The caller was a man who wanted to voice his opinion about the top story in the sports section.
“Women’s basketball? Are you kidding me? Women’s basketball?”
As sports editor of the News-Press in the early ’90s, I received many such calls whenever a UCSB women’s basketball game received more prominent display than such staples as football, spring training, golf, boxing, and genuine hoops-the high-flying, slam-dunking, Nicholson-at-courtside variety.
But as the decade progressed, the complaints subsided, and there were even demands for more coverage of the Gaucho women and their winning ways-
all because of a former baseball pitcher who found their sport to be a wonderful opportunity to fulfill his destiny.
Mark French, the son of a longtime Bakersfield High coach, was born to lead young people into competition. He always figured it would be a baseball team until, at age 29, he took a part-time job as head coach of women’s basketball at the University of the Pacific. For the next 29 years, he tackled this annual challenge: Bring together 10 or 15 women and try to help them become better basketball players and better people.
French, a UCSB graduate, returned to his alma mater in 1988 and took over a feeble women’s basketball program that had experienced just two winning seasons in 15 years. Game stories were buried on the back page of the newspaper. What could be said about a 105-25 loss to Long Beach State? Fortunately, nobody was in the stands to watch the devastation.
During the next 21 years, the new coach brought about a remarkable transformation. The Gaucho women became perennial winners, the dominant team in the Big West Conference, and one of the top programs on the West Coast. French’s teams compiled a record of 438-200, winning 13 conference championships and making 12 appearances in the NCAA tournament.
“Mark French really is the women’s basketball program,” said UCSB men’s coach Bob Williams. “He built it from nothing to something that’s comparable to Gonzaga on the men’s side.”
It is almost impossible to imagine a UCSB women’s game without seeing French’s 6Ê¹8Ê° beanpole figure standing in front of the bench, shuttling players in and out, exhorting them to defend, deny the reversal passes, box out, and hit the boards. But the Gauchos will have to go on without their bellwether next season.
Last week, French decided to retire. He had poured so much energy into his work, he explained, that he began to feel himself emptying out. The last season was especially hard. He put a lot of pressure on himself to get the Gauchos back on top, and he figuratively squeezed out some bile. He did not like the taste; it was something only a Bob Knight would relish-and Mark French is no Bob Knight.
French is leaving his successor-to be named at a later date-an experienced team that has prospects for yet another superior season in 2008-09. It is stocked with the kind of players Santa Barbara hoops fans have come to enjoy.
“He brought in kids you want to root for,” said Steve Wendt, the team’s play-by-play radio announcer. “Good kids who bust their tails.”
In the years they lacked talent, French’s teams played with extreme effort and enthusiasm. The sight of young women risking floor burns as they dove for loose balls proved captivating. As word spread about them, the crowds at the Thunderdome swelled from dozens to an average of more than 2,000 during the past decade. They saw the Gauchos beat USC and UCLA, and that helped with their recruiting.
“I’ve been impressed with the caliber of players French has brought to Santa Barbara,” said Don Ford, a former NBA player who has been a radio commentator for Gaucho home games. “People love to see talent and victories. It’s been fun to be involved.”
French sent team members out into the community, giving clinics at schools, visiting hospitals and old folks’ homes. Many civic leaders became diehard fans. “When I grew up back east, the last thing you wanted to do was go to a women’s game,” said basketball junkie Roger Heroux, former head of the county health department. “I took my wife Consuelo to a UCSB game a dozen years ago and, wow, it was really exciting. We were hooked.”
UCSB’s women made their first big splash in 1992 with a team that posed a strong challenge against eventual national champion Stanford in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Top-ranked Connecticut, blowing out other teams by 40 or 50 points a game, rolled into the Thunderdome for a preseason game in 1996. “Our defense was in-your-face,” said Erin (Alexander) Brown, the Gaucho sharpshooter from Santa Ynez. “UConn wasn’t used to it. They only beat us by 11.”
A surprising victory over another national power, Vanderbilt, thrust the Gauchos into a national TV appearance in the second round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. That was the debut year of a talented, run-gun-and-fun bunch-including the jitterbug point guard Stacy Clinesmith and ponytailed, always smiling Erin Buescher-that carried UCSB to a Top 10 national ranking in 2000. French got caught up in their goofiness and promised to dye his hair if they set a new attendance record. More than 4,700 fans cooperated, and French became a bleached blond. The Thunderdome was sold out when the Gauchos played the first round of the NCAA tournament at home, and Rice spoiled their fun with a shocking 67-64 upset.
French took the lesson to heart. He did not abandon his sense of humor or playfulness-as when he lip-synced a Dave Matthews Band hit to impress recruit Kristen Mann-but never again were the Gauchos too giddy going into the postseason. They stunned Louisiana Tech on Jess Hansen’s last-second jumper in 2002, beat Xavier, and almost took down Texas Tech at Lubbock in 2003. When they hosted the first two rounds of the NCAAs again in 2004, the Gauchos knocked off Colorado and Houston to reach the Sweet 16, where they lost an epic 63-55 battle to two-time defending champion Connecticut in Hartford.
Through all the ups and downs on the court, French constantly beat on the theme that there was more to life than basketball, that the sport was just a vehicle for developing “habits of excellence,” his favorite expression.
“When we could hardly dribble the ball, I had to sell my players on the greater meaning of things,” French said. “I don’t want to let that slide because we’re really good in basketball. I want there to be something inside, so that a person who never saw us play before would say, ‘Gee, UCSB women’s basketball players are good people.'”
In many conversations I had with French throughout the years, he spoke candidly about his own shortcomings and how he learned from them: how the breakup of his marriage taught him the importance of communication; how he came to realize that working 80 hours a week and sleeping on the couch in his office was not a good example of leading a balanced life.
