From the Cheap Seats

Is it too soon to wax poetic about the dearly departed center of Stanford Basketball? Of course not. We owe tens of thousands of words in tribute to the job Mike Montgomery did the last 18 years on The Farm, and MizzouCard has a nice head start with another edition of his beloved "From the Cheap Seats." To hear the echoes of your Stanford soul, read on and enjoy this heartfelt serenade.

From Crayons to Perfume

The movie was called "To Sir, With Love." If my memory is correct (and that is always a doubtful proposition), it was produced in the late sixties or early seventies. Sidney Poitier was a teacher assigned to teach a British classroom full of delinquents, malcontents, and other underachievers.

At first, of course, the challenge seemed insurmountable and the teacher incapable of meeting it. Indeed, he was the only person in that classroom (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) who believed, at all, in the students, and his belief seemed pretty foolish. Even they were convinced that they were doomed to lives of utter failure. He brought them discipline, demanding, rather improbably, that they refer to him as "Sir" and also respect their fellow students. Slowly but surely, little by little, he willed them into believing in themselves. By the end of the film, against all odds (hey, this was a movie), they were capable, confident young adults ready to make their mark on the world.

The admittedly rather schmaltzy last scene depicted the last day of school year, when the students had to come to grips with the reality that this man who had done so much for them was about to leave their lives. One of the female students (perhaps played, if this actually could be true, but it was the late sixties or early seventies and everything was a bit wild then so perhaps this memory is indeed accurate, by a model/singer named "Lulu") sang a song as a thank you to "Sir."

As the shock of the recent news about Mike Montgomery leaving has faded, it is one line from that song that keeps playing in my head:

"How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?"

Like many of us, I was there before Mike Montgomery. For those of you who were not, let me clue you in. It was NOTHING like it is today. Not even remotely similar.

Oh, we had our own version of the Sixth Man club, sort of. But that was because there were, on average, about six of us in the student section. We had some players (John Revelli and Keith Jones come to mind) and some hustlers (one of which we tragically lost just last week), but it was all pretty hopeless. Our big goal was a "once every two years or so" upset of one of the Pac 10 big guns, under the "even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn" theory.

Perhaps one memory from those years sums up how far we have come, for those of you who were able to avoid the bad old days. In a particularly "good" year from those days in the early eighties, I distinctly remember sitting in the student section (whose ranks had swelled to a couple hundred or so with the bandwagon jumpers brought about by a stunning .500 season, at least to that point) yelling "NIT! NIT! NIT!!!" This was not, as it is now, a slam at the visiting team. It was, I kid you not, a plea to the NIT committee to PLEASE consider letting Stanford into their tournament. [In case you are wondering, it did not work. You can look it up.]

There was a ray of hope when we stole Dr. Tom Davis from Boston College. He had some success with that program, which seemed similar enough (to both him and us) that we were actually optimistic, in a very cautious, let’s-not-get-out-of-control, sense. Under him, our team did seem to improve, at least for a while. But the handicaps placed on a basketball coach by Stanford’s admissions policies finally became too much for him to bear.

When I heard Tom Davis was leaving, I was pretty much out of hope. Surely we would never attract another coach of his caliber, after he rather publicly implied that winning was impossible at Stanford. If he could not do it, it just could not get done. At least we had taken our shot, by hiring him. We could all go back to realizing that, in basketball, it was just not meant to be.

Who was that guy we hired? Where was he from? Did you say Montana? Seems like a nice enough fellow, but hiring a coach from Montana seems like throwing in the towel.

I put it to you as simply as this: Anybody who tells you they thought anything even remotely close to what we have seen in the last ten years was even possible is just plain lying to you. Stanford winning the Pac-10? Did you say "winning the Pac-10"??? What have you been smoking? Stanford ranked what? Get real.

My absolutely wildest possible dream for Stanford Basketball was that, somehow, some way, maybe Stanford could be perhaps the third best team in the Pac-10, every now and then. But that dream pretty much died when Dr. Tom left. When he came, mediocrity seemed possible. When he left, it seemed out of reach.

