The Long and Winding Road

In a World Full of Short Term Success, Cal Coach Mike Montgomery Still Looks to the Future.

Christopher McDermut/Staff

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While most coaches are trying to win a national championship, Mike Montgomery is building a program.

With former coach Ben Braun's players, Montgomery already brought Cal its first conference championship in 50 years. Now, after a nine-player exodus that left fans and pundits skeptical about this year, Montgomery is establishing his version of Cal basketball.

Because regardless of his school's talent level, location or academic standards, Mike Montgomery coaches his teams to long-term success.

Montgomery's reputation precedes him. A recipient of the John R. Wooden "Legends of Coaching" Award, Montgomery reached his 600th win earlier this season. Twenty-seven of Montgomery's 28 teams finished their seasons with winning records.

"There is no question that Mike Montgomery is one of the coaching giants," says assistant coach Jay John. "His personality is such where he is not in front of cameras and beating the drum, but the people in the industry respect and understand the practical coaching that takes place in his program."

Montgomery doesn't merely win. He establishes cultures of success within his programs. First, he compiled eight winning seasons at Montana. Then, in his second season at Stanford, Montgomery led the former basketball laughingstock to its first postseason berth in 42 years. When he left the program 16 years later, he had led the Cardinal to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances and one Final Four.

In his first season in Berkeley, Montgomery inherited a team picked to finish eighth in the Pac-10 and earned a third-place finish as well as an NCAA Tournament berth. One year later, he won the conference championship. The success was great, but the staff before him had not properly prepared Cal basketball for prolonged achievement. Because of his predecessor's haphazard future planning, Montgomery needed to build a new team.

"Generally you have some older players that know what you want and can set the tone," says Montgomery. "Our class separation isn't very good because when we got here there was a whole lot of one class. We've been trying to get this thing stabilized."

The problem is that Montgomery is trying to construct a perennial winner in an era dominated by hoop dreams.

Already an inexperienced team with limited depth, the Bears endured Gary Franklin's abrupt midseason transfer even after the freshman guard started 11 of 13 games and had taken the most shots on the team.

Referred to as "ancient history" now by Montgomery, Franklin's decision was a greater sign of the industry that Montgomery is both participating in yet battling against. Franklin wanted to play in the NBA and he didn't think that Montgomery would prepare him for that goal.

Franklin's transfer embodies the evolution of the Division I recruiting world. It went from team building to "one-and-dones" and "package deals."

Basketball recruiting has become commoditized with the allure of instant success. Coaches willingly sign players that they know will not be there for more than one season, hoping the individual can will his team to a national championship. Last season, Kentucky signed four heralded freshmen expecting a championship. The Wildcats were eliminated in the Elite Eight, and all four later declared for the NBA Draft.

The attitude is not about developing a team to win, but acquiring too much talent to lose.

"It's the evolution of sport," says Montgomery. "When you start in something, you have one notion of how it is and how it fits into an educational situation. As time goes on, it changes. There is so much more money involved now. It's a big, big-time deal and that changes things."

What Montgomery seeks is success through stability. To the coach who jokingly called himself a "dinosaur" earlier in the season, the cultivation of long-term success means far more than taking one concentrated shot at a national championship. For 28 seasons, Montgomery has consistently improved players and created winners. Students don't merely improve their basketball skills and dedication under Montgomery - they usually develop as individuals as well.

"The difference is Mike's personality," says John. "If a kid didn't do something right on the basketball court, there is no pent-up emotion about him off the court. The guys recognize that. These kids then understand that they have value within the program."

Even as the oldest coach in the conference by 10 years, Montgomery is building his team and his program his way - all with youthful exuberance. The 63-year-old still shouts across the court at referees, stamps his feet when his team botches a defensive switch and vigorously claps his hands when he feels the momentum building.

Even though it is his third year on the job, this is Montgomery's team now. His recruits, his gameplan, his project. Every game is a testament that this is a team that has assumed the coach's personality.

"This group works really hard and they are a fun group to coach because they are competitive," says Montgomery "We really haven't given into anybody. We've just got to keep learning what Cal is and what it appeals to, who it appeals to and how to take advantage of it. That's a little bit of a process."

And now the process is in motion. How is it that the Bears were seconds away from being within one game of first place on Saturday night? How did this youthful, inexperienced squad just barely falter against a stronger, deeper, more tested Arizona team?

"I cannot find enough good things to say about Cal," said Arizona coach Sean Miller after his 107-105 triple-overtime victory. "Their offensive execution is second to none and they have such tremendous balance.

Saturday's heartbreaking loss was another step in improving and in learning how to win. One more step in establishing respect among peers. One more step in this team's long-term plan.

"What you want to have is a program, what you want to have is sustainability," says Montgomery. "You want to have a good team year after year. You don't want to have ups and downs. If you win a championship then you want to feel like you drop off but not that far. We're a ways away from that, but we knew that this was coming."

With such a gap in the roster, countless coaches would have chased after superstars with NBA visions and plied them to come play at their school. Montgomery used this opportunity to recruit his type of players. So even in the new world of immediate payoff, is the job still fun?

"Yeah," he chuckles. "I'd say so."

He's having fun not because he's trying to win a national championship this year. Mike Montgomery is having fun because he is building a program.


Gabriel Baumgaertner covers men's hoops. Contact him at [email protected]

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