April 4, 2008

French's Life Change Was Pivotal for UCSB

April 4, 2008

This article originally ran in the Santa Barbara News-Press on April 4, 2008.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Mark French's journey into athletics began when he was just a toddler, dragging bats away from home plate for his dad's Bakersfield High School baseball team.

It didn't take the little bat boy long to reach his first crossroads.

"By the time I got into second grade, I wanted to coach," he revealed during one of his earliest interviews at UCSB.

But the turning point of his life -- and for Gaucho athletics -- didn't come until he was in his 30s: He chose to walk away from baseball for good . . . and coach women.

By the time French announced his retirement on Thursday, he'd left a 21-year UCSB basketball legacy that includes 13 Big West Conference championships, 12 NCAA Tournament appearances, eight All-Americans -- and, most significantly to him, many more that he guided into womanhood.

Brandy Richardson was still breathing hard from her final Big West championship game in 2005 when she was asked what her coach had meant to her.

"Coach French, there's no other man out there like him," she said as she tried to swallow the emotion. "He's a great father figure. He's a great coach. He's a great friend."

She paused, searching for some composure and the right phrase.

"He's just everything that someone should be."

French once wanted to be a baseball pitcher. Even though he dabbled in basketball, playing two seasons at UCSB as the 6-foot-8 backup for Gaucho Hall of Famer Doug Rex, he could also throw a fastball 91 mph.

He soon began focusing only on a catcher's mitt.

French pitched UCSB to a conference championship during his senior season of 1972 even though he'd torn the rotator cuff in his shoulder.

His record was 7-2, thanks in part to regular injections of pain-killing drugs. But he knew that his next shot for glory would have to come as a coach.

The University of Pacific gave him a start as its pitching coach in 1975. He didn't stumble into women's basketball for another four years, when UOP asked him to moonlight as its head coach.

"I was looking for a career in coaching baseball, but I was only making something like $9,000, while teaching some classes and gassing up vans and doing things that graduate assistants do part-time," French recalled. "But then they fired their women's basketball coach -- the team's record was just 6-21 and there were some other problems.

"Women's basketball at Pacific and at other places was not a high priority, and so they offered me the job and said I could continue coaching baseball."

French, newly married and excited about the extra paycheck, was soon quoting Ernie Banks: "Let's play two!"

But his new basketball players weren't as thrilled, knowing full well that he'd never even seen a women's basketball game, let alone one of their own contests.

"They asked, did I do this to keep being a baseball coach?" French revealed. "I was honest: Yes, it would double my salary. But I promised them I'd work as hard coaching them as I did coaching baseball."

But then something even greater happened: He fell in love with women's basketball.

"This was my team. My kids," he said.

His kids went 17-11 in his first season. After going 20-7 the following year, Mark French found himself at another crossroads:

"I asked them if I could be relieved of my baseball duties," he said.

There was something about coaching women that attracted him. He explained it during an interview eight years ago:

"You might be able to have a good men's basketball team where nobody cared for each other, but I don't think it's possible for a women's team," French said. "Their affiliation and their need for each other is too powerful. Their ability to trust each other is important.

"It has to be cultivated, nurtured and protected constantly."

He spent four winning seasons at Pacific before his alma mater called in 1983 -- but it was barely a whisper.

"They had just a few scholarships, no money for an assistant coach and very low pay for the head job," he said.

But worst of all for French was that he never even met UCSB athletic director Ken Droscher during his 48-minute interview. He pulled his hat out of the Gaucho ring and took the head job at Idaho State.

But things were changing at UCSB when the Gauchos began looking for a coach again four years later. New A.D. Stan Morrison met French at the airport, took him to breakfast and even quizzed him on X's and O's during his interview session.

But French had the most important question: "I asked them how much they wanted to support the program, and they said they'd support it enough for it to be competitive in the top half of the conference, year-in and year-out."

It was a bold statement for a school that had just five conference wins to its credit during the previous four seasons combined. French began going through the game films from the previous year -- the 4-22 season of 1986-87 -- but became horrified while watching the 105-25 loss to Long Beach State.

"I watched about 10 minutes of it, and then just decided to burn all the rest of the tapes," French said. "I didn't want to see them and I didn't want them hanging around the office."

UCSB won 438 games the next 21 seasons, but it really wasn't about the victories. It was about something more.

At the end of the last millennium, French was asked to rate his 10 greatest experiences with the Gauchos. Only three of them had to do with games, and one of those wasn't even a victory.

Topping his list was the aftermath of 1996 Women's National Invitation Tournament. Jeff Rio, the boyfriend of star player Erin Alexander from their Santa Ynez High days, had been killed in a car accident just before the team departed for Amarillo, Tex.

"I'll always remember sitting in the back of the locker room," French said. "They were all crying and hugging each other. I felt the power of intercollegiate athletics -- the great experience it can be."

Kristi Rohr, another Santa Ynez recruit who helped lead the Gauchos to four Big West championships, put it into perspective after being asked about her experience in a Greek professional league.

"We finished -- second or third? Well, we had a good time," she said. "Coach French always said, 'It's not the wins and losses you remember, it's the friendships you make.' "

And for the last 21 years, UCSB could not have had a better friend.