What this man who is about to leave us has done for us is nothing short of amazing. It would be stunning enough to take any D-I team on that ride. But he did this at Stanford, folks. He did it under admissions standards that, by all rights, should make it impossible. He did it without cheating (not once, not ever, at least as far as I know). He did it with good kids (some of them plucked from some pretty tough environments) who have become very good men who have made us quite proud. He did it with fire in his belly and in the bellies of his charges. [How I love passion in Stanford coaches and athletes!]

So let me say it, for what it is worth, coming simply from a lover of Stanford and of Stanford sports: Thank you, "Sir." We had known only crayons. We never even dreamed of perfume, but, somehow, some way, you took us there. For me, and I suspect for many others, it is the single most amazing achievement in the history of the teams we root for. This simply was not possible, but you did it.

One of the sad things about life, and perhaps most especially about sports, is that our mothers were right: All good things must end.

This was a very good thing. It has ended. Today and, perhaps, for quite a while, that is going to hurt for those of us who are passionate about Stanford Basketball.

So forgive us our temporary insanity. After all, it is your fault.  Your predecessors left, too, and the news did not sent us to any ledges.

The pain, of course, is increased by the shock. When I woke up Thursday morning and started heading out the door, my 13-year-old son told me that there was something I needed to see on SportsCenter. He backed up the TIVO to a picture with Mike Montgomery and a Warriors logo. When I first saw them, the combination looked so out of place that the news did not register.

It is never easy to be the one left at the restaurant table by the person who has planned an exit strategy. The one doing the leaving has been thinking about how to make it happen as painlessly as possible, but it is still a shock to the one hearing the news for the first time.

By the way, the analogy here is not that much of a stretch. Stanford and Stanford basketball are a passion for us. We who believe Stanford is the center of the universe cannot imagine why anyone, least of all you, would want to leave it. [Now that I am an employee of another university, I may have a bit of perspective on this. No matter how many checks another university writes with your name as the payee, that university never quite displaces the one that you wrote checks to, in your heart of hearts. Not that you do not have deep affection for the one that cuts you checks, because, of course, you do. But it is not the same. So we don’t get it. Why would anyone want to leave this place we love so much?]

And, quite frankly, we are scared. Now that you have taught us the smell of perfume, we do not want to go back to crayons. Nobody else, and I do mean NOBODY ELSE (in our lifetimes), had ever gotten us past crayons. We want to believe that we can somehow keep smelling perfume without you, but none of us are completely sure it will happen.

We are also at least a little scared for you. We have huge admiration and affection for you. You are our guy. We have seen that league that you are headed to (which some of us are not all that fond of, if truth be told) chew people up and spit them out. We do not want that to happen to you.

Mostly, though, we are really going to miss you. We will miss your success, of course. But not just your success. You.

As you know, we who love Stanford Sports are a bit different from other college sports nuts. Winning has never been enough for us. We demand that you not only win, but that you do it the right way. We tolerate none of the bending or breaking of the rules that has, sadly, become commonplace (or, at least, not unusual) elsewhere. We Stanford Sports nuts do not like to lose, but we will tolerate a loser much more readily than a cheater.

Though nobody is perfect, you were the best possible fit as a Stanford coach. You won, yes, but you did it the right way. We never worried about you or your players. As a bonus, you even had that wicked sense of humor. How could we not miss you?

You have, of course, created something in us that was never there before you came. Like "Sir’s" students, we now believe the impossible is possible. We actually dream of that one thing that eluded you while you were with us.

Though it is perhaps a bit harder today than it was two days ago, we still dream of that day some April when the basketball season is over and our beloved Cardinal is the last team standing. That day may never come, but you have made us believe it is possible.

If that day comes, though, you will not be there with us. For those of us who dream of that day, that is sad, because we have a tough time imaging that anyone will ever do more to make it happen. If somehow we ever get to the mountain top, the view just won’t quite be the same without you.

We are going to miss you, Sir. It is just that simple, and just that sad.

And we will not forget that it was you who took us from crayons to perfume. We just do not quite know how to thank you for that.


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