Sports

Montgomery back in Bay Area -- on other side

Mike Montgomery wearing a yellow tie. And a blue shirt. In Berkeley. Holding up a Cal basketball jersey. Smiling!

Saturday morning, the former Stanford leader made his first public appearance as Cal's basketball coach. And we can exclusively report that pigs were not flying outside the window of the room beneath Memorial Stadium, where he met the media.

"Wait a minute ..." Montgomery said before posing for his ceremonial photo, then leaned into the microphone and said as a half question, half exclamation, "Go Bears?!"

Yes, it sounded mighty strange.

For the second time in four years, Montgomery has thrown a sweet little behind-the-back pass at Bay Area basketball. In 2004, the surprise move was his decision to leave Stanford and become the coach of the Warriors. That choice did not pan out the way either party had hoped.

This choice? Certainly as much of a surprise. Not so much of a risk of failure, if any at all. In his 26 years of college coaching, Montgomery has had only one losing season. In two NBA seasons, he had two.

"I think I belong in college basketball," Montgomery said. "I think I proved that. Maybe I would have liked a little longer to prove it."

And then, as the media session proceeded, we were off on some good old, familiar Monty riffs -- making contrarian points, saying he won't tolerate players who refuse to play defense, joking about his age ("I signed a short-term contract here -- to death").

It was fun to see. Montgomery's two ulcerous seasons with the Warriors clearly affected his basketball mojo. They might have even double-clutched his coaching confidence level.

The mojo and confidence is definitely back. When someone asked if Montgomery had been in touch with Ryan Anderson, the Cal sophomore big man who is pondering a jump to the NBA, the answer was quick.

"Ryan is staying at my house," he said. "We've moved out of the master bedroom."

But you're probably still wondering: How in the name of Oski did we get here?

During the past month, Montgomery received feelers about other coaching jobs and a firm offer from Loyola Marymount (though Montgomery refused to confirm that during his news conference). Then, early last week, Cal Athletic Director Sandy Barbour contacted Montgomery. They held a marathon discussion Thursday in San Antonio, where both were attending the men's Final Four.

But here's the interesting part: They were several hours into their talks before Montgomery said he brought up "the elephant in the room." The elephant, as we all know, was actually a Bear. Montgomery was concerned that Cal alums and fans would not accept him as their coach. He and his wife, Sara, quietly broached the issue with their Stanford friends.

As the secretive discussions progressed, Montgomery spoke with Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby and tried to reach John Arrillaga, the athletic department's uber-donor. He also bounced the idea off former Stanford player Adam Keefe.

"He just said, 'I'm excited for you,' " Montgomery said. "Really, I have not had a single bad reaction from anybody."

That shouldn't change. In the Bay Area, fans are generally sophisticated enough that college basketball is college basketball, not a morality play. This isn't Kentucky, where the hiring by Louisville of former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino was greeted with venomous mail of "traitor." Montgomery believes the circumstances of his hiring also will reduce any potential bitterness.

"If Sandy had driven across the bay and backed up a Brink's truck or something while I was still coaching at Stanford, then yes, there might be," Montgomery said.

That wasn't the case, of course. Montgomery said that as Stanford's coach he would never have left for Cal. But his four-year absence from the college game, plus the success of successor Trent Johnson with the Cardinal, should make this far more palatable for everyone. Maybe even for Johnson, although this certainly complicates his professional life a bit.

Montgomery said Saturday that he had not spoken with Johnson since accepting the Cal gig, although earlier last week, Montgomery mentioned to Johnson that a move to Berkeley was possible.

"He kind of grumbled about it," Montgomery joked. "He and I will always be good friends. He's a great competitor. Two or three times a year, we'll be going at it the way competitors do. But that won't change our friendship."

One reason is, Stanford and Cal do not compete for many of the same recruits. In fact, Montgomery said he could not recall one instance during his 18 seasons with the Cardinal when it came down to a prospect choosing between Stanford and Cal.

Nevertheless, the games between Stanford and Cal next season become must-see Bay Area events.

"There are people who probably don't like me on both sides of the bay," Montgomery said. "Sorry. What can I do?"

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