Q & A with Head Basketball Coach Montgomery


By Khobi Price

The men’s basketball team will match up against No. 8 Michigan State Spartans 1 p.m. Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan in a contest that will be the Huskies’ final non-conference game of the 2018-19 season and serve as a homecoming for Head Coach Mark Montgomery.

Montgomery was a four-year letter winner at Michigan State from 1988-1992 under National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Famer Jud Heathcote.

He averaged 7.0 points and 6.3 assists during his senior season as a co-captain en route to a 1992 All-Big Ten Third Team selection and a 22-8 record.

NIU’s head coach averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 assists during his four years as a Spartan. He was part of the 1989 NIT Final Four team, the 1990 Big Ten Championship team, and three NCAA Tournament teams.

Montgomery ranks fourth in career steals and sixth in career assists in Michigan State men’s basketball program history and was named the 1992 John E. Benington Best Defensive Player.

After spending four seasons as an assistant coach at Central Michigan University, Montgomery joined the Michigan State coaching staff in 2001 under Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer and current Spartans Head Coach Tom Izzo.

Montgomery helped the Spartans make six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, including the 2003 NCAA Elite Eight and 2005 NCAA Final Four, before being promoted to associate head coach in May 2007.

With Montgomery as the associate head coach, Michigan State won the Big 10 regular season championship 2009 and 2010, made a NCAA Sweet 16 appearance in 2008, competed in the 2010 NCAA Final Four and was the 2009 NCAA Tournament runner-up.

Montgomery spoke with the Northern Star to discuss his experiences at Michigan State ahead of his first match-up versus his alma mater as a head coach.

Q: How do you feel about the trip to Michigan State?

A: I’m excited about it. First off, it’s a great opportunity for our student athletes to play in one of the top-10 venues in the country and I also want to show the guys where I played and coached at. I’m looking forward to that and the challenge of playing one of the best Big 10 teams around.

Q: What did it feel like and what was going through your mind when you saw this game was going to be on the schedule?

A: Scheduling starts a year or two ahead, so it was already planned to try to get them, we were just looking for the perfect date. Like I just said, it’s a great opportunity for the guys, unbelievable opportunity for me to coach against one of the best. [I’m] just thankful for the opportunity. When you talk Michigan State and other top teams in the country, they can play anyone. Izzo giving me the opportunity to come back. I get the chance to see a lot of family, friends and former co-workers. I’m looking forward to it.

Q: What made you decide to return to Michigan State in 2001 after being an assistant coach at Central Michigan?

A: I was excited for the opportunity because it usually doesn’t work out that way; when you just coach for four years and then the job opens up. It has to be a lot of moving pieces. I was ecstatic, believe it or not, I remember it was the spring of 2000 and Stan Heath (Michigan State assistant coach from 1996-2001) had just gotten the job at Kent State and believe it or not I was headed on vacation. I didn’t want to go on vacation because I wanted to makes sure I got my interview in, sit down with Coach Izzo and the staff and make sure they knew I wanted to come back. Once you get into coaching, a lot of coaches would love the opportunity to coach at where they played at and I was no different. I was right down the street and Michigan State had just been to three out of four [NCAA] Final Fours. I remember going to those Final Fours and watching them practice. I was like “I want to be down there one day, I just got to keep working hard”, and sure enough I got my opportunity to coach there and we got to that Final Four in 2005. I was living the dream.

Q: As a coach, what were some of your favorite memories?

A: Any time you win a championship or go to the Final Four. We had a special team in 2005 that got the guys to the Final Four and to be a part of that. And 2010 when we got to the Final Four and it was in Detroit. We were walking through Ford Field for our open practice and it was sold out. That was an incredible memory. I remember locker room celebrations, when you win big games. I’ve got a lot of fond memories as a coach. It’s a lot of memories, and those are just games we won. I remember the journey to get there; the film sessions, the individual coaching sessions, and being on the road recruiting. I remember a lot of friendships that were made during that time and the people I met. It was great.

