Mike Montgomery has become such a familiar part of the Bay Area sports wallpaper, we take him for granted. That's a shame. Montgomery is reaching several coaching milestones this season, and hardly anyone has taken notice.
So let's do that. Montgomery was hired at Stanford in 1986. That means he is celebrating his 25th anniversary of his first season as a Bay Area basketball coach -- first with the Cardinal, followed by the unfortunate interlude with the Warriors, and now his four successful seasons Cal.
More significantly: When the Golden Bears are invited to the NCAA tournament next month, it will be Montgomery's 15th trip to the Big Dance.
"It would be if we make it," Montgomery corrected.
Yup, same old Monty. Never take anything for granted. Even a presumptive compliment.
Montgomery was speaking at his office desk Saturday afternoon, several hours before his Cal team would defeat Oregon State 77-63. He pointed out that the Bears need an impressive finish to reach the only postseason tournament that really matters. There is talk that the Pac-12, having a substandard 2011-12, might receive only two or three berths on Selection Sunday.
Still, if form follows and the Bears keep hovering around first place, Montgomery's team is in good position to have its name called. And that 15th NCAA invitation would give Montgomery the same number as Tom Izzo of Michigan State -- and more than John Calipari of Kentucky or Bill Self of Kansas, just to name two.
Montgomery's quarter-century of Bay Area hoopage is quite an achievement. Even in a part of the country where college basketball receives relatively modest attention, the game has overwhelmed strong men. Pete Newell won the 1959 national title at Cal but gave up coaching after the following season when doctors said his difficulty handling the stress might kill him. Phil Woolpert guided USF to two NCAA championships but retired at 53 to drive a school bus in Washington.
At 64, Montgomery has no plans to earn a chauffeur's license and drop off Tommy and Susie at the science wing. He is still into the job, still studying the video and losing sleep over losses. But, yes, there are moments when he pauses to think about all of his assistants and players over the past 25 years and says to himself, "Yeah, it's been a pretty good run."
Especially this season. Last autumn for two or three weeks, Montgomery did not know whether he would be coaching at all this season. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer, underwent surgery and put his professional future on hold. He hasn't talked much about the experience, but he opened up some Saturday and conceded there were moments when he wondered if he would ever be back.
"I didn't know what to expect, to be honest with you," Montgomery said. "Obviously, had the outcome of the prognosis been different, the decision would have been different. But once the results were in and they were positive, you felt like you could go ahead and get back into it."
That doesn't mean his return was a piece of clipboard-and-whistle cake. Montgomery appeared washed out at the Pac-12 media day in October, less than two weeks after his surgery. He returned to practice soon after and conceded those first few days were a challenge.
"I came back sooner probably than most people would have or I should have," Montgomery said. "At the end of the day, it was tough. I was really beat. I would have to take a nap in the middle of the day, get my energy and get back. It took a while."
He seems to be in the groove again now, shaping a Cal team without spectacular talent into a conference title contender that rebounds hard and goes to the basket without fear. And he has not dialed down the intensity. He even earned his first technical foul of the season Thursday against Oregon when he became irked that his "timeout" sign was not seen by a referee.
"I put a lot into it," Montgomery said. "I agonize over everything. It'd be good to be able to say, 'Let's just go out there and do our best and have fun.' But I'm not built that way."
The Bears are not going to win the national championship this spring. They might not win the Pac-12 championship. But they are going to cause trouble the next few weeks. You would be a fool to say that they won't take Montgomery to the NCAA tournament for his 15th time. He might indeed be part of our sports wallpaper. But it's pretty damn impressive wallpaper. Just thought someone should say that.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.