Talk about finding a new challenge

Updated: May 21, 2004, 9:50 AM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Chris Mullin did not announce the hiring of Mike Montgomery as the Golden State Warriors' ninth coach in 10 years on Thursday, which was, frankly, the only thing that Warrior observers have been talking about for the past 24 hours.

True, Mullin ran the risk of looking like the poor slob with the Chicago Bears who had to announce that the club's announcement of Dave McGinnis as the team's next head coach was being un-announced because McGinnis wasn't coming after all.

But in fact, it wasn't that bad. It's just that the Montgomery announcement had to be made some time after the announcement of Eric Musselman's firing as the Warriors' eighth coach in the last 10 years, and after the announcement of Rod Higgins as the team's new general manager, and after the distribution of the NBA draft lottery information packet, which for the Warriors is as traditional as the bottle of milk for the Indianapolis 500 winner.

Yes, there was a lot to do Thursday in Warrior Village, but the only thing that actually got anyone's attention was the one thing Mullin wouldn't say --- that Mike Montgomery had left the eternal safety of Stanford to chase his only chance at an NBA head coaching job.

He was apparently engaged with Warriors owner Chris Cohan to hammer out the anvil chorus of money and perks, although Mullin said he didn't know that to be true. But let's put it this way -- Cohan wants this to happen, Cohan signs the checks, and Montgomery has about run out of rabbits to pull from the silk top hat in Palo Alto.

Montgomery is truly at the just-repeating-himself stage of his career, and whispers that he finally has had enough of the admissions department at the school can be equally weighed against the likelihood that he also has had enough of watching his best players seek out the NBA before the last coat of varnish has been applied.

We already understand the risks that both the Warriors and Montgomery are taking here, the Warriors because they are trying to buck a long-standing trend of college coaches being blown to smithereens in the rarefied interpersonal air of NBAWorld, and Montgomery because for the first time in more than two decades he is not the masters of all he surveys.

We even understand the pressure Stanford is now under to replace Montgomery with a coach of similar comparables (say, Mark Few of Gonzaga) or an intriguing upside (say, Trent Johnson of Nevada). After replacing Tyrone Willingham with Buddy Teevens, Stanford athletic director Ted Leland had better come up major-league big with this one.

What is harder to fathom, though, is how this grand experiment is going to play out. Montgomery is a more flexible coach than people suspect, and he knows very well that pros get coached differently. He is there to make the Warriors' roster a more fundamentally rounded squad, and if that sounds like starting over, well --- Mullin's had his job for two months, Higgins for an afternoon and Montgomery is still circling the airport. How do you think it plays?

But it is a sufficiently intriguing hire (as opposed to, say, the failed Lon Kruger experiment at Atlanta, or the failed Kevin O'Neill experiment in Toronto) to make people pay attention again to this freely ignored team. The Warriors have been so bad for so long that they have been given the worst insult possible -- they are forgotten, even when the list of most hopelessly mangled franchises are made.

It is a reach, no question, but it isn't like Phil Jackson was making secret overtures northward, or that Lon Kruger was making secret overtures westward, either. Montgomery comes to a team utterly unencumbered by standards, let alone appeal. If he is clever and flexible enough (and he can be), he can move the franchise along before his allegedly nonexistent contract expires in 2008.

And if he isn't, or the players don't respond, or if they do but they're not good enough for it to make any difference, well, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, letting the world go by, water flowing underground, and now here's a classic from Psychedelic Furs.

So when the Warriors finally do get around to naming Mike Montgomery, they will become relevant again. Good, of course, remains an open question. Many men have tried, many men have failed, and many men have been paid money not to work for the Warriors -- which has its own peculiar charms.

But the deal is done. Another new era begins under the same old management. This has a real what-the-hell feel to it, which is more than the Warriors have been able to claim the last few presidential administrations or so.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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