Q: You coached a lot of great talent, especially ones that made the NBA. Who was your most memorable future NBA player that you coached at Michigan State?

A: I always go back to that 2005 group when we had Alan Anderson, Kelvin Torbert; that group. Drew Neitzel and Paul Davis, that team was a very memorable team because we hadn’t been in the Final Four for four years. That was the first one I was a part of. Individual players, it’s a long list of Shannon Browns, Draymond Greens and Maurice Agers. I’d hate to leave some guys out, these are guys who went onto the NBA. The staple aren’t just one or two great players, it’s our teams. I remember our teams, how they could come together and all work for one common goal.

Q: Do you have any good Draymond Green stories?

A: I just remember how much confidence he came in with where he wasn’t going to be denied. I also remember him on the back of that bus crying when he didn’t play in that Ohio State game, him calling his mom and she said “Well, make sure you find a reason why they can’t play you”, but just having the support of the parents behind us was amazing.

Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned under Tom Izzo?

A: You got to roll up your sleeves and go after and work hard every single day. You have to have relationships with the players. If you want to be good at it, you have to spend a lot of time. It’s a lot of lessons, but I remember him always telling me “it’s not as easy as you think, wait until you run your program”. Just the words “you will see”, and he’s exactly right. It’s a lot of things that come at you on a daily basis. You can think you can be prepared for everything, but you have to trust your work, you have to trust the people around you and you have to delegate.

Q: Going back to playing days, describe yourself as a player or if there’s a professional player now that plays like you did, who would it be?

A: Playing days, I was just one of those skinny kids out if the city of Inkster who was just thankful for the opportunity. My game, I don’t know how many guards are more pass-first points and unbelievable defenders, but that’s what my game was. I had an unbelievable competitiveness to just want to win. I just say I was a good player who worked hard. Not many NBA players played like me because they were a lot better than me, but it’s a lot of a college players that you can see play with great energy, great effort, they take pride in their defense and they play very unselfishly. That’s how I kind of describe myself.

Q: What would be the most memorable play of your career, if there is one?

A: Going back to the 1990 Big 10 Championship game versus Perdue. We’re on our home court, it’s winner take all in that game. We’re down one with 15 seconds to go. Purdue has the ball and we’re pressing. We’re kind of fouling a little bit, but kind of not and I remember Dwayne Stephens laying it up for the Big 10 Championship and that goes onto the storming of the court and the cutting down of the nets. That’s probably my most memorable moment as a player.

Q: What was it like playing the Fab 5, especially now that you can see their impact?

A: When I was a senior, they were freshmen. You could see how the hype was greatly deserved because they were very talented at a young age. Looking back at it, it was already the big rival, Michigan vs. Michigan State and it just made it that much bigger because they were so good at an early age. Not too many things had to be said when going against Michigan. And to add to the Fab 5, it only added fire. I remember we split. We won down there and they won at our place. That’s what I’ll always remember about that, other than Jaylen [Rose] stopping on the S at [Jack] Breslin [Student Events Center]. We didn’t appreciate that. We made sure to return the favor when we went to Ann Arbor.

Q: Can’t take the disrespect?

A: Oh, well you know back then…sportsmanship is so much better now. Back then, we didn’t shake hands before games. At the end of the game I guess you got a little soft handshake per say.

Q: How does it feel to be one spot ahead of Magic Johnson in career assists?

A: When you look back at it, you’re like “Wow, Magic Johnson was my idol”. He was during my era. To me he was the best of all time or whatever the young guys say, the G.O.A.T. [greatest of all time], so I guess I put a little work in. It’s some great players that played through there and you see your name any place in the record books, you’ve been blessed.

Q: When the games over and you go to shake Tom Izzo’s hands, what do you think that moment that going to feel like for you?

A: It all depends on if you win or lose, but it’s just a thankful moment because you don’t get to thank a person enough when you’re going through the battle with a person daily. It takes special moments to reflect back. It might be the last time I coach there, you never know. Hopefully we can play them again. Just a thankful moment and a relief that this game is finally over and we can get ready for MAC play.