Mike Montgomery: Golden Age at Cal?
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 08, 2008

WITH THE hiring of Mike Montgomery as basketball coach, along with the continued presence of Jeff Tedford at the football reins, Cal sports may be heading into its best period in at least half a century.

When you look at the school’s record in the two major sports since World War II, it’s pretty dismal.

Pappy Waldorf had a great early run in football, including three straight Rose Bowl teams, but by the time I got to Berkeley in the fall of 1956, Pappy's successful touch had disappeared, and he was hanged in effigy at Sather Gate. There was one more Rose Bowl trip for Cal, a depressingly lopsided loss to Iowa on January 1, 1959, but after that, almost nothing. Mike White had some good years in the ‘70s, Bruce Snyder got the Bears to a New Year’s Day bowl but otherwise, the landscape was bleak until Tedford arrived.

Basketball was better for a brief period, when Pete Newell was the coach. Newell’s teams won the NCAA championship in 1959 and were runnersup in 1960, but when he retired after that season, the program plunged into the abyss. Lou Campanelli had a nice, though not spectacular run, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Todd Bozeman was successful because he violated recruiting rules and got the school on NCAA probation. Not exactly a success story. Ben Braun ran a clean program, but the highpoint was when he got to the Sweet Sixteen his first year with Bozeman’s players.

Montgomery will change that. I was totally shocked by his hiring because I had been telling Cal supporters for two years, in print and through e-mails, that he was too much of a Stanford loyalist to come to Cal. But I’m delighted to have been proved wrong, because he’s a proven commodity.

The other question I had was whether he had the fire to get back into coaching, after his lucrative but frustrating stint with the Warriors. But, as it turned out, he was eager to get back into college coaching. “It’s what I do best,” he said at last Saturday’s hastily called press conference. I had predicted when he took the Warriors job that it wouldn’t work, because the NBA is a players’ league. But the college game is a coach’s game, and Montgomery does it as well as any coach I’ve seen on a regular basis since Newell.

Montgomery had worked on telecasts of Pac-10 games, but that wasn’t enough. “I realized when I was doing the games how much I missed the actual coaching,” he said. When Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour called, he was ready. He had been talking to Loyola Marymount, but he turned that school down before he, and his agent, started negotiating with Cal.

When he sat down with Barbour, he talked of “the elephant in the room,” – how Cal supporters would react to a former Stanford coach coming to Berkeley. I think it would be very difficult for a coach to go from Berkeley to Stanford but going the way Montgomery is going is no problem because of the difference in the fan bases.

Stanford has a small enrollment. Students come from all over the country and world, and those who come from elsewhere usually go back home after graduation. Those who stay in the area around the school are an insular, tightly-connected group which firmly believes that Stanford is the best school in the country and that Cal is evil. Cal’s student body is large and mostly from the state. A very high percentage of graduates stay in the Bay Area, and, though Cal alumni are also very proud of their school, they are a diverse group with a higher tolerance for those who don’t share their beliefs.

And, they’re absolutely starved for success, because of the record I mentioned above. Montgomery mentioned that the players are “hungry,” but nothing like the alums. They don’t care what Montgomery’s background is, just that he’s a winner. When I mentioned to Barbour that my readers had been wholeheartedly in support of the Montgomery hiring, she said, “We’ve gotten between 800 and 900 e-mails, and I think maybe half a dozen said, ‘What are you thinking of with this?’ Everything else has been positive.”

Cal fans will notice some immediate differences in their team under Montgomery because he teaches players to be fundamentally sound, to play good defense and to be prepared. He has a specific design for his offense, which does not mean just throwing the ball around on the perimeter before taking a bad shot. When the players come out of a huddle after a timeout, it will be with a specific play, not a puzzled look on their faces.

He’ll have some good players, too, especially if Ryan Anderson returns. Anderson has declared for the draft but hasn’t signed up with an agent so he could drop out and return to school. He’s testing the waters but I think he’d be better off staying for another year, under a coach who can actually develop his skills. At best, he’s a late first-round pick this year and could very well slide into the second round. He is a good rebounder and good shooter, but he is not a good defensive player and he can be intimidated by stronger players, as he was most obviously by Robin Lopez in the two games against Stanford.

Theo Robertson will return next year, and he could be a great player. Patrick Christopher had a break-through year last season. Jamal Boykin is a skilled player who brings real passion to the court. The player I think will benefit most from Montgomery’s presence is point guard Jerome Randle, who makes some incredibly good plays and at least as many of the “what the hell was he thinking?” type. Under Montgomery, he’ll soon learn that there is zero tolerance for that kind of play. Playing under control, Randle could be very good.

Recruiting is, of course, essential to success in college sports. Montgomery’s approach at Cal will have to be much different than it was at Cal. At Stanford, with its very high admission standards, the pool of available athletes is very small, but Montgomery noted, “When there was a player who met our standards, we usually got him.” Stanford has successfully marketed itself as an Ivy League school with a top level athletic program. Still, when Montgomery was coaching at Stanford, he told me once that it pained him to go to high school all-star games because there were so many players he knew he couldn’t get into school. And in his last two years there, he couldn't fill his scholarship slots, which was a factor in his leaving, though not as big a one as the money the Warriors were offering.

At Cal, the available player pool will be much larger, but there will also be more competition from other schools.

The important thing is, Barbour made a great hire. It’s hard to remember now, but before Tedford was hired, there were many people who thought Cal couldn’t compete at a high level in football. Tedford turned the program around in one year. The change from Braun to Montgomery won’t be quite that dramatic because Braun was not as bad as Tom Holmoe, but I expect Cal to be competing very soon with the best in the Pac-10. For the first time in years, I’ll be looking forward to the start of the basketball season.

MORE MONTGOMERY: One of the wildest rumors was that Montgomery would go to Indiana but, in fact, Montgomery said he had never talked to anybody at the school.

Well, at least I got that one right.

OPENING DAY: One of the most important things a writer can do is keep communication lines open with fans. That’s why I answer e-mail, and that’s why I try to get out among fans at games. When the Giants played at Candlestick, I used to sit in the upper deck during afternoon games and talk to fans – I talked with one fan at the Giants opener who remembered that we had sat together and talked baseball for half an hour at a game 20 years ago – and I did that at the Coliseum, too, when there was an upper deck.

Since the Giants moved into their park at China Basin, I usually make it a point to walk around the park in the middle innings. It’s very pleasant, and fans often recognize me and talk to me about the Giants (or Warriors or 49ers). That was especially true on Monday, when I could hardly walk two feet before somebody wanted to give me his or her opinion of the sad state of the Giants.

And, by being out, I picked up my youngest fan yet. Before the game, I was in an aisle in the stands talking to Jim Dutra, publisher of the weekly Sacramento Union, his sports editor, Patrick Ibarra, and the paper’s Kings’ reporter, Josh Terrell. Among other things, we were discussing the Giants history and my column on that subject in the Examiner that morning.

As I headed up the stairs, a young boy, perhaps 7 or 8, who was sitting in the next row hailed me. “Do you write for the Examiner,” he asked, and when I said, yes, he held out his hand to shake mine. “Pleased to meet you,” he said.

Nice to know I’m still picking up readers!



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