With over 100 years of athletic animosity, it's hard to imagine a matchup that feels dynamically different than earlier matchups. But on Saturday, Jan. 17, Stanford's Coach, who's now Cal's Coach, goes back to Stanford to sit at the head of the visitor's bench. It's bittersweet. It's really weird.
Stanford fans will welcome Mike Montgomery back to his old stomping grounds with open arms. If anyone boos, it will only be in jest. He put the Stanford basketball program on the map, made it a winning program. His predecessor, Dr. Tom Davis, was once quoted upon departing for Iowa, "Stanford will never have a winning basketball program." In comes Monte for 18 years.
Monte's Cardinal went to the NCAA tournament 10 straight years between 1995-2004. The only Stanford Coach to get the team to the Final Four, the closest that Stanford has gotten to the NCAA basketball championship since 1942. Pac-10 Coach of the Year four times. 1991 NIT Champions. Naismith Coach of the Year in 2000. John R. Wooden Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Finally, after 18 years at the helm of Stanford, Monte then became the first Stanford coach to jump into an NBA coaching job. Some may say regrettably so, but after seeing where Cal is right now, I say, "no way." Monte has amazingly gone from one of the "can coach any college team he wants" to one of those "I'm-not-sure-how-to-categorize."
Upon arriving at Cal, Monte was not supposed to have any big men. They've played big. He wasn't supposed to get along with Jerome Randle. Jerome Randle is on fire. He's taught the kids spacing, tempo, and playmaking, all sorely missing from the Cal program for many, many years.
Unbelievably, Cal comes to Maples undefeated in Pac-10 play, 4-0. This is one of the best feel-good stories of the NCAA basketball season to date. Very few polls had Cal ranked higher than eighth in the Pac-10. And anytime a college basketball team is predicted to be real mediocre, and turns heads from East to West, you gotta throw some props. Well, OK, with one exception...as long as it ain't Duke.
Furthermore, Cal has won nine in a row. In the AP Top 25 for the first time since I can't remember when. And tied for first place in the Pac-10 with Ben Howland's Bruins.
Meanwhile, Stanford, who was also tagged with mediocre season hopes, is a disappointing 1-3 in Pac-10 play, which includes two one-point losses on the road last weekend to Washington and WSU. In both games, the home team scored the go-ahead bucket with less than 10 seconds on the clock.
Stanford is in transition too. Coach Johnny Dawkins, who's loaded with enthusiasm and eager to build a great program and legacy at Stanford, is just learning the ropes in his first season as a head coach.
This could be an amazingly tight game where Stanford sneaks out a win. Or it could be the seasoned vet showing the newbie how to drive the school bus. After all, Monte has actually done pretty well against Duke while at Stanford, including a come from behind win to knock out No. 1 Duke in the 2000 Pete Newell Classic.
I wouldn't even want to bet $ on spreads, winner, loser, whatever. Just to put the rivalry into perspective, this is not like Michigan-Ohio St. Duke-UNC. Texas-Oklahoma.
While there is hefty hatred between the schools, particularly the whole public school on the side of a hill surrounded by hippies versus the private, pristine stuck-up campus on the peninsula, there is mutual respect for the education, research, and thought leadership these fine universities generate on a consistent basis.
The Cal-Stanford rivalry is more like:
"No, Cal Sucks."
"Are we meeting for beers after the game?"