It would be rather peculiar to say that a man that stands roughly a towering 6’8 goes largely unnoticed on campus. However, quietly, calmly and bloody efficiently, UCSB women’s Basketball Head Coach Mark French has constructed a juggernaut, and largely under the radar.
Call them the proverbial Atlanta Braves of the Big West, but whenever it seems as though a rival has put enough pieces together to knock Santa Barbara off of their Big West pedestal, UCSB pulls it out.
Well, ten times in a row, to be exact. Roughly a year ago, this scribe predicted that a revamped Idaho squad would finally take down the mighty Gauchos. With two regular season wins over UCSB under their belt, Idaho faltered in the Big West Championship game, blowing a lead and getting pounded by the Gauchos.
What was I thinking? You don’t bet against a team with ten consecutive titles.
And neither will opposing coaches. Once again, at Big West Media Day, coaches and members of the media dubbed UCSB as the favorite to 11-peat, and win the Big West, yet again.
After so many years of dominant play, it almost seems as if opposing players and coaches have developed an inferiority complex whenever they lace up to take on UCSB.
“You have to truly believe you can beat them,” Cal Poly senior guard Michelle Henke said. “You can’t lack inner gut, you need a team with good will.” When wins against Santa Barbara are so few and far between, you remember them. The last time Cal Poly took down UCSB was in a 76-70 upset in February of 2001. So what happened, Coach?
“We pressed the socks off of them,” Cal Poly Head Coach Faith Mimnaugh said. “All of the stars must have been aligned.” Under French’s tutelage, his players have played all of the big games with ice in their veins and blood on their minds. It’s not to say they aren’t without their fair share of blow-out wins, but over the years they play down the clutch with such flawless execution that opponents turn into a deer in the headlights when the opportunity arises to knock off the Gauchos in a close game.
“Santa Barbara is such a good program, they always find a way to win,” Long Beach Head Coach Mary Hegarty said. “Even when they’re on the ropes.” Despite losing phenom Kristen Mann to graduation and the WNBA, talk among opposing coaches repeatedly mentioned having to go through Santa Barbara in order to take the Big West. Especially considering it seems that every year the Gauchos lose a WNBA talent, but a new one always seems to magically emerge. But when a new season arises, so do the hopes of potential challengers.
“His role players are always so strong,” Hegarty said. “We always feel like we have a chance to knock them off…” So while it seems as though the talk before every season revolves around all of the pieces of the Big West puzzle that French lost, he always seems to seamlessly place all the new pieces in, and another Big West title is the result.
Ten years in a row is an eternity in college sports. Especially considering the close proximity of so many rival schools that would seemingly hinder recruiting efforts. UCSB really has no fiscal advantages over its challengers. The only real recruiting ploy that French has to offer is the prestigious program that he has built from the ground up.
“I’m very excited for the season…” French said. “I’m proud that everyone is gunning for the Gauchos.” But if history – 10 years worth – has been any indication, I somehow doubt French will have any problems dodging the bullets.
Sean Swaby is the Daily Nexus Sports Editor.