By Bobby Curran
Being born into basketball royalty may appear to be an easy road into high level success in the sport, but a close look at the arc of UH assistant basketball coach John Montgomery’s career reveals that while having a Hall of Fame coach for a father undoubtedly had some big advantages, but also came with some stresses and complications. Mike Montgomery is well known for having been the coach at both Stanford and Cal, wrapped around being the coach of the Golden State Warriors.
For one thing, he inherited some good athletic genes, leading to playing 3 sports in high school, but by his junior year was concentrating on basketball. A standout performance in a summer tournament led to his being noticed and then recruited. “At the D-I level I was right on the line between a scholarship player and an invited walk-on,” said Montgomery. “But I was most interested in finding a place where I could grow into a contributor.” That proved to be Loyola Marymount where after 2 years in the depth, he got serious time at the point guard spot in his final 2 years.
And then it was decision time. Try and climb the slippery slope of college coaching or find a real job, as people in the business would say. Then a man who had coached with Mike Montgomery at Stanford, Jeff Jackson, had gotten the job at Furman in Greenville, South Carolina. So right out of college, John found himself as a full time assistant coach! “Like a lot of young people who grew up around basketball, I knew the game pretty well,” Montgomery said. “But I didn’t know anything about coaching, or relating as a coach to players, and South Carolina was a culture shock to a Bay Area guy.”
The following year his dad became the head coach at Cal, and hired John as Director of Operations, and he was back in Northern California. “This became a difficult period for me, and for my dad, too,” Montgomery acknowledged. “It put a big strain on our relationship. For one thing, I was living at home, so we were always together. And I was way too outspoken for my experience level. Within 3 years I was a full time assistant in the Pac-12, and I was only 26. Looking back, while incredibly fortunate to have that job with my dad, I could have handled it better.”
When his dad retired in 2014, John found the labor market really tough. At first he couldn’t find anything, and finally latched onto the D-Ops job at USF. It seemed to John that the career arc had gone into reverse, from a full time assistant in the Pac-12 to a D-Ops guy in the WCC. “ I was questioning whether I was going to stay in coaching or do something else,” Montgomery said.
He went to work camps that summer for Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, and arranged for a couple of international recruits to have conversations with Bennett. Randy Bennett has a coaching tree as long as your arm, and he has an eye for young coaching talent. Former assistant Eran Ganot had just taken the Hawai’i job, and Bennett thought the personalities would be a good fit, and having an insight on Montgomery’s comfort with international recruiting, again seemed a good match. He called Eran, and the process began in earnest, with Montgomery taking the job in Manoa, and being on the court the with his new players the following day!
Montgomery is now the longest tenured assistant on the staff, and has evolved into the de facto defensive coordinator. When Montgomery started here, as all assistants under Eran do, they get assigned on a rotating basis “the scout”, which entails breaking down an opponent on tape, analyzing every offensive set, defensive scheme, and all out of bounds plays. This is done in a room with the players, and there is an art to it. How much detail to give the players? You don’t want paralysis by analysis. Then it goes on the practice court, where the scout coach sets up the scout team to get the first team ready for what they’ll see in the game.
Many programs don’t give this much responsibility to assistants, and new coaches here are often doing the scout for the first time. “I am the only person not on the UH staff who travels, so I get a close up and personal view of the scout.” John was, like most assistants, visibly nervous when doing the scout early on. By the end of that first year, John had the scout preparing for his former team Cal, which is still the only NCAA tournament win in UH history. If you watched him conduct one now, the polish and confidence, and even humor, are off the chart. Done well, these are incredibly informative, critical to game prep, and very entertaining.
”It would be hard to explain how much John has grown as a coach”, said UH head coach Eran Ganot. “He never is about anything but team, and he’s as good as anybody we’ve ever had at adjusting in game. He will be a terrific head coach, and he is ready now. It’s just getting a chance.” College basketball is a small world. Once in the Great Alaska shootout, Eran was coaching at UH, former assistant Adam Jacobsen was an assistant at Pacific, and John was playing at LMU.
On the personal side, John is in a relationship with former UH beach volleyball player Hannah Zalopany. Must be serious because the couple has bought a condo, and a French bulldog! John’s mother, Sarah has always been incredibly supportive of her men and of daughter Annie, now herself a mother of two beautiful daughters.
Hannah coaches high school and club volleyball, and has an excellent grasp on the demands on a college coach. “I couldn’t be any happier,” said Montgomery.” We both love Hawaii, Hannah is a Kauai girl, and she understands what the job entails.
“And our program is the kind I aspire to. It’s about team, culture, character, and skill development, and we have a really good group this year.”