BERKELEY -- Mike Montgomery tried extremely hard to keep up the act. You know, the Mike Montgomery act.
"I guess some people really did want me to retire," he wisecracked at the podium after being introduced to assembled reporters and Cal staff members Monday. "They clapped when I walked into the room."
Montgomery then proceeded to reel off sharp-edged jabs at reporters, certain Cal employees and himself as he explained why he had decided to leave the college basketball coaching racket at age 67, after 31 winning seasons and just one that ended with a losing record. He was rolling along with his patented snark until he looked up and saw his wife, Sarah, in the third row of chairs.
"I will say this," Montgomery said at a podium inside Haas Pavilion. "Don't ever marry a coach ... ''
At that, his voice caught and he paused to collect himself. He blinked a few times, bowed his head and paused before resuming. The same thing happened when he mentioned how much he had appreciated Cal allowing him to coach alongside his son, John, who served as one of his assistants.
The leak of emotion showed how much, beneath his cynical surface, Montgomery really was feeling sentimental about leaving his profession.
"I could do it some more," he said. "I could. But it's time. I feel like we've got the program in a good place. It's time for a younger person to put in all the time and energy it takes to do this job."
If college sports were bigger in the Bay Area, which is chiefly a pro market, perhaps more people would have appreciated the work Montgomery did during all those hours. Not that he was unappreciated. But during each of those winning seasons at Stanford (where he worked from 1986-2004) and at Cal (where he coached from 2008-14), the general viewpoint from the average Northern California sports fan was: Yup, Monty's got another pretty good team. Not a surprise. Now, when's the NFL draft?
The shrugs were partially understandable because Montgomery was so consistent in his success. But it wasn't easy.
There was a lot of heavy lifting involved at Stanford, where Montgomery performed a culture transplant at a place where many were convinced basketball might never succeed in a big way--and coached the school to four conference championships, 12 NCAA tournament trips and one Final Four.
There was similar heavy lifting at Cal, where Montgomery coached the Bears to their first conference title since 1960. He is unquestionably the most successful Bay Area men's college coach of the past 50 years.
His last game was a loss in the National Invitation Tournament at SMU last week. Montgomery still wasn't 100 percent certain he'd retire as he walked off the floor. He'd thought about it the past few years, after feeling so drained following each season. But after a few days of reflection, he always decided to re-enlist.
Last weekend, the reflection yielded a different decision. Montgomery said his health is fine. He underwent surgery for bladder cancer in 2011 with a successful outcome. And there was certainly no pressure to resign from Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour, who had hoped Montgomery would stay.
In fact, those circumstances may instead explain Montgomery's choice. Chief among his goals was to retire on his own terms. He didn't want to be pushed out by angry alums, or scandal, or a string of lousy seasons or health issues.
Something else: Montgomery very much did not want his final seasons as a head coach to be the ones he spent with the Golden State Warriors, which were an undeniable flop. He took that job in 2004 to scratch his NBA itch but was fired after two years. After doing some television commentary for awhile, he showed interest in the Cal job when it opened up and Barbour quickly made the hire. Montgomery can now admit he needed the gig.
"It was my wife who told me she'd thought I had lost a lot of my confidence," Montgomery confessed about those post-Warriors years. "You know, confidence is a big thing, for everyone, coaches included. I guess I would have felt bad if the last thing I did was that, the Warriors. I probably think I was a little ill-suited for that ... It was pretty important to get back and feel good about something. And I appreciate the University of California for allowing me to do that."
There was a time, Montgomery said, when he was driven to prove he could be the best coach ever. But growing older, he downgraded that obsession to merely become one of the better coaches in his era. Ultimately, last week, he decided it would be just fine to be remembered as the Pac-12's third most winning coach of all time, behind John Wooden and Lute Olson. And that's exactly what the numbers show Montgomery to be.
He doesn't know what will be next for him ("I don't know what I'm going to do at 4 o'clock every day because that's when I've been walking into the gym every day for all these years"), but he might pursue more television work. He'll definitely be available for hoops consultation by his son and Cal and anyone else who asks.
"It's all good," Montgomery said. "There's nothing to be unhappy about."
No snark, just sincerity. He put on a good sarcastic front for more than 30 seasons. But some of us knew that Montgomery was that way all along.