing reluctance to talk about himself before tonight's UA-Rice game, Braun said the only thing that rankled him were words from Cal AD Sandy Barbour, who said the Bears "underachieved" after Braun took them to five NCAA tournaments and three NITs.
"I've always believed that I don't want to be someplace where somebody doesn't want me to do the job," Braun said. "I didn't agree with the athletic director but that's her call. It's just part of the game in college basketball.
"I'm proud of what our staff and team accomplished. I thought we ran our program the right way. My only issue at the time was we felt we were building something. We had a significant injury with Theo (Robertson, who missed the 2007-08 season after hip surgery)."
So when the Bears went 22-11 last season, earning an NCAA tournament bid in Montgomery's first season, Braun was hardly surprised.
"I felt that group would really blossom," Braun said. "That team was starting to make strides, and you get Theo back and Jerome (Randle) and Patrick (Christopher), and those guys have done well. Mike's done a good job with them. He's instilled some defensive pride. It's good to see."
At Rice, Braun has to deal with not only rigid academic standards that narrow the pool of recruits he can go after, but he also has less of a basketball tradition and a smaller arena than he did at Cal.
"It's pretty tough," Braun said of the academic restrictions. "But what I do like about it is that it does attract some of the top student-athletes. You're in the mix with the athletes who are interested in Duke, Stanford, Northwestern.
"Rice is a great campus, a beautiful campus and Houston is a very international, cosmopolitan city. We can recruit to that."
In his first fall signing period, Braun pulled in five players that collectively rated No. 7 on Rivals.com's list of midmajor recruiting classes. Three of those players are now in Braun's rotation, including a New Jersey high school player of the year (guard Tamir Jackson) and Iran-born wing Arsalan Kazemi.
Whether he has enough to pick up his first win at Arizona is another story. Even with his best teams at Cal, Braun never beat the Wildcats at McKale Center, making the situation a bit rough for his mother and brother, who live in Tucson.
"They always enjoyed coming to the (UA at Cal) away game, though not the home game," Braun said. "I don't know what it was. We might have been coming off some big wins at Arizona State. But this is a great opportunity to come back and play a quality team."
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