Mike Montgomery has always been about taking on challenges. He took the head coaching position at Stanford at the time when Dr. Tom Davis was making a big public stink about how he had to leave because you could not succeed at Stanford with their admissions standards. The then-Montana head coach jumped at the job and 18 years later has molded arguably the most impressive program in all of college basketball. Montgomery took the Cardinal to the Final Four in 1998 and was a held ball away from knocking off Kentucky in the putative national championship game. In each and every of the last 10 years, he has won 20 games and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He won the Pac-10 four times and has not finished outside the top two in the conference standings since Bill Clinton's first term in office.
Today Mike Montgomery met with his Stanford players in the middle of the afternoon, and he told them that he is moving on to coach the Golden State Warriors. The NBA is the final challenge in the basketball coaching universe, and the location of this job gives him and his family the unique opportunity to stay where they have planted roots in the Bay Area. Warriors head coach Eric Musselman is out, and though the contract has not been finalized and no announcement has been made, Montgomery will be the next coach for the Oakland-based NBA franchise. It's not a rumor or a possibility. It's a reality.
Players were stunned by the news, which struck them without warning. There were no obvious hints that tipped them off that this move could be coming, but they are surprisingly even-keel in the aftermath. While Stanford fans are frantically checking the Internet from their backyard bomb shelters, the players are handling this rather well.
"We definitely support Coach Montgomery in his decision," says junior center Rob Little. "He's been here 18 years and done amazing things. As a senior next year, it hurts to not have him. He has been a big part of my three years here. But you can understand his decision. He's a coaching legend, and these decisions are what the great figures have to make. Casey Jacobsen and Curtis Borchardt had to make the tough decision two years ago to leave Stanford for the NBA. Josh Childress is in that process right now."
While Wednesday is an off-day for Stanford players, from playing and lifting, they will be back on schedule tomorrow - business as usual. The wings (Nick Robinson, Dan Grunfeld and Fred Washington) will take part in their scheduled 2:20 PM workout with an assistant coach, just as had been planned.
"We're not sitting around stewing about this," Grunfeld declares. "I'm still going to lift tomorrow, and I'm still going to the gym."
There are big picture questions about the future direction of the program as Athletic Director Ted Leland works on a coaching search, but there are some very immediate questions given this unique time of year. This weekend is the first official visit weekend of the year in what is unquestionably the most critical recruiting class in modern Stanford Basketball history. The Cardinal have five scholarships to give, and they have needs at all positions. A successful class can keep the program at its current peak, while a disappointing class could damage its lofty status. Stanford has been ranked #1 for multiple weeks in three of the last five years, and this class must bring in talent to let the Card continue its preeminent prominence.
Chicago point guard Bobby Frasor and SoCal combo guard Anthony Goods are both scheduled to come to campus this weekend, but both have been anxiously waiting for answers on their admissions applications. The timing of Montgomery's departure raises one immediate question in the minds of wondering fans. Were one or both of these premier recruits denied by the Admissions Office, which provided the proverbial straw that broke Mike Montgomery's back? The 18-year Cardinal coach has had to navigate the challenging waters of Stanford's admissions standards, and that has included several painful disappointments. Did he finally call it quits after a final round of denials in this make-or-break class?
Ironically, Stanford Basketball received fantastic news from Old Union today. Both players were admitted on this day, as confirmed directly by Goods and Bob Frasor, Sr.
"My mom is screaming," Goods said of the exhilarating news. "She said, 'My baby got into Stanford!' This is huge. All my hard work paid off."
The Frasor household was assaulted by college coaches calling tonight to prey upon this moment of weakness in the previously stalwart recruitment by the Cardinal. Bob Sr. spoke with The Bootleg late in the evening to summarize the whirlwind of events and emotions.
"We did get the admissions news, which was really good to hear," the elder Frasor begins. "There are obviously a lot of questions for us right now. It's huge. This is a whole different ballgame. We're weighing all this right now and deciding what to do."
The Frasor family is scheduled to fly to Stanford tomorrow evening, but there is some uncertainty as to whether this is a smart time to take the trip. The NCAA does not allow a recruit to take a second official visit to a school just because of a coaching change, and if the Frasors come this weekend, they are concerned that they might be spinning their wheels.
"The head coach is an important person in a player's life for those four years," Bob Sr. explains. "I don't know if we should be there and not have a head coach to meet. Mike Montgomery had come last month to Brother Rice, and we just loved him."
Bob Frasor did end by saying that he believes his family will make the flight and official visit. The momentum for his son with Stanford was strong, and assistant coach Eric Reveno was working with the family on the phone tonight to talk them through this time of uncertainty. NCAA rules allow a school to make unlimited phone calls to a recruit the five days immediately preceding their hosted official visit, even in a quiet period like this.
"He said, 'You are going to see Stanford at its best. See the process up close,'" the recruit's father relates of the conversation. "We will get to see the players and the campus, and I will obviously spend a lot of time with the Athletic Director."
The time-tested adage in Cardinal recruiting is that Stanford sells itself. The kids who want to come to The Farm do so for the people and the education. One parent of a current player told The Bootleg tonight that they would unquestionably have sent their son to Stanford if Montgomery had departed the program just days before their official visit. That is the power that this school wields.
But is it enough? The fact remains that the kids who are good enough to keep this program at its elite status are intrinsically committed to basketball. Josh Childress and Casey Jacobsen, the last two McDonald's All-Americans on The Farm, both came to play basketball and grow their games. If questions circle about the ability of the program to support the dreams of those talents, plenty of rival coaches are ready to swoop in and carve up the Cardinal carcass. Those vultures were in fact on the phone with the Frasors tonight, letting loose with their razor-sharp beaks.
Some fans will declare this the end of Stanford Basketball, but I seriously doubt that to be the case. As wonderful as Mike Montgomery may have been, elevating a perennially mediocre program to levels we never dreamed, his work is not irreplaceable. The Cardinal coaching legend has done the dirty work that lays the ground for the next Stanford head coach by proving that you can win at the highest level on The Farm. Dr. Tom Davis was dead wrong in his parting pronunciation, and it won't be very difficult at all for the next head man to convince recruits that they can claim hoops heaven in Palo Alto. They have seen it happen, and they know they have top talents they can join, who are already in place.
"As much as we respect Coach Montgomery, we respect each other and our abilities," Grunfeld solemnly declares. "If anybody is sleeping on us, they are going to be surprised."
If that is the attitude projected by the current Stanford players just hours after they were struck by this Full Monty of a bombshell, you can imagine what they will present to recruits coming to campus this weekend and the remainder of the spring. There will be no moping around, or self-doubt. Moreover, recruits will be exposed to some of the most honest and open players they can ever hope to encounter on a visit. After all, there is no head coach to "answer to" if they speak ill of the program, athletic department or University.
With all these recruiting dynamics, as well as the coaching search that will now get underway in great haste, these next few days and weeks should be some of the most fascinating we have ever seen. Pull up a chair and pop a tape in your VCR. This should be good.
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