Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Coach Brian Katz has Sacramento State basketball in the spotlight

Sacramento State’s Brian Katz, instructing the Hornets during practice last October, graduated from Casa Roble High School and Sac State before coaching in high school and community college. “I was always the underdog, and that’s the way I like it,” he said.
Sacramento State’s Brian Katz, instructing the Hornets during practice last October, graduated from Casa Roble High School and Sac State before coaching in high school and community college. “I was always the underdog, and that’s the way I like it,” he said. Aseng@sacbee.com

Brian Katz, who has breathed fire and life into the Sacramento State men’s basketball program, is so rooted to the campus, to the area, to the community he has never lived more than a two-hour commute away. He flits around his office with the frenetic energy of a New Yorker – his father is a Bronx native, he explains – but sticks to the Hornets like a bee does honey. This is home and, in his seventh season, he is living his dream: Sac State is emerging as a player on the college basketball scene.

Yes, those Hornets. Yes, that tiny gym. The remaining three home games already are nearly sold out. Most significantly, a victory on Saturday against Big Sky Conference rival Portland State would tighten Sac State’s grasp on first place, extend the current streak to seven wins and shatter the program’s admittedly modest record book; the Hornets haven’t enjoyed a 7-0 stretch in a whopping 39 years. A win also would guarantee a .500 or better record for the first time in the school’s Division I era (since 1991).

“I am trying to savor the moment,” Katz said during a stroll around campus, “but it’s almost overwhelming. When I started here seven years ago, it was like trying to save the Titanic.”

Yet inch by inch, player by player, season by season, the program improved. These current Hornets are a rocking, rolling ode to joy. Led by guards Mikh McKinney, Dylan Garrity and Cody Demps, they swarm opposing ballhandlers, run textbook fast breaks, share the ball, make game-winning jumpers and, in a reflection of their coach, never stop moving.

Katz, 57, trim and youthful with a full head of dark hair, thrives in an often-conflicted world of organized chaos. “I’m a mess,” he said, laughing, and nodding at the disarray of his office.

His desk is a neat freak’s worst nightmare. Several legal pads are stacked neatly while others are tossed around the base of a computer. Pink erasers, No. 2 pencils, CDs, letters and newspapers compete for space without a hint of order. Rumpled green and gold jogging shorts protrude from underneath the chair.

Even the whiteboard offers a curious mix of meticulous planning and free-form thinking, with names, strategies and observations written at all angles and often circled.

“I probably inherited that (trait) from my father,” Katz said. “He was an air traffic controller at Sac International Airport. You have to be able to handle a lot coming at you at once, and from all directions. I probably have ADD (attention deficit disorder), too. I can’t take on too many things at once, so I’ve become pretty good at compartmentalizing.”

In contrast to most college coaches, Katz can text but resists the allure of email. Other unusual habits include using his index finger to scrape the skin off his thumb while watching film, falling asleep almost as soon as he hits the couch and attacking, rather then sitting, in a chair. He appears to be in physical pain as he slouches, squirms, crosses and extends his legs, turns his body one way and then the other.

It’s the other side of Katz – the one that filters information and structures his days – that enables him to cope with the crazy nature of coaching. His routine begins at Starbucks every morning at 4:30. If he arrives before it opens, he stops at a nearby gas station for a soda. But he invariably is at his desk promptly at 4:45, takes a three-mile run in the early afternoon, oversees practice later in the day and, on non-game nights, is back at his Arden Park home by 7 or 8.

“We’re a blended family,” Katz explained. “My wife, Lori, who is a nurse, has two children by a previous marriage, I have one child, and we had one together. Right now, only our son Jimmy is living at home, but everyone is pretty much involved with Sac State basketball. They’re all around. My ex-father-in-law comes to all the games and my ex-wife is great; she texted me after our win over Montana.”

As he noted early in the conversation, the Hornets are family. The winning and losing is personal. He grew up here, attended Casa Roble High School, earned a degree from Sac State and coached high school basketball before taking jobs at Lassen (Susanville) and Delta (Stockton) colleges. But he packed up and moved away only once – to become a graduate assistant at Santa Clara – and has no intention of leaving again.

There are plenty of goals right here in the neighborhood: the first winning Division I season, the first conference tournament title, the first Division I NCAA Tournament.

And who knows? Maybe someday, the money tree on the leafy campus will sprout a modern arena.

“I was always the underdog,” Katz added, “and that’s the way I like it. Overcoming adversity and celebrating the human spirit. We’ve got things moving in the right direction, but we can’t get ahead of ourselves. Stay in the moment.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

TODAY’S GAME

PORTLAND STATE AT SACRAMENTO STATE

When: 2:05 p.m.

Where: The Nest

Radio: 1380

Tickets: Fewer than 100 standing-room only tickets will be available when the box office opens at 1p.m.

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