Eight years after its basketball golden era ended with the departure of Mike Montgomery, Stanford has brought back one of its former coach's most beloved players to try to help recapture that success.
Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins hired Mark Madsen as an assistant this week to replace newly retired Dick Davey on his staff. Madsen's Stanford teams compiled a 105-24 record from 1997 to 2000, making the Final Four in 1998 and winning a pair of Pac-10 titles the next two seasons.
The arrival of Madsen comes at a time when Stanford's program appears to be on the upswing again with the core of last year's NIT championship team returning and a strong recruiting class on its way. Madsen chatted with me Wednesday about what he hopes to bring to Stanford, why he wants to coach and why he's a better dancer than everyone else seems to think.
JE: When did you decide you were interested in pursuing coaching?
MM: It's always been in the back of my mind. In fact it was such a strong thought that immediately after finishing with the Clippers, I just started looking for a coaching job. I turned down an offer in Greece and an offer to try out with a team in the Eastern Conference to start my coaching career. I coached the Utah Flash for one year as an assistant and loved it, but there was something inside me that always wanted to go back for a master's degree. I was excited about the chance to go to Stanford again once I got in, so I decided to go. It also worked out that Johnny Dawkins and (assistant) Mike Schrage reached out to me and said, 'Hey, you can be involved as a graduate manager.' Johnny and I had a lot more conversations after their season was over, and the more I talked to him and the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a perfect fit.
JE: Take me through the time table of how you got this job. When did Coach Dawkins offer the position to you?
MM: Johnny knew I wanted to coach in the longterm, so he was a great mentor. He shared with the pros and cons, the desirable parts of the business and the challenges of being an assistant coach. In terms of the timing of it, Johnny sat down with his staff and they had a group of candidates for the position. I went through the interview process with Johnny and other members of the staff and the formalized offer really came in the last week or two.
JE: What's the most difficult transition regarding getting into college coaching? Do you think it's recruiting?
MM: Recruiting is one of the things I'm most excited about. I look forward to contributing in recruiting under the direction of Johnny Dawkins and frankly I'm also very excited about it. I think there's a lot of student-athletes out there who'd find a perfect fit at Stanford. It's a chance to challenge yourself. Look, Stanford was a challenge for me. There were times after my first year where I felt a little bogged down academically and a little overwhelmed basketball-wise. I had second thoughts. I wondered if I made the right decision. But I stuck with it and I'm really grateful I stuck with it. I want to let our current players know and the people we eventually do recruit that, hey, whether it's Stanford or any other school, there are going to be rough patches but you have to realize that those tough times are going to pass.
JE: How much credibility does it give you among current and future Stanford players that you were in their shoes not long ago?
MM: I hope the players can understand and see I was in their shoes a few years ago and I understand their desires to play in the NBA, to win a Pac-12 championship and to win a national championship, which is something we came close to but never attained. I know that's the goal Johnny Dawkins has and I know that's the goal of the current players at Stanford. I feel privileged to come into a program where that is the goal and I had hope to contribute in whatever way I can.
JE: How long do you think it will be before you're in a recruit's living room, and he or his family brings up your infamous dancing after the Lakers won the title a few years ago?
MM: I think the dancing may come up. It's something that happened in LA, and I'm really glad it happened. Earvin Johnson — not Magic but of Minnesota — he was just a great mentor of mine. He had a great quote. He used to say, '365 days a year is too many days not to have a good time.' You can be professional, you can be a hard worker, but you can also enjoy life and have fun.
JE: Do you chuckle that you're still known for that almost 10 years later?
MM: I never imagined it would be a big deal because to me the dance move was spectacular. It's what I would do if I was at a dance club. I don't go to a ton of dance clubs, but if I did, I would do similar moves. To me, the moves are perfect. But it has been fun to see the reaction of others. I look at Devean George, who's dancing next to me in the video, and to me, his moves are my moves.
JE: What do you expect your role will be at Stanford?
MM: Johnny wants me to work with and mentor the big men. I practiced against Shaq, Robert Horry, Horace Grant, Kevin Garnett. I want to take all the best I saw from those guys and give that information to the current players. I wish I knew some of the things earlier that I knew later in the pros, and I hope to be able to accelerate that process for our big guys.
JE: Stanford has a long, proud lineage of big men, from yourself and Tim Young, to the Collins twins, to Justin Davis, to the Lopez twins. Does that inspire you to help keep that going?
MM: It does inspire me. I'll definitely be reaching out to Jason and Jarron Collins and the Lopez twins and getting their thoughts on post play and the game of basketball. I'm taking this coaching job, but I view myself as a representation of all the players I played with and all the guys who have been at Stanford. I'm going to be a conduit because I'm already in touch with a lot of them.
JE: What are your favorite memories from your Stanford days? Is the comeback against Rhode Island in the 1998 Elite Eight your favorite one?
MM: I would say the Rhode Island game comes to mind, the Final Four comes to mind. More generally, when Jason and Jaron Collins decided to come to Stanford, I think that was a watershed moment for the Stanford basketball program. I don't want to diminish the contributions of every player, but I do think when Jason and Jaron Collins signed to come to Stanford, that was the start of a really special era and a new era where Stanford was a basketball powerhouse in the country. Then a lot of other top recruits came, a Casey Jacobsen, a Josh Childress, the Lopez twins. So for me, those were some of the moments that really stand out.
JE: Stanford hasn't been to the NCAA tournament under Coach Dawkins, yet there's optimism the program is on the upswing after the way the team finished last year. How important is it to you to help get Stanford to where it was during your playing days?
MM: Anytime there's a transition in the program, it takes a while for the recruiting efforts and the implementation of a new system to pay off. We saw that last season. I don't care if you're an NBA team, a college team or a high school team. It takes time to implement a new system. I think now Johnny's system is fully implemented. His hard work recruiting is bearing fruit. So I feel that Stanford basketball is in a really exciting phase. I was honored, excited and grateful they reached out to me at such an exciting time.
JE: Who will be your greatest influences as a coach?
MM: I've been fortunate to have some great coaches in my life. I would say John Raynor, my high school coach at San Ramon Valley, had a major impact on my desire to pursue to coaching. He and I talked three and a half months ago about the possibility of me going into coaching, which was very helpful. Obviously Mike Montgomery influenced me with his professionalism and the personal touch he had when he was leading Stanford. And then probably right there is Phil Jackson. When I got to the Lakers, I had been one type of player and the minute I stepped into the Lakers practice facility, Phil was already challenging me to expand my game, to become more comfortable being a ball handler out on the three-point line. Phil really pushed me to get outside what I'd done in the past and to learn new skills and find new comfort levels.
JE: What advice if any did Mike Montgomery and Phil Jackson give you about getting into coaching?
MM: Before I started my coaching career at all, I had a long talk with Mike Montgomery on the phone. We talked about coaching, we talked about the recruiting process and we talked about what it takes to make a great program. A lot of the specifics we talked about have now blurred, but what I felt after talking to him was clear: I felt good about coaching. I also talked to Phil Jackson when I was coaching in Utah and we played against the LA Defenders. I went back to the locker room, the Lakers were playing in a couple hours and Phil just took a lot of time. I sat down in his coach's lounge, which was exciting for me because I'd never been inside before. He explained to me that as a head coach in the NBA, he has always challenged himself. And the challenge he's had is to always be mentally keyed in at every point in the game. That really clicks because when you're a coach, the observation of nuances is everything. There were several times when we came back to LA and Phil took time. That was very meaningful to me.