STANFORD, Calif. (AP)—Mike Montgomery would like nothing more than to keep the focus on his team, not on him.
Not this weekend.
“Who we playing this week?” the coach of No. 22 California asked as he opened his weekly news conference, his Golden Bears back in the poll for the first time since March 2003. “Huh? Oh, that’s right, that team that runs up and down and scores all those points. Yeah. Yeah.”
That team would be Stanford—Montgomery’s old school. The program he coached for 18 seasons and took to second round of the NCAA tournament 10 straight times before departing for the Golden State Warriors.
The Cardinal won their first 26 games in Montgomery’s final year in 2003-04 and finished the regular season ranked No. 1 with a 29-1 record. He had a 393-167 mark at Stanford.
Montgomery has known from the moment he took over the Bears in April that his return to Maples Pavilion on Saturday night would be a wild one.
There’s even more significance now that Montgomery has Cal (15-2) riding a nine-game winning streak and off to a 4-0 start in the Pac-10. Stanford (11-3, 1-3 Pac-10) is looking to avoid what would be a demoralizing defeat at home after being swept at the Washington schools on a pair of one-point losses.
“I hope I go to the right bench,” Montgomery said. “I don’t know if the seats are different. They might have electric shock currents. … They may have a dilemma. They may be stuck between how long to boo or you may get a courtesy clap and then go to boos.”
The Bears won 88-85 in triple overtime at Washington last Saturday and are off to their best start since the 1959-60 team went 28-2 and lost in the championship game of the NCAA tournament to Ohio State.
Montgomery and his players aren’t ready to get too excited about their success, and they’re treating this game as just another step toward their goal of reaching the NCAA tournament.
“The next game, the next challenge,” Cal forward Theo Robertson said.
Montgomery has advised his players to be wary of the “peripheral stuff.”
“Coach does an exceptional job keeping us humble as a group and unit, especially going into a game like this that’s going to have a lot of hype behind it,” guard Patrick Christopher said.
Stanford’s three senior starters—Anthony Goods, Lawrence Hill and Mitch Johnson—were recruited by Montgomery. They were, however, long gone for the Warriors before any of them arrived on campus and they have played for Trent Johnson and now first-year coach Johnny Dawkins.
“The kids don’t know me from Adam, so they’re going to be their normal selves,” Montgomery said.
Hill took his official visit to Stanford the day Montgomery announced he was leaving for the NBA.
“I won’t be thinking about that at all. That’s a fan thing,” Hill said.
Johnson agrees. Even though Montgomery still showed up at practice on occasion the past two years while doing TV work and was around in an advisory role for athletic director Bob Bowlsby.
“We all know him as the coaching legend from Stanford,” Johnson said, adding, “I don’t think anyone feels like they’re facing their old coach.”
Yet most everybody involved realizes it’s rare that a longtime coach from one school winds up at the rival with the challenge of turning around that program. Especially two schools about an hour apart in the same sports market separated by San Francisco Bay.
“Other than the fact you walk back in and you see a lot of people you know who have been friends and supported you for a lot of years, I don’t see too much more. None of these kids on my team played against me. None of the kids on Stanford’s team did I coach, so it’s kind of history,” Montgomery said.
“I can think of 18 years of Cal coming into Maples. The crowd was not overly receptive as I recall. I don’t suppose that would change. Unless they build balconies between now and the time I get there, there are going to be 7,000 people in there and they’re pretty much going to treat Cal the way they’ve always treated Cal.”