Montgomery lifted the Cardinal out of mediocrity, made it a symbol of quality and pushed it into the national championship discussion. He set a standard, became an institution.
He also revealed the possibilities for a Pac-10 basketball program in the Bay Area.
When Ben Braun concludes his 12th year at Cal, perhaps as soon as tonight's Pac-10 tournament game against Washington, he does so with an uncertain future. Indeed, he has spent the past several seasons as a frequent subject of debate about the pros and cons of his work.
Unrest exists because Braun has had a dozen years to build a record worthy of an institution, and his 110-106 record in the Pac-10 indicates there is much to be built.
Which makes Ben, in these restless times, a rare animal a coach who endures without the record that accounts for his endurance. What Cal has to decide is whether it will accept that. Whether it is comfortable maintaining the status quo: good man, decent coach, clean program, has not embarrassed the university.
See, this is not a call to fire Braun.
Unless, that is, Cal aspires to become a part of the national discussion.
For Braun's job security rests with the ambition of athletic director Sandy Barbour and the school's most influential alumni. If they believe Cal should rival Stanford as a symbol of quality, if not dominance, they have no choice. If they believe their program can be of such magnitude the coach becomes an institution, they have no choice.
They'll have to decide whether they want to hand over almost $1 million, the amount it will take to buy out Braun after this season. Or whether they're willing to bring him back for another year, knowing the buyout drops to $400,000.
Understand, Cal is not a once-proud program fallen on hard times and in need of a dramatic turnaround. Of the 10 schools in the Pac-10, only Oregon State is in that condition.
Nor is Cal in need of a major cleanup. It did when Braun arrived in 1996, after Todd Bozeman assembled an impressive monument by taking dangerous shortcuts.
Cal is, however, capable of improvement.
There is room for the kind of progression UCLA sought when it hired Ben Howland to replace Steve Lavin, whose results 145-78 record, five Sweet 16s in seven seasons were better than the general perception. The sort of promotion North Carolina pursued when it fired Matt Doherty and brought in Roy Williams.
Or, to be realistic, the kind of upgrade Stanford backed into in 1986 when it hired Montgomery to replace Tom Davis.
While Davis moved the program from dreadful to mediocre, Montgomery took it to such a level that there was practically no room for improvement when he resigned. He was a four-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year who won more than 70 percent of his games. His teams were regulars in the NCAA tournament.
So massive were the shoes Montgomery left behind for his replacement that all that was asked upon the hiring of Trent Johnson was to maintain the standard. Anything more would have been unfair.
Montgomery was 24-14 against Golden Bears, 12-4 against Braun. Johnson has won six of eight against Cal. Not that 6-18 against Stanford is a reason for dismissing Braun any more than Dick Kuchen's 9-3 record against the Cardinal was a reason to keep him in Berkeley.
The point is this: Competing with Stanford on a regular basis is one of the measurements for success at Cal, and Ben has not held up well in that regard.
Nor has any Cal coach over the past 20 years Lou Campanelli, Bozeman, Braun been able to generate anticipation of annual trips to the NCAA Tournament. Which just happens to be something Montgomery and Johnson have done at Stanford.
To Ben's credit, he has accomplished his first and most important goal at Cal. He has stabilized the program, polishing the perception. He has won more than he has lost, without sacrificing principles or dignity. He has been, by record, the most successful Golden Bears coach since the legend Pete Newell.
Ben has been as sturdy as George Seifert was with the 49ers, without the championship, as durable as Dusty Baker was with the Giants, without the easy warmth.
But Seifert and Baker are gone, unable to measure up to the drive of their employers. They're as gone as the 14 Pac-10 coaches who have departed since Braun's arrival at Cal.
Only Arizona and Cal among conference schools have stayed the course since '96. With Wildcats coach Lute Olson taking a leave of absence he announced intentions to return next season Braun has more seniority than any coach in the conference.
Continuity or complacency? That will be decided by Barbour, with input from high-level alumni. Their decision will speak loudly and conclusively about their level of ambition.
Monte Poole can be reached at (510) 208-6461 or by e-mail at