He conducted weekly half-hour individual meetings with each player. “College is an intense time of life,” said Lisa Willett, a Santa Barbara High star who stayed home to play for the Gauchos. “Who are we? What’s important to us? Who’s important to us? Coach French was a rock for me through it all.”
The players called him Big Daddy. He was so adamant about empowering his women that, when the All-American Buescher stunned him by transferring to Master’s College for her senior year, French said he was proud of her for making her own decision, even though it was painful for him.
Ask any player who has stuck with the Gaucho program, and she will say French had a tremendous impact on her life. “He’s one of the most amazing people I’ve known,” said Erin Brown, who just became an engineer for the Newport Beach Fire Department. “I was lucky he chose me. He emphasized doing the right thing and responding in the right way.”
Mann is one of many former Gauchos who have continued playing basketball professionally. She will be with the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream this summer, and she is currently playing on a top division team in France. From there, she emailed her favorite story about French this week:
“In 2003, when I was playing for the U.S.A. team, the first day of practice I dislocated my pinky and split it open. When Carol Callan [of U.S.A. Basketball] called Coach French to tell him what happened, the first thing he asked her was, ‘Can she still play the guitar?’ Carol looked at me like, ‘Why does he care about the guitar and not if you’ll be okay to play basketball?’ I couldn’t help but smile. Now you tell me : what Division I coach would ask that question?
“That’s just how Big Daddy rolls!”
Top Sporting Events: April 10-20
Thursday, April 10
High school boys tennis Ventura at Santa Barbara, 2:30 p.m.
High school boys volleyball Dos Pueblos at Santa Barbara, 6:30 p.m.; Ventura at San Marcos, 6:30 p.m.
Friday, April 11
College women’s tennis UC Davis at UCSB, 1:30 p.m.
College baseball UC Davis at UCSB, 2 p.m.
High school swimming San Marcos at Santa Barbara, 2:30 p.m.; Mater Dei at Dos Pueblos, 2:30 p.m.
High school baseball Villanova Prep at Carpinteria, 3:30 p.m.
High school softball Ventura at Santa Barbara, 3:30 p.m.
College men’s volleyball Long Beach State at UCSB, Robertson Gym, 7 p.m.
Basketball Newport Beach Surf at Santa Barbara Breakers, SBCC Sports Pavilion, 7:05 p.m.
Saturday, April 12
Running Are You Tough Enough? 105K, Toro Canyon Park to Nojoqui Falls Park, starting at 4 a.m. (individuals) and 7 a.m. (teams).
High school track & field Russell Cup at Carpinteria High, 9:30 a.m.
High school swimming Mater Dei at Santa Barbara, 10 a.m.
College baseball UC Davis at UCSB, 1 p.m.; Moorpark at SBCC, Pershing Park, 1 p.m.
College men’s volleyball UC San Diego at UCSB, Robertson Gym, 7 p.m.
Basketball Hollywood Shooting Stars at Santa Barbara Breakers, SBCC Sports Pavilion, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday, April 13
College women’s water polo Pacific at UCSB, 12 p.m.
College baseball UC Davis at UCSB, 1 p.m.
Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table press luncheon, Harry’s Plaza Cafe, noon.
Tuesday, April 15
College softball Moorpark at SBCC (2), Pershing Park, 1 p.m.
College baseball Westmont at UCSB, 2 p.m.
High school baseball Dos Pueblos at San Marcos, 3:15 p.m.
High school softball San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 3:30 p.m.
High school volleyball Ventura at Dos Pueblos, 6:30 p.m.
Wednesday, April 16
High school baseball Bishop Diego at Carpinteria, 3:30 p.m.
College men’s volleyball L.A. Pierce at SBCC, 6 p.m.
Thursday, April 17
College baseball Ventura at SBCC, Pershing Park, 2:30 p.m.
High school boys tennis San Marcos at Santa Barbara, 2:30 p.m.
High school baseball Santa Barbara at San Marcos, 3:15 p.m.
High school softball Carpinteria at Bishop Diego, 3:30 p.m.
High school track & field Ventura at Dos Pueblos, 2:45 p.m.; Fillmore at Carpinteria, 3 p.m.
High school volleyball Buchanan at Santa Barbara, 6:30 p.m.; Buena at Dos Pueblos, 6:30 p.m.
Friday, April 18
College baseball USC at UCSB, 2 p.m.
High school swimming Dos Pueblos at Santa Barbara, 2:30 p.m.
High school baseball Buena at Santa Barbara, 3:15 p.m.; San Marcos at Dos Pueblos, 3:15 p.m.; Carpinteria at Bishop Diego, 3:30 p.m.
High school softball Dos Pueblos at San Marcos, 3:30 p.m.
High school boys volleyball Santa Barbara Karch Kiraly Tournament of Champions, SB High and Dos Pueblos, all day.
Saturday, April 19
Running Santa Barbara Running 10-Miler & 5K, Leadbetter Beach, 8 a.m.
High school track & field County Championships at Carpinteria, 10 a.m.
College baseball San Diego Christian at Westmont (2), 12 p.m.; Hancock at SBCC, Pershing Park, 1 p.m.
College softball Long Beach State at UCSB (2), 12 p.m.
High school boys volleyball Santa Barbara Karch Kiraly Tournament of Champions, SB High and Dos Pueblos, all day.
Basketball Carlsbad Beach Dawgs at Santa Barbara Breakers, SBCC Sports Pavilion, 7:05 p.m.
Sunday, April 20
College softball Long Beach State at UCSB, 12 p.m.
College baseball USC at UCSB, 1 p.m.