Lindsay Gottlieb, conductor of Cal's historic run to the Women's Final Four, had planned to make music on the basketball court a long time ago. Just ask her clarinet teacher from Scarsdale, N.Y., who spent much of their hourlong lessons listening to the girl talk about the New York Knicks.
It turns out Gottlieb already knew where she was headed.
The second-year Cal coach is one of the rising stars of college coaching, having brought the Golden Bears (32-3) to the verge of an NCAA championship. Second-seeded Cal plays fifth-seeded Louisville on Sunday in a national semifinal game starting at 3:30 p.m.
Gottlieb, 35, has found her calling among the hoopla of March Madness with a talented, personable group of players who just needed someone to show they cared.
The Mama Bear has used a gentle touch to get her players to believe in each other like a family. It has helped the Cal women survive two overtime games to reach their first Final Four in history -- and 53 years after the last appearance by the men's team.
"She's always been a people person," older sister Chris Gottlieb said. "Since she was a kid bouncing around with a ponytail, it was 'everybody loves Lindsay.' "
Gottlieb has been preparing for this moment much of her life.
Hilary Heieck, now senior marketing manager at the Pac-12 network, remembers spending hours pretending she and Gottlieb were playing in the Final Four while shooting hoops in her driveway as teens. The best friends would design last-second plays to win the championship. If they missed?
"We would call a foul," said Heieck, who as Hilary Howard led Duke to the 1999 national championship game in San Jose. "So it always ended up working out."
Gottlieb and Heieck even prepared for the media blitz by conducting fake news conferences with each other. At the time, Gottlieb wanted to be a lawyer or write for Sports Illustrated.
Her genes, apparently, were inclined toward the law. Her father, Stephen Gottlieb, served almost two decades as a civil court judge in Queens County. He also was a New York assemblyman. Her sister, Chris, is a law professor at New York University while her brother, Peter, is a lawyer in New York. Another sister, Suzy, is a veterinarian.
As a child, Gottlieb often tagged along with her father to hear political speeches. At age 12, she was on the floor of the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden.
But the pull of sports proved too strong. Gottlieb got her first taste of coaching during her senior year at Scarsdale High after suffering a season-ending knee injury. Her coach, Paul Celentano, gave her a whistle and a shirt that said, "Coach."
"She went with it," Celentano said. "In her mind, she was a co-coach. She never missed practice. She sat next me to me on the bench."
Gottlieb played her freshman year at Brown while studying political science. The idea of coaching crystallized after her mother, Carol, died during Lindsay's sophomore year. Gottlieb took a year to study in Australia and then returned to Brown determined to become a coach.
Her mom, a stockbroker, had instilled a sense of doing something that mattered in all her children.
"This idea that I could affect women 18 to 22 years old in a significant way and get paid to do Xs and Os and talk about basketball? This is the perfect field for me," Gottlieb said.
First-year Cal assistant Katy Steding could not agree more.
"I've never met a better tactician," said Steding, an Olympic gold medalist who helped Stanford win the 1990 championship. "She's really good at analysis, she's really good at honing messages, she's really good at deciphering what the other team might be doing.
"I heard so many good things about Lindsay, but it was better than advertised."
Gottlieb worked as a student assistant coach in her final year at Brown in 1999. The same year Heieck introduced her friend to Joanne Boyle, then a promising Duke assistant.
Three years later, Boyle hired Gottlieb after being named coach at the University of Richmond. Boyle brought Gottlieb to Berkeley in 2005 when she got hired at Cal.
In the transitory world of coaching, Gottlieb left three years later for UC Santa Barbara, where she quickly showed what she could do running her own program. Gottlieb led the Gauchos to two Big West Conference titles and one NCAA tournament appearance. When Virginia hired Boyle in 2011, Gottlieb returned to Cal.
The Bears went 25-10 in Gottlieb's debut season and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, losing to Notre Dame. This season, Cal shared the Pac-12 title with Stanford -- another program first.
The Bears also are the first West Coast school other than Stanford to reach the Women's Final Four in 25 years and only the fourth program from the West to advance this far.
Gottlieb views winning as just part of her job. She planned to take her players to the famous Café du Monde in the French Quarter as well as other Crescent City sights to expand their horizons.
"That's right up there with practice," Gottlieb said. "It's not only a good experience for them, but that also helps us to play well."
The Bears have found balance under Gottlieb. That's why she smiled as her players recounted a prank they pulled last year on the woman known as "Coach G."
Guards Layshia Clarendon and Brittany Boyd plastered the coach's office with Post-it notes one day while Gottlieb was gone. They used sticky notes because Gottlieb likes to write inspirational sayings on them before practices.
Clarendon wrote teasingly: "Never lose your sense of humor."
Gottlieb's not about to in the Big Easy.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.