The Trials of Transition

Some Cardinal fans are not sure how to react to this period of uncertainty, with no head coach to lead the proud Stanford Basketball program. We know which coach is in the rear-view mirror, but without knowing who and what lies ahead, we stand at an emotional fork in the road. Perhaps history can be our guide, as we recall the spring of 1986, when Dr. Tom Davis left for Iowa and threw us into temporary chaos.

Our coach has made his move, unfortunately right in the heart of a critical recruiting season. Hey, these things happen and we have to move on. Best of luck to Mr. Montgomery and his family.

While we wait for breaking news on the search for a replacement, let’s take a quick look back at the last time we experienced a changing of the guard and the recruiting situation we faced at the time. How did things stand when Tom Davis took off for the University of Iowa in the spring 1986, setting the stage for the 18-year “Mike Montgomery Era” at Stanford?

Dr. Tom Davis resigned on April 6, 1986 after four years of promising progress down on The Farm. Despite clearly raising the level of Stanford’s competitiveness and making Maples Pavilion a far less pleasant experience for visiting opponents, Davis managed just a single winning season, publicly citing the difficulty of recruiting with Stanford’s stringent academic requirements. Davis had been trying hard to make a major breakthough with Stanford admissions, to push the edge of the envelope. Many speculated that the failure to gain admission for highly-touted prospect Chris Munk, a 6’9” 225-pound banger with an NBA body from nearby Riordan High School in San Francisco, may have been the proverbial straw that broke Davis' back. The overrated Munk, whose SAT was 8-something in the pre-centering days, ended up at USC, produced a decent if unspectacular career with the Trojans and eventually had a cup of coffee with the NBA’s Utah Jazz in 1990-91. Yes, Davis whined about admissions, but the reality was that he just wanted to win, and win frequently. He was also offered a doubling of his salary, a gorgeous new facility former Iowa coach Lute Olson had managed to get built, and an existing group of Hawkeye players with top-five potential. Tom Davis’ Stanford career mark of 58-59 may have seemed decent enough for the Cardinal hoops program of the mid-1980s, but below the surface was a very disappointing (and hugely frustrating) Pac-10 conference record of just 25-47. Ouch. Time to take off.

For any Booties unaware, “Dr. Tom” (yes, he actually did have a doctorate from Maryland) left for less challenging pastures and eventually become the winningest coach in Iowa basketball history. At first, it seemed he had made a move of genius. He was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year and the AP National Coach of the Year in his very first year in Iowa City in 1987-88. His first Hawkeyes team won 30 games that year, starting the season an amazing 18-0 and briefly holding a #1 ranking in the polls! Davis’ teams went an impressive 269-140 from 1987-99. Unable to bring home a championship, the good doctor got pushed out in rather indelicate fashion in 1999 despite nine NCAA tournament appearances in thirteen years. Not one to be “put out to pasture” before his time, Davis just completed his first season as head coach with the Drake University Bulldogs in Des Moines (Iowa) and is faring quite well, finishing third in the voting for the Coach of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference this year, despite having a very young team and losing his best player to injury.

At the time of Davis’ resignation in early April of 1986, Stanford Basketball had just one recruit for the Class of 1990 that the staff had actually signed to a Letter of Intent. Sweet-shooting 6’9” power forward Stuart Thomas was considered by some recruiting services to be a “Top 100” talent from highly-regarded Mater Dei High School in Southern California. Thomas had signed with Stanford in November of 1985, during what was considered at the time the “early signing period” (My, how things have changed!) All three of the other members of the 1986 class would ink their Stanford LOIs in late April and May after the new coaching staff was announced.

A fairly quick search it was. About three weeks after Davis bailed, Stanford Athletic Director Andy Geiger, current AD “Dr. Ted” Leland’s immediate predecessor, named 39-year old Mike Montgomery as the Cardinal Basketball’s 15th head coach on April 25th. Geiger counted on Mike’s competitiveness and tenacity, stating at the time that he was “absolutely delighted that [Montgomery] has accepted the challenge of coaching at Stanford.” “The challenge of coaching at Stanford”. Yes, that is the way it was thought of at the time. Is it still the case? Is it is challenging to deal with kids who study, stay out of trouble, usually stay four years, and graduate?

Montgomery arrived from Montana having gone 154-77 and made two NIT appearances in eight seasons with the Grizzlies. His teams had won 20 games in each of the previous four seasons. His decision to come to Stanford was not difficult to understand. Montgomery was a young up-and-comer. The program had some momentum. Mike and Sarah’s two toddlers, John (now playing hoops at Loyola Marymount) and Anne (playing volleyball for USC), were all of three years old and one year old respectively. Montgomery was a California native with pre-existing ties to the Bay Area. His brother Dick Montgomery was the volleyball coach at San Jose State who had a very respectable 191 wins in nine seasons with the Spikin’ Spartans.

The Cardinal’s 1986 basketball recruiting class eventually consisted of Thomas, 6’4” Southern California point guard Oliver Cunningham (now hunting down hard core parole-violatin’ drug dealers as supervisor of the Oakland Police Department’s Police & Corrections Team), 6’9” forward Sean Murphy (a Mississippi kid from whom we never heard again), and an awkward, gangly 6’7” small forward from Austin, TX named Deshon “Freaky D” Wingate. Wingate would start slowly, but surprise people by developing nicely into a solid player, becoming among other things the school’s first consistent slam dunking finisher of alley-oops (significantly pre-dating Brent Williams, Mark Seaton, Justin Davis, Josh Childress, etc.)

Let’s hope the Cardinal hoops class of 1986 is not indicative of the nature of “transition classes”. Only Wingate would have a meaningful impact on the Cardinal basketball program. Thomas sulked over PT and bolted to hoop it up at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before coming back to campus intending to graduate. He got himself in big trouble (no comment) and was expelled from school. Cunningham got impatient riding pine behind two upperclassmen, starting guard Terry Taylor and back-up Scott Meinert. “Ollie” surrendered his scholarship after just two years to pay his own way through the rest of his Stanford studies. Too bad, he likely would have started ahead of John Patrick in 1989-90 and 1990-91. Patrick ended up teaming with Wingate, Kenny Amman, Andrew Vlahov and Adam Keefe to lead the Cardinal to an NIT championship in 1991.

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