The most important recruit Mike Montgomery ever landed chose to play for him without knowing much at all about either him or his program.
Brevin Knight, the point guard who catapulted Stanford to national prominence in the mid-1990s, committed to the Cardinal solely because of the school's academic reputation. That was enough to outweigh the fact Stanford didn't reach the postseason from 1942-1989, hadn't yet won an NCAA tournament game under Montgomery and was coming off a 23-loss season the previous year.
"I had no knowledge of Stanford basketball or Coach Montgomery," said Knight, a native of East Orange, N.J. "I knew that I would have an opportunity to get the best education in the world and go on to get a great job. And it would all be paid for by the school."
Montgomery's greatest accomplishment in his 36 years as a head coach was gradually building Stanford into a program as celebrated for basketball as academics. Stanford battled Arizona for the title of the West Coast's best team annually from 1997-2004, finishing second or better in the Pac-10 every year, winning at least one game in the NCAA tournament every season and reaching the 1998 Final Four.
The remarkable turnaround Montgomery engineered at Stanford is worth reminiscing about today because he announced his retirement from coaching Monday afternoon. He spent the last six seasons across the Bay from Stanford at rival Cal, leading the Bears to four NCAA tournament bids and their first conference championship in five decades in 2010.
"I feel really good about my decision. I just think it's time," Montgomery told reporters in Berkeley. "I could do it some more. I could. But I really feel we have the program positioned in a place that's very positive. We've got good young players. We've got the people in place that can take this forward, and I really hope that happens."
Though Montgomery is probably the most successful Cal coach since Pete Newell retired in 1960, nothing he did with the Bears will overshadow his time at Stanford. Under Montgomery's tutelage, Stanford won four Pac-10 regular season titles, produced eight NBA first-round draft picks and regularly played to enthusiastic sellout crowds on Maples Pavilion's bouncy floors.
A masterful teacher and tactician with a wry sense of humor and little patience for knucklehead behavior on or off the floor, Montgomery probably wouldn't have enjoyed success just anywhere. He needed a school like Stanford with athletes smart enough to thrive in his intricate system yet responsible enough not to need a coach to babysit them away from basketball.
"Coach Montgomery was a great fit for Stanford because his approach to the game was a very cerebral approach and he also treated his players as adults," said Andy Poppink, a Stanford forward from 1992-96. "He gave the players the respect that they would take care of business in the classroom and socially. For a typical Stanford student-athlete, I think that was an approach many of us appreciated."
Stanford captured an NIT title under Montgomery in 1991 and reached the NCAA tournament in 1989 and 1992, but the Cardinal might never have emerged as a national power were it not for some good fortune on the recruiting trail the summer of 1993.
A Stanford assistant visited New Jersey to scout a point guard prospect named Dan Earl, but had to watch a different game after Earl's got canceled. As a result, the assistant coach stumbled across Knight, learned that the point guard had grades as impressive as his quickness and court vision and called Montgomery immediately.
"Even on my visit, I sat down with Mike and he said, 'I've got one scholarship for either one of you. Whichever one of you says yes first will get it,'" Knight recalled. "I went next door, called my mom and she said I'd be crazy not to take it."
If expectations for Knight were initially modest considering that his only other scholarship offer came from Manhattan, it didn't take long for him to prove himself. Not only did Knight lead Stanford to three NCAA tournament bids and the 1997 Sweet 16, the four-year starter at point guard is still the school's all-time leader in steals and assists.
Knight's success reverberated at Stanford for years to come because it made other top players consider playing for Montgomery. From McDonald's All-Americans Jason and Jarron Collins, to elite shooting guard Casey Jacobsen, to smooth small forward Josh Childress, Montgomery signed a handful of prospects in ensuing years that Stanford wouldn't have even tried for a decade earlier.
"Brevin changed the whole game at Stanford," former teammate Dion Cross said. "Anytime a team gets to an Elite Eight or a Sweet 16, they're going to get a lot more exposure. Now you're starting to change people's perception of Stanford. I think Brevin had a lot to do with that."
The one blemish on Montgomery's Stanford resume was that his best teams often fizzled in March.
Some of Montgomery's early Stanford teams racked up regular season wins via superior strategy and effort, but struggled in the postseason when more talented teams matched their focus. Other Montgomery teams had no such excuse, especially the top-seeded 2000 team led by Jacobsen and Mark Madsen and the top-seeded 2004 team anchored by Childress, both of which lost in the round of 32.
"We took a team to the Final Four once, and that wasn't my best team," Montgomery said. "There were other teams I thought were really well-positioned. I wish there was one more thing that could have happened or maybe I could have done something to force those teams over the top and get them there."
Montgomery eventually left Stanford after a 30-2 season in 2004 to coach the NBA's Golden State Warriors, a gamble that didn't pay off because the job required more managing of egos than mastery of Xs and Os. He returned to Stanford as a consultant after being fired by the Warriors before moving to the other side of the Bay and replacing Ben Braun at Cal.
While Montgomery's decision to switch sides of a rivalry didn't inspire near the furor in the Bay Area that Rick Pitino's move from Kentucky to Louisville did in that basketball-crazed state, many of his former players were unhappy with the move.
Some lamented that Stanford didn't attempt to hire Montgomery upon learning that Trent Johnson was in talks to leave for LSU. Others wished Montgomery had taken any other job besides the head coaching position at Stanford's biggest rival.
Said Cross, "The wars we had with Cal, it was almost like going from the U.S. army to the Russian army. How do you do that? I didn't get it."
Said Knight, "It was hard to take because he was going to Cal. It was strange. In the beginning, alumni functions were tense. I don't know if everybody would ever get on board fully with it, but we all respect one another and we all respect Mike. He has to make the right decision for his family."
Ultimately, however, switching allegiances in the rivalry doesn't undo all that Montgomery accomplished at Stanford.
He enjoyed six successful seasons at Cal. He built his legacy before that changing the way Stanford basketball is perceived.
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