Teacher Of The Game
BERKELEY – When Russ Critchfield heard that Chico State was to play California, he was both thrilled and motivated.
"I was certainly excited to return home; I loved my time at Cal both as a student-athlete and as an assistant coach," Critchfield said. "On the other hand, I was ready to do everything I could to give our team a chance to win and compete against a top school in the Pac-12 Conference."
The 1995 Cal Athletic Hall of Fame inductee and longtime student and teacher of the game wouldn't have it any other way. Critchfield, who is in his second season as a volunteer assistant coach on the Chico State men's basketball staff, is looking forward to his return to a familiar place with familiar faces when Cal hosts the Wildcats in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. PT on Wednesday. But the Golden Bear legend intends to leave Berkeley as a winner.
Critchfield, a 1968 Cal graduate, remains one of the top guards in program history, having earned team MVP honors three straight years from 1966-68 while earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. At the completion of his Cal career, Critchfield ranked second on the all-time scoring list with 1,437 points – he ranks 13th today – and was just the second player in school history to score more than 1,000 points in his career. His scoring average of 19.4 points per game was a school record by more than four points at the time he graduated and currently ranks third among all Golden Bears.
He has since been inducted in to the Pac-12 Hall of Honor in 2007 and received Cal's Pete Newell Career Achievement Award in 2014-15.
Rather than the 36-point games against Texas in 1965 and Oregon in 1968, or 41 career 20-point efforts throughout his four years with the Bears, Critchfield chooses to reflect on the people that impacted his Cal career.
"Those are my fondest memories; I don't remember baskets or specific plays. I remember the people I was surrounded by and the great times I had," Critchfield said. "I've always rooted for and followed the Bears, not only in basketball but everything they're doing on and off the court. Cal has been great to me. They've done more than I could ever for them."
Though undrafted by an NBA team, Critchfield played one season with the Oakland Oaks of the American Basketball Association and scored 161 points in 47 regular-season games on the way to winning the 1969 ABA Championship. Since then, Critchfield has devoted his professional career to coaching, with multiple stops at both the collegiate and prep levels. Among those stops, his coaching journey led him back to Berkeley from 1977-85 when he served as an assistant coach under both Dick Edwards and Dick Kuchen, and to Seattle where he was on the same Washington coaching staff as Cal head coach Mark Fox – then an assistant in his first full-time coaching role – from 1991-93.
"Mark was in his early 20s and was very clearly a great student of the game and a hard worker," Critchfield recollected. "You could see that he was going to be successful wherever the game was going to take him; he's a real competitor, an outstanding technician and a great coach. I'm pulling for him at Cal, other than on Wednesday."
"Russ was a legendary player for the Bears," Fox said. "We worked on the same staff together over 30 years ago and I am thankful for all of the things he taught me as a young coach."
Critchfield continues to teach physical education at Butte College – a public community college in Oroville best known to Cal fans as the first college Aaron Rodgers attended before arriving in Berkeley – where he originally arrived at in the fall of 1998. He led the Butte men's basketball team for 23 years before deciding to step down. But Critchfield wasn't finished coaching.
"I had a few breakfasts with (Chico State head coach) Greg Clink during the pandemic and I told him I was thinking about stepping down at Butte," Critchfield said. "I told him, 'I'm still going to teach, but I'd like to continue coaching in a smaller capacity. How would you like to have an old dinosaur help you run practice?'"
Since joining Chico State in his volunteer role ahead of the 2021-22 season – a year that saw the Wildcats go 22-5 overall on the way to their third NCAA Division II Elite Eight appearance in the past seven full seasons – Critchfield heads to practice every day after finishing teaching at Butte.
It's the people that the game of basketball has surrounded him with that drives Critchfield, 76, to chase his passion day after day.
"I've always had a passion for the game. It's given so much to me and my family and it's been a great journey trying to pay it forward," Critchfield said. "I've loved playing it. I've loved teaching and coaching it. It's the kids that you get to work with and mentor, and the life-long relationships you build with them. I enjoy it to this day as much as I did when I was a young coach, and I don't anticipate stopping anytime soon."
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