Not in Palo Alto anymore

Updated: March 20, 2005, 3:12 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

That guy over there in the corner with the nice suit, drawing up plays for Adonal Foyle and glancing at the scoreboard every so often? He sort of looks like he'd be good at the college game.

Call it a hunch. We're just unusually good that way.

Mike Montgomery, come to think of it, didn't stink as a college coach. Just a year ago, in fact, Montgomery was taking the Stanford men's basketball team on a wicked roll into the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinal would get upset by Alabama in the second round and sent on their way, but Montgomery had a 30-2 record to go with the 24-9 he'd put up the year before, adding to a legacy of quality and performance he had established in a long and distinguished 26-year career at the college level.

Mike Montgomery
Associated Press/Jeff ChiuMontgomery knew he would lose some games at Golden State. He just didn't know how many.
And then, of course, Monty went directly to hell.

I say this with all due respect. Montgomery, after all, didn't meet such a terrible fate. He's pulling down serious bank in Oakland while meeting the "challenge" (his word) of coaching the Golden State Warriors, who are getting talked up around the league lately for not blowing as badly as they blew at the outset of this season.

The Warriors, in fact, came off a brutal eight-game road trip with a .500 record to show for it, leading to all sorts of encouraging murmurs directed at Montgomery. This should make him feel better every time he looks at the standings that today show his team at 21-44 and 28 games out of first place in the Western Conference.

Forty-four losses? The Stanford Cardinal didn't lose that many games in Montgomery's final seven seasons combined. Then again, as Monty himself noted recently, "Only the bad situations are open" when a college coach is ready to come out into the NBA.

In other words, if the Warriors weren't so putrid, Montgomery, no matter how good he was at Big Dancing, wouldn't have gotten the pro job in the first place. If that sounds like damning by faint praise, welcome to the NBA.

Montgomery isn't the first nor, Lord knows, the last man to find success and contentment not all they're cracked up to be. He could have remained at Stanford for pretty much as long as he liked. He had raised the bar of expectation himself over 18 seasons, moving the program to national-contender status almost perennially. He was able to recruit the smart kids who could also play ball, and that makes for a coaching situation that most people would love to have.

But, let's face it, it isn't the pros, and Montgomery, after all this time, still wanted to know what it was like over there on the rough side of town. Rick Pitino wanted that. Pitino wanted to know, once and for all, how his embrace-the-now maxims and team-building concepts might play with the pros. And, it must be said, he certainly found out.

John Calipari found out. Lon Kruger found out. Leonard Hamilton, Tim Floyd, Jerry Tarkanian ... you get a guy like Cotton Fitzsimmons only so often, the coach who can move from college to the pros and live to tell the tale. It absolutely can be done. It also, just as absolutely, isn't often done well.

It is about the kind of team one inherits, of course; Floyd could tell you that. And Montgomery is right: In general, college coaches, even really good ones, don't get offered the plum NBA jobs or even the promising ones. They get the building projects, the way stations, the suspect ownership groups, the decimated rosters.

They get the Golden State Warriors, a team that has fallen short of the playoffs for, oh, let's see here, a decade or so running. And they see, if they're looking with both eyes, that this is a thing that could take a couple of years to really get going in the right direction, or quite possibly forever.

And then they say yes, because, well, it's a challenge, and coaches love challenges. And NBA money isn't like college money. And maybe Adonal Foyle just hasn't been matched with the right guy so far. And maybe the trade for Baron Davis will start things on the proper course. And maybe, and maybe, and maybe.

And maybe someday you look up, and you're Mike Montgomery, a coach who had a nearly perfect situation at Stanford and loved every minute of it right up to the point that you quit to go seek the next "challenge." Now you're another struggling NBA type, hired to be fired by definition, in a league where the shelf life of most "teaching" coaches rivals that of cottage cheese in a summer sun, and the players call most of the shots (and if they don't, their salaries do).

Of course, that's making it sound worse than it is. After all, the Warriors have been looking better lately, which is to say, better than death on a stick. And maybe, if you're Montgomery, you haven't really had time anyway to watch the Stanford Cardinal, featuring the players you recruited, rebound from their shaky start in the first season without you to go 12-5 down the stretch and earn a No. 8 seed in the Dance.

A year ago, that was Montgomery out there with his bunch of mostly willing, mostly coachable college players, some of whom might go on to the next level, winning all those games and dealing with championship pressure. A year later, it's a different kind of pressure.

But Montgomery isn't the kind of man to look back. As of this week, you figure that counts as the greatest of small blessings.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Reach him at mkreidler@sacbee.com.