Retiring now would be fitting exit for Montgomery

Retiring now would be fitting exit for Montgomery
March 30, 2014, 5:00 pm
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It’s hard to imagine him living a gym-free life, but knowing when to leave is part of the job. For Mike Montgomery, he won enough games for enough years to be able to pick his own time to go.
Ray Ratto

Mike Montgomery may well retire Monday after what seems like 220 years of college coaching, and if that is so, it is so perfectly Montgomery to do so while the rest of the business is talking about the four regional finals and the advent of this year’s Final Four.

In other words, radar, look down.

Montgomery, who just finished taking his 35th team, the 2014 California Golden Bears, to the third round of the NIT, has never been all that adept at the look-at-me-coaching part of coaching, so going out while everyone else in the business is looking in another direction would be the perfect way for him to leave.

To recount his career is an exercise in history-wading. He’ll end up one good season short of 700 wins (at 676, he ranks 189th all time), he’ll have one losing season in 35 years on the job, he’ll have a Final Four appearance and an NIT championship, and no scandals. He’ll have a failed but educational experience in the NBA, and even a few years of television so that he can check off the “easy money” box on his bucket list.

He’ll also have a closet full of earth tone suits, all the better not to look like a fashion plate, a dandy or an attention-seeker. He liked the simplicity of coaching, has worked at three schools where the media crush was barely a whisper (Montana, Stanford and California), and his occasionally flinty personality with the prying eyes of the outside world was largely a ruse. 

He is, by own his description, “a gym rat,” someone born to the job rather than the perks. Oh, he got paid a series of fairly princely sums once he left his first post at Montana, topping out at $1.75 million, but he would retire with two more years left on his current deal, so he reached the point where the money no longer prodded him out of bed each day, if ever it did.

And he finishes, if this is in fact the end, as an “old-school” coach while never really becoming too old for the changing natures of the game and its business practices. You don’t do 35 years without being adaptable, and you don’t do those 35 at three different places without being able to adapt to changing conditions.

Oh, he made his set of mistakes, to be sure, as anyone who's done the same thing for 35 years would. The most noteworthy would probably be his shove of Cal’s Allen Crabbe a year ago, but as troubles go, this is fairly minor stuff. Mostly he operated on a fairly stable set of principles that served him and those to whom he imparted them well.

And if you need to ask what his reputation is . . . well, when he took the Cal job, Cal fans who remembered him mostly from his years schooling the Bears from Stanford found the hire to be the zenith of Sandy Barbour’s work as athletic director.

It’s not exactly Nick Saban going to Auburn, or Ulysses S. Grant deciding to finish up with the Confederacy, but the fact that Montgomery could trump local culture shock says something about his rep even among his enemies.

He will probably dispute this notion given his joy in arguing with those who fancy themselves experts in his world, but his career zenith was the 1998 Stanford team with Arthur Lee, Tim Young, Mark Madsen, Kris Weems and the now-famed Collins twins. That group won 30 games, and came within an overtime loss of Kentucky in the national semifinals of a possible national championship.

That would have been one of those gratifying/uncomfortable moments he sought out and dreaded at the same time. The achievement would have delighted him, and having to explain it again and again would have annoyed him. But even the annoyed Montgomery was an entertaining Montgomery, and Montgomery would be annoyed to know how his annoyance could entertain.

And secretly, he would have enjoyed it anyway, because he wasn’t entirely opposed to being annoyed from time to time even for his own entertainment.

Now he is on the verge of kicking it all in for a well-earned life of not recruiting. It’s hard to imagine him living a gym-free life, but knowing when to leave is part of the job. For Mike Montgomery, he won enough games for enough years to be able to pick his own time to go.

And you can’t beat that with a stick.

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