A fish too big for the small pond

Updated: May 26, 2004, 1:43 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

Stanford was caught in a bind when Mike Montgomery left to do charity work in the NBA. (And when we say NBA, we are really stretching the definition so that it can include the Golden State Warriors.)

That meant Nevada was in a bind, fewer than two months since it thought it had solved its long-term basketball issues.

You see, the Wolf Pack had just signed head coach Trent Johnson -- the de facto mayor of Reno after taking the Pack to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament -- to a five-year, $2.25 million deal. This, after Johnson had interviewed at, and then rejected, Utah as a career option.

Trent Johnson
Stanford gets what it lost, Mike Montgomery-protege Trent Johnson to fill Montgomery's shoes on the Cardinal sidelines.
Stanford was in trouble. Nevada was golden.

Then, before you know it, Stanford was golden, and Nevada was in trouble. The big eat the small, again. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for Basketball Darwin.

Johnson, as it turns out, was the perfect act to follow Montgomery, because not only had he worked for Montgomery, in many ways he is Montgomery. He did his best work in a school surrounded by mountains, in a conference nobody much pays attention to, and had to learn, albeit grudgingly, to smile in public. Why, when you get down to it, the only difference between Montgomery and Johnson is the likelihood that Johnson has a wider variety of suits than Earth Tones Monty.

Of course, none of this does Nevada any good, which might explain why Nevada announced Johnson's departure before Stanford announced his arrival, a subtle statement of disapproval for such high-level poaching.

The problem, as it almost always is in these cases, was recruiting. The spring window for live replacements was closing, the Stanford donating community was demanding that athletic director Ted Leland hire Johnson, and Leland tends to like working fast.

So Leland no-brained it. His last big hire was replacing Tyrone Willingham with Buddy Teevens, and six wins and 16 losses later, Leland couldn't be cute. He threw years and money and prestige and the spectre of Monty Ascendant at Johnson, and Johnson did what he was bound to do, what anyone in the college basketball business would do.

He bit.

And Nevada ends up without a mayor. Basketball Darwin, to the nines.

What Johnson could have done, of course, was to say no, to say a commitment was a commitment. But he would have been, well, nuts. Stanford was the best vacancy of the off-season, Johnson worked there as an assistant and is he in high esteem, and by any stretch would be making better money at a more prestigious job. Given that college basketball is not a morality play but a gruesome business, the choice was essentially unfair.

Unfair, that is, to Nevada, one of the many schools that lives a nervous existence below the big fish but above the plankton. They spent 22 years watching basketball happen to other people, and as soon as it happens to them, someone comes and takes it away.

Life's a bitch, you see, and then you form a search committee.

Of course, the Nevada folks could hope that Johnson can't master the one thing that Montgomery could master -- the admissions office. They could hope that being a lot like Montgomery isn't actually the same as being Montgomery. They could hope that everyone at Stanford is wrong about Johnson.

But what would be the point? Johnson almost surely won't be coaching at Nevada again (the Wolf Pack and Stanford travel paths that do not cross), so the only reason to root against Johnson's success would be sheer, old-fashioned, delicious, nutritious spite.

And frankly, who has time for that in our busy lives? I mean, other than Red Sox fans?

So life goes on. Stanford gets its guy. Nevada loses its guy. And Mike Montgomery has a clone covering his old job while he spends the summer realizing what a ridiculously difficult job he just signed on to.

Why, it's a scene from "A Mighty Wind," and the chorus sings, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken?"

And the answer is, it hasn't broken yet. The littler fish see to it.

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