Monty earned his shot at NBA

Originally Published: May 20, 2004
By Andy Katz |

Mike Montgomery is leaving a Hall of Fame career at Stanford for the graveyard of college coaches who've failed to make the jump to the NBA.


Why not?

"We talked (Thursday) morning and last week about this and I told him, 'You're not going to coach at another college, so why not finish your coaching in the NBA,' " said Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor, a former Montgomery assistant at Stanford. "He's just turning a different way out of his driveway.

"This has zero impact on his years at Stanford. He'll be memorialized for what he's done there."

True enough. But Montgomery also will be remembered as much for what lies ahead across the Bay with his new team, the Golden State Warriors.

Montgomery didn't go about this life-change without investigating the possibilities of such a major move. He talked to his confidants -- Taylor and former assistant and current Utah State coach Stew Morrill. According to Taylor, Montgomery also called former Stanford players and current NBA players Mark Madsen and Brevin Knight. Each gave him the insight about what to expect in the league.

Mike Montgomery
Montgomery's makeup just might work in the NBA.

"(Montgomery) is a piece of putty in the NBA and he'll just have to recreate himself," Taylor said. "But he's pliable enough to march right in there and do it. His legacy is safe. I'm assured of that."

Montgomery's fact-finding mission also included lengthy conversations with Warriors executive vice president Chris Mullin. Before making such a move, Montgomery had to ensure it was the right step for both parties.

"Of course I thought about it," Mullin said of hiring a college coach, a move that should be official by Friday. "We're all willing to work through it. This will be a good thing."

Still, losing in the NBA has tainted more than a few college legacies. It certainly can make people forget about how good a coach was at a particular school. (See: Tim Floyd's four seasons at Iowa State before languishing in Chicago with the Bulls in the years following MJ's departure).

But Montgomery's colleagues and former players aren't worried about his image being tainted, even if he's unable to turn the Warriors into winners. Montgomery is a statesman, part of the Mount Rushmore of active icons in the college game.

He doesn't have an NCAA title on his résumé, but he's as associated with Stanford's rise to national prominence as Mike Krzyzewski is at Duke, or Lute Olson at Arizona, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Gene Keady at Purdue and Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State.

Montgomery was hired in 1986, the same year Calhoun came to Connecticut. Both have turned very different universities into respective regional, then national powers. Calhoun has won two national titles, in 1999 and 2004. Montgomery's teams are annually in the top 25, if not title contenders, with the '98 squad reaching the Final Four.

But coaching any sport at Stanford remains among the toughest jobs in the country. The expectations remain high, while the talent pool shrinks with the school's admission department needing to sign off on every inked recruit. Still, Montgomery made it work at Stanford.

Now, he apparently wants a new challenge. And at 57, he won't mind getting paid handsomely for his efforts.

Although Stanford doesn't release monetary figures for its head coaches, Montgomery likely will double his annual salary, possibly as much as $10 million over a four-year period.

And his legacy at Stanford, according to assistant Eric Reveno, will be cemented regardless of what occurs with the Warriors.

"We get no break on admissions," said Reveno, a former Montgomery player. "The guards we couldn't get in go to Yale and Ivy League schools. It's a hard balance.

Stanford's Search Begins
Nevada coach Trent Johnson doesn't have a buyout in his new five-year contract, meaning he would be free to go to Stanford if the Cardinal do come calling in light of Mike Montgomery's pending departure for the Warriors.

Former Nevada athletic director Chris Ault, who is now the football coach, told Thursday that the school wouldn't have put in any restrictions on Johnson if he wanted to leave for another college coaching job. Johnson signed the new deal after leading the Wolf Pack to the Sweet 16 this season. He withdrew from the Utah search before he signed his new contract.

No one at Nevada would be surprised if Johnson left for Stanford, where he was an assistant under Montgomery. Former Montgomery assistants expect the Cardinal to stay within his coaching family tree, meaning that Johnson would be the frontrunner with Old Dominion coach Blaine Taylor as another possibility if current assistants Tony Fuller and Eric Reveno weren't offered the job.

If Johnson does get the Stanford job, he would likely hold onto any assistants that Montgomery doesn't take with him to the Warriors.

Another former Montgomery assistant, Stew Morrill of Utah State, said he doesn't think the school will contact him and doesn't expect to be on any short list for the job. He said he's happy to be at Utah State. If the Cardinal were to go outside of the Stanford family, expect Gonzaga's Mark Few to be in the mix.

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"Coach's willingness to accept that and work within the parameters here and prove that it can be done will be his legacy. He has the right size ego for this place. Stanford would rather be known for Nobel Prize Laureates rather than being a basketball school."

Montgomery's legacy will actually grow if Stanford can continue the success in the Pac-10 and nationally after he's gone. If the Cardinal can, he will be remembered as the coach that created Stanford basketball, not to mention its greatest coach (if he doesn't already own the label).

Apparently, his willingness to adapt -- from Montana to Stanford and now the NBA -- begins with his integrity and ethics, two characteristics those close to him think he has that will help him break the recent trend of failed jumps from the college bench to NBA sideline.

Simply put, Taylor called him a great leader.

"If the players give him a chance and trust him, then he'll be a good leader," Taylor said. "He has coached NBA guys who are in the league, so he has dealt with some of the personalities in the pros."

Morrill said Stanford's restrictions had started to wear on Montgomery. He felt Montgomery had topped out at Stanford and was looking for a new challenge. Taylor said Montgomery sounded reenergized Thursday as he drove from his home to Stanford. Morrill called this a great challenge for his friend, at a time when Montgomery needed one in his life.

"One thing I learned from Mike outside of the Xs and Os is common sense," Morrill said. "He's a great basketball coach, but everything is about common sense with Monty and he figures stuff out. He's organized but in a common-sense way.

"(The NBA) is such a different game and he's an awfully bright guy. But he has a good understanding of people and situations."

One thing becoming an NBA coach will do is allow Montgomery to focus solely on basketball. He won't have to deal with recruiting, booster club functions, faculty meetings, NABC ethic summits or committee meetings. He can just coach, which is what he loves to do.

But Mullin wants more than that from Montgomery. He wants him to teach.

"The league has changed since the last bunch of college coaches came in," Mullin said. "He's dynamic, but this is a good fit with the makeup of our roster.

"There's a huge age difference (Golden State's roster is littered with younger players). We don't have as many accomplished players, so we need more of a teacher."

Bryan Colangelo, the president and general manager of the Phoenix Suns, said part of the reason college coaches haven't been successful in the NBA is that they don't adjust -- they try to run their teams like they did in college, which doesn't work.

"Some guys have credibility at (the college) level, but it doesn't resonate at this level. So they have to prove themselves all over again," Colangelo said. That fits Montgomery perfectly. He is renowned as one of the best tacticians in college basketball. But he'll have to bend a bit in the NBA. A four-year contract will give him time, and if he can see it through to its fruition, he has a chance.

Regardless, his legacy seems set in Stanford's stone. Besides, he can always go back to college if this risk doesn't bring more than monetary rewards.

Everyone who takes this chance, it seems, eventually does.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at

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