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June 16, 2010

Catching Up With Coach, Part 1

Publisher's Note: This is Part 1 of a three-part series.

Interviewing Mike Montgomery is like sneaking around Carrot Top's house. You never know when you're going to step on a Whoopee cushion.

Sometimes even the most serious of questions can elicit a gag, delivered with such deadpan that the uninitiated may think twice before laughing. It takes a while to get used to, but even once you do, there's no telling where the next wet-sloppy-noise landmine may lay.

BT:Coach Montgomery, how much longer do you plan on coaching?

"Oh, 30 years," says the 62-year-old head basketball coach, with nary a tittle, no trace of a chuckle nor hint of a chortle. Touché, Coach. Touché.

But that's just Montgomery's style. At last week's Coaches Tour event at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Montgomery led off his remarks with the same punch.

"The problem with getting old is that you can't see the notes that you wrote," Montgomery said, before turning his wit on head football coach Jeff Tedford. "So, once again, we saw that Coach Tedford managed not to talk about the quarterbacks, so now I have to talk about them for a little bit."

No one is safe. Not even fellow coaches.

"It is great to hire us old coaches who have been around a while. A couple more years and Kirk and Peter may earn their degrees," Montgomery said at AT&T, gesturing to several Cal head coaches who are also Berkeley alums-Peter Wright (class of 1991, in his 17th year coaching men's tennis) and Kirk Everist (class of 1990, in his eighth year coaching men's water polo). "For some, it takes sometimes a little longer. I have all these notes here and I've kind of skipped around. I want you to know, Jeff, that when you were down 14 points to Stanford, I knew you had 'em right where you wanted them. If you'll recall, my first year, we were down 22 at our place and we had them right where we wanted them."

The Bears defeated Stanford that day, Feb. 14, 2009, to the tune of 82-75, after falling behind by as many as 22 points before closing the deficit to 14 by the half.

Montgomery never misses a beat. Always quick with a joke, his press conferences during the season are not so much informational gatherings as they are a chance for the veteran coach to hold court. If your question isn't a good one, he'll let you know, embarrass you a little, but then try and answer the best he can.

With all that in mind, I picked up the phone on Wednesday for a chat with the coach of the reigning Pac-10 champions, with a full list of questions carefully crafted over the past several weeks. Even that couldn't save me. But then again, it just wouldn't be an interview with Monty if it did.

BT: With your reputation as a big man's coach, with the full acknowledgement, of course, that it's a media-generated label, why go with such a guard-heavy class this year?

"Do you have somebody in mind that we should have recruited?" Montgomery chips back. Score one for the coach. But then, he gets right back to business. "We lost five guys, actually six guys. (We lost) Jerome (Randle), Patrick (Christopher), Theo (Robertson), D.J. (Seeley) and Nikola (Knezevic)-all perimeter guys, so we obviously had to replace the numbers in that regard, so that was first-and-foremost. We looked at the roster, and sure, we would have looked at bigs, but we do have Max (Zhang) and Markhuri (Sanders-Frison), we have Harper (Kamp), we've got Bak (Bak) and we've got (Richard) Solomon. So, strictly from a numbers perspective, to balance our roster, that was the best way for us to go."

And with that, Montgomery opened up on a variety of topics surrounding the basketball program, from facilities to recruiting to conference expansion, all of which will be detailed in the second and third installments of the series.

Montgomery also spoke on next year's ambitious schedule, which includes New Mexico at home, attending the Old Spice Tournament in Orlando (with Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgia and Temple), a visit to Iowa State, San Diego State at home and, the showstopper: a tilt against Kansas at Haas Pavilion.

"It's a little harder than maybe we would have liked for this year, just because of how young we're going to be," says Montgomery. "We don't want to be afraid of having a tough schedule. We want to compete against the best and I think people want to see that. I think it's a great challenge for the kids and it helps the recruiting. Now, I might have tried to soften it a bit this year just to give the kids a smoother entry into this thing, but this is what we have, and it turns out to be a very ambitious schedule, so the kids are going to have to come along."

The schedule is just a part of what Montgomery is in the process of doing with the Cal basketball program, long held as the second-banana among campus sports teams. Within the next several years, Montgomery wants to be able to fill Haas to the rafters every night, not just for the marquee match-ups with the likes of the Jayhawks.

"I don't need people just to come to one game. I need people to come to 19 games at home," Montgomery says. "One of the problems that we have in the west seems to be that people pick and choose who they seem to think is worthy to come watch. I want people to enjoy watching our team and the way we play and the growth of these young people. Sure, Kansas is a bonus and a good game for our fans, but it's just that: it's one game. We want them to be able to feel like they want to watch us every night out, to come and watch this team perform."

The team that fans see take the floor next season will little resemble the one that claimed the program's first conference title in half a century, with the departure of a class of seniors-Jerome Randle, Jamal Boykin, Theo Robertson, Patrick Christopher and Nikola Knezevic-that were possessed of a particular shooting talent.

"Well, there's nothing wrong with shooting. The game is still a skill game and it still involves scoring points, so that hopefully will always be a part of what we're doing," says Montgomery. "It's very difficult when you don't have guys that can shoot the ball, or guys that can score. Then, it puts such a premium on other parts of the game. What you'd like, in a perfect world, is to have five guys on the floor, all of whom can shoot the ball very well and are all great defenders. So, that's the direction we will head. We weren't able to be very intricate, nor did we try to be really intricate, as far as running a lot of different sets with this group. We gave them some freedom, and it paid off. So now, we'll try to find out what the strengths of this group might be, and then we'll try to play to those strengths."

Apart from the seniors leaving, the team has also lost D.J. Seeley and Omondi Amoke. With so many of last season's big-minute players gone, some members of the Bears' No. 21-ranked recruiting class are going to have to step up.

"Somebody's going to have to," says Montgomery. "We're encouraged. Gary Franklin was a very highly-rated player, Allen Crabbe was the state player of the year in the state of California, Alex Rossi can really shoot it, so we like the group of kids that we have coming in. We feel real good, it's just a matter of how ready they are to play, and how they make the adjustment to college basketball, but at the end of the day, there are going to be two or three of them that are just going to have to be able to play right away."

Others already on the team may see their roles change a bit, as well, especially the tenacious and hard-nosed Jorge Gutierrez. At the Coaches Tour event, Montgomery wryly said that Gutierrez had made it known that he wants a shot at the point guard spot.

"Jorge is just going to get better," Montgomery said at AT&T. "He wants to try and play point next year. Yeah, huh, (shudders) yeah. You come coach Jorge at the point. Jeff'll be talking about my controversy next year."

While Gutierrez may give Montgomery a few more gray hairs, the guard out of Chiuahua, Mex., has a fire and intensity that will be welcomed given the leadership vacuum left by the departure of last year's seniors.

"He's always led by example, because he's a tough kid," says Montgomery. "He does not particularly like guys that won't compete, and he doesn't say much to them, but it's almost the absence, the not saying anything, that speaks volumes. He likes guys who compete. He likes guys that are willing to stick their nose in it. If there's going to be a problem, he's going to be the first guys standing there right next to you, and he would like guys to do the same thing for him."

With the seniors gone, it will be up to Gutierrez and others to take the reins of a very young team which will include four sophomores and six freshmen.

"Well, we're going to have to develop our character, and that's the challenge with a whole bunch of young players," says Montgomery. "The emphases will change, what they're capable of doing will change and we're going to give them the opportunity to develop their own skill sets and their own identities, so that's part of the fun of the whole thing."

Check back later for Part 2 of BearTerritory's conversation with Coach Montgomery, when we'll talk big men and the 2010-2011 season.


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