Sandy Barbour raised some eyebrows when she hired Sonny Dykes to replace Jeff Tedford as Cal’s football coach in December. Dykes’ Louisiana Tech team didn’t qualify for a bowl game last year, his defense allowed 526 yards per outing (the most in the nation) and his Texas roots seemed to clash with Berkeley’s uber-lefty persona.
Yes, Dykes might seem like an odd choice, but we should probably give Barbour the benefit of the doubt. In her eight-plus years at Cal, she’s proved that she knows how to pick a winner.
Consider Barbour’s two big hires: Mike Montgomery and Lindsay Gottlieb. Montgomery’s men’s basketball team has reached the NCAA Tournament four times in his five years at Cal and Gottlieb’s women’s basketball team is getting ready to tip off in the program’s first Final Four appearance against Louisville on Sunday.
Montgomery’s success isn’t exactly surprising, but who other than Barbour believed that this fresh-faced 35-year-old from the East Coast would lead Cal to the Final Four in her second season at the helm?
This is a truly remarkable accomplishment and the exposure should elevate the program for years to come.
Gottlieb arrived on campus with lofty ambitions: raising Cal women’s basketball to elite status, on par with the likes of Connecticut, Tennessee and that other Bay Area school down on the Farm. While sustained success is required to be considered elite, Gottlieb’s team did eviscerate the boundaries of what is considered possible for the program this season, setting school records for wins (32) and consecutive wins (16) while snapping Stanford’s
Pac-12 Conference-record 81-game winning streak in January.
Skeptics will point out that Gottlieb inherited a team loaded with talent, but what they might not realize is that she recruited this year’s senior class, which includes Eliza Pierre, Talia Caldwell and Layshia Clarendon, while she was Joanne Boyle’s right-hand woman as an assistant from 2005 to 2008.
Gottlieb clearly knows how to develop trust with her players. Tierra Rogers, Gennifer Brandon and Pierre, who have all lost close family members to gun violence, each said that Gottlieb is more than a coach: she’s someone they confide in when issues arise away from basketball. This isn’t surprising. Gottlieb says one of her goals as a coach is to help empower young women to do things they don’t think they’re capable of, on and off the court, which is the kind of vision that Cal needs from its coaches.
While her players’ testimonials confirm the mentorship role she assumes, the team’s resilience against Georgia on Monday is evidence that they’re buying in on the court, too.
The Bears battled back from a 10-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play in an ugly game where nothing seemed to go according to plan. When Georgia sent the game to overtime with 7 seconds left on the clock, Cal responded again with hard-nosed defense and relentless effort for every rebound, every loose ball. Teams often inherit a coach’s disposition and the Bears’ mental toughness reflects Gottlieb’s will to produce the best version of Cal women’s basketball.
With Gottlieb, Barbour has transformed women’s hoops at Cal. Now, if Dykes can lead the Bears to the Rose Bowl, the Raiders might want to think about giving her a call.
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.