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Steady He Goes

Low-key Montgomery gives Stanford program high profile

March 10, 2004|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

The man who hired Mike Montgomery at Stanford 18 years ago turned on his television the other day and had to laugh.

There was Montgomery, doing one of those live-remote interviews, talking to a couple of guys in a studio as he sat in a chair on the Stanford campus.

"They tried to get him all excited about being undefeated and the magnitude of it," said Andy Geiger, the former Stanford athletic director now at Ohio State.

"And Mike was arguing with them, in his way. Not that he wasn't being nice, but there's a bit of a curmudgeon in Mike. He's a grumpy old man sometimes.

"He's not in the game for sound bites, I'll tell you that. He doesn't think that way."

Montgomery's penchant for logic that goes against convention has led him to be called a "contrarian" and a "glass-half-empty guy."

But after following a trip to the 1998 Final Four with a run at a perfect regular season this year that ended one game shy with a loss to Washington, he also is routinely called the best coach on the West Coast.

(And yes, that purposely excludes Tucson and Arizona's Hall of Fame coach, Lute Olson.)

After nearly two decades in Palo Alto, Montgomery is as much a fixture at Stanford as the Tree mascot, though he is considerably more reserved.

He is a Southern California guy who has gone Northern California. But he got his start here, growing up in Long Beach, and next month after the NCAA tournament he will receive one of the biggest honors of his career at the Los Angeles Athletic Club when he is presented the John R. Wooden "Legends of Coaching" award.

He'll be in good company: The only previous recipients are Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Olson, Denny Crum and Roy Williams.

Wooden doesn't choose the recipient, but he couldn't be more pleased.

"I'm partial to Mike. I held Mike in my arms when he was a baby," Wooden said. "When I came to UCLA in 1948, his father was on the faculty in the physical education department. I've known him since that time. He's kind of special to me.

"I've been impressed with the program he runs and the team play of his teams. That's the most important thing, and not just this year when they came close to going undefeated."

Fast-forward more than 50 years from Wooden's embrace, and there could have been nothing more poetic than for Montgomery to become UCLA's coach.

Before hiring Ben Howland last spring, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and Associate Athletic Director Betsy Stephenson met quietly with Montgomery, now 57.

"I was happy to talk with them, although I had kind of said, 'I don't really want to be a candidate, but I think we should talk,' " Montgomery said.

"I thought out of respect for the number of years I'd been in the league and my background, that they were nice enough to call.

"I probably would have regretted it if we hadn't [discussed the job], just because my parents both went to school there. I was raised with UCLA, so it's always been there. We had a nice conversation, and I think that the right thing happened for everybody."

That being coach at Stanford could ever be considered a better situation than being at UCLA is incomprehensible to many. But Montgomery's career has led him to a place that suits him.

He has built a program that has reached the Final Four and been ranked No. 1 during three seasons, including this one.

Yet it is a job that comes without the pressures and occasional player scandals of a UCLA -- but offers a commute from heaven. Montgomery and his wife, Sarah, live about a mile and a half from campus in Menlo Park. (Their son, John, plays basketball at Loyola Marymount, and their daughter, Anne, plays volleyball at USC.)

Montgomery had a modest basketball career in the late 1960s at Long Beach State -- where his father, Jack, previously had served as athletic director.

After graduating in 1968, Montgomery signed up for the Coast Guard Reserve.

"Vietnam was not a great option at the time," he said. "All the politicians are getting criticized now, but it wasn't a very popular thing to do."

His opposition to the war wasn't philosophical, but personal.

"I wasn't politically tuned in to anything," he said. "I used to go by the demonstrations at Long Beach State almost every day.

"But my thing was, I would just go to the gym, play some hoops, play some volleyball. I wasn't really politically one way or the other, but it wasn't getting a lot of positive vibes.

"I had friends that I knew, good friends, that were killed. That shakes you up a little bit. It's not like you're going to go over there and it's going to be a picnic. You had firsthand knowledge of people that didn't come back."

At the Coast Guard Academy, Montgomery found his way into coaching.

"I met a guy there and went up and told him I wanted to coach," he said. "Through some connections and pulling some strings, they took me out of my duty and moved me into the athletic department, where I taught and coached the freshman basketball team and helped with the varsity."

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