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Mike Montgomery

January 12, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Where’s the Love for Mike Montgomery?

by Matt Jones

Okay, quick, name the five best college basketball head coaches in America.

Now if you are a fan who watches the sport fairly consistently you probably came up with the list: Coach K, Roy Williams, Lute Olson, Tubby Smith and Rick Pitino. Depending on your point of view, you might have thrown in the names Bob Knight, Tom Izzo, Jim Calhoun or Gary Williams. Chances are however that you did not include a name that should be in the middle of everyone’s list: Mike Montgomery of Stanford. Montgomery has his #4 Stanford Cardinals undefeated and just this past Saturday, produced an absolute clinic in how to dismantle a top college basketball team by destroying #6 Arizona, 82-72 (the game actually was not that close). Stanford has certainly cemented their status as one of the nation’s top teams, and along with Georgia Tech, constitutes the major surprise story of this young season. But the question really is, why?

It was not so long ago that when you spoke of Pac 10 basketball, the conversation could begin and end with a couple of teams. UCLA and Arizona were the elite power brokers of the league, determining the course of a season by deciding whether their usual immense group of talented players wanted to dominate or underachieve in any particular season. The other schools existed and would have a good year now and then, but it was always clear that when ranking the programs in the conference, first and second place was locked up. As a matter of fact, if you took the time to poll the average college basketball fan (and why would you, since most of you have jobs and can rely on sites such as Hoopville to ask the tough, probing questions to our nation’s populace), you would likely find that most people would still today consider these two teams above any other. However it is time to change that calculus.

Stanford’s defeat over Arizona Saturday was their fourth consecutive win on the Wildcats’ home court. Read that last line again. Yes Stanford has gone into Arizona for the past four years, seasons where Arizona has had as much talent as any team in the country and has twice been considered possibly the best team in the nation (2001, 2003) and stolen a road victory. This year they are one of only a handful of undefeated teams left in the country and have garnered impressive wins over Kansas and Gonzaga. Even that “nattering nabob of negativism” Billy Packer has proclaimed them the most impressive team in the country. Yet, can you even name one player on their roster? Well some of you, especially if you follow recruiting (God save your soul), may have come up with Josh Childress, but he has been injured most of the season and has just recently produced any kind of impact. So what explains the success? Mike Montgomery.

In an era where a great deal of what it takes to be considered a national coaching success depends on whether you captain a traditional power or are a shameless self promoter, Mike Montgomery is neither. He burst upon the national scene in 1998 when he took a young, overlooked group of players to the final 4, giving eventual national champion Kentucky all they could handle, before ultimately being defeated in overtime. People often forget that this was the team that introduced the world to Mark “Mad Dog” Madsen and his crazy dancing skills that are now all the rage in the clubs across the land, the Collins twins who had the best combination of talent, hair and intellect since Einstein and Arthur Lee who is the best college point guard that no one ever speaks of. In a Final 4 that included Tubby Smith, Bill Guthridge and Rick Majerus, it was easy to overlook this John Denver-look alike coach leading this band of odd talents from the land of intellectual elites into the college basketball spotlight. A big reason for this was the personality of Montgomery himself. When watching him on television, his dry wit barely shines through the exterior, which reaks high school math teacher more than big-time college coach. In that respect he a little like Steve Martin who plays a Division I college football coach in “Cheaper by the Dozen” but looks significantly more like a Vegas lounge singer that Bobby Bowden (yes I saw that movie and I know it is lame, but lets move forward). Yet Montgomery defies the stereotype and continues to produce a great product on the court,.

In an era where graduation rates at some major programs (this means you Cincinnati!) are lower than the IQ of Britney Spears’ new husband, Montgomery continues to win at a place where academic standards still matter. It has become almost cliche to watch a Duke game and hear the announcers shout “whoa baby, these kids can play and they are great students….its awesome with a capital A-!”. Yet long ago (about the time of the back injury) Coach K realized that to compete in the new college game, the heightened academic standards which had been a part of the Duke basketball program in the 1980s would have to be loosened. Thus while the accolades granted to the Blue Devils in this respect may be unwarranted, Stanford does still live up to this mission. Montgomery continually recruits a top 25 team while dealing with admission standards that none of the other top programs face. To be able to do this at a time when the term “student-athlete” almost inevitably leads to a horse laugh from anyone that hears it, is a testament to Montgomery’s ability and integrity.

It may very well be the case that Stanford will never win a national championship or even be considered one of the nation’s elite programs. However it would be a shame if because of that Mike Montgomery is not given his proper due as one of the true elite coaches in the business. There is no doubt that he has made mistakes, such as his thinly veiled accusation this summer that Billy Donovan’s recruiting tactics may be against NCAA regulations, but he still performs at a high level at a school where he faces obstacles not present in many other top institutions. Montgomery has produced a top 5 team this season that anyone watching the game on Saturday knows has as good a chance as any to cut the nets down in March and thus give the program its proper due. In the mean time however, we should give the coach his due and recognize that the supposed top tier of coaching legends in the country need to scoot over and make room for another giant.


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