Win a championship and it’s a great season; two in a row – a great team; one more win and it’s a dynasty. But what do you call 10 championships in a row? Dynasty cannot begin to describe such a complete domination.
What do you call a coach that leads his team through a decade’s worth of domination? In Santa Barbara they call him Mark French. He calls it being in the right place at the right time.
“The success of our program is all built around unbelievable people other than myself,” French said. “I haven’t really screwed it up too badly and that’s really all the credit I can take.”
For the last 10 seasons, the women’s basketball team has owned the title of conference champion. During this streak that has no equal anywhere in NCAA basketball, the Gauchos boast a record of 151-11 against conference opponents.
French has been named Big West Coach of the Year seven times and has 10 more years of experience than any other Big West coach. Now the dean of the conference coaches, French never thought he would end up coaching anything but baseball.
After spending four years pitching for the Gauchos and two playing basketball, he found himself working and studying at Pacific. He was working on his Masters in Psychology of Coaching and was teaching the art of the curve ball, not the jump hook.
“I thought at the time that my career was going to be as a baseball coach,” French said. “I had been there for five years as an assistant baseball coach. They liked me and thought I was a good guy and knew I was kind of getting antsy about not making much money. Their women’s basketball coaching job came open and they wanted to keep me around, so they offered me the job.”
One year after Title IX passed, Mark French went to work on the court. In four years at Pacific, French turned a bottom-feeding program that no one cared about into a winning program.
“I coached baseball all day long and at night I coached basketball,” French said. “When the athletic director offered me the women’s basketball team he told me ‘I don’t care about the women’s basketball team. I don’t care if they win; just don’t violate any NCAA rules and don’t have any relationships with the players – that would be embarrassing for the university,’ so it was really pretty accidental.”
From there he took over at Idaho State, where he was successful once again. But Pocatello, Idaho wasn’t exactly the city he dreamed of living in, so when an old friend from Pacific became the athletic director at Santa Barbara and gave him the opportunity to come home, he never thought twice.
“He called me and asked me if I’d be interested in applying,” French said. “It took me about a zillionth of a second to say ‘yes’.”
French took over and turned the Gauchos from a team that went 0-18 in the Big West, to the team that won 45 straight conference games. Using his talents and the talents of his staff along with the natural beauty of Santa Barbara, he has been able to consistently recruit the top talent in the Big West. He has used that talent to dominate the competition.
To convince last season’s star All-American, and first-ever Gaucho to be drafted in the first round of the WNBA, Kristen Mann to play for him, he did the typical things coaches do to bring in top talent.
Yet, Mark French isn’t the typical coach, so he went a step further; after spending the day on the beach he planned a special surprise for her. He knew she was a fan of Dave Matthews Band so he took out an acoustic guitar and showed her just how much he wanted her to play for him. He played and sang “Crash,” much to Mann’s amusement and this helped her decide to sign with Santa Barbara, much to French’s amusement.
“I think our program has a philosophy that is attractive to many female athletes,” French said. “Having basketball being about building habits of excellence and having basketball fit into the rest of your life at an appropriate level.”
French is proud of recruiting Mann and her success in basketball after UCSB. He is also proud of Erin Alexander, Stacey Clinesmith, Erika Kienast, Kayte Christensen and Erin Buescher – all former Gauchos who went on to play professionally.
French’s seven Big West Coach of the Year awards and the prestigious Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Division 8 Coach of the Year award, bring him great pride, but none of those can compare to the women he has coached during his 27 years as a head coach. Like a proud father, he brags about his kids – his basketball family – with watery eyes.
“We were upset in double overtime by Pacific in 1996 and we didn’t get a tournament bid,” French said. “We came home and our star player, Erin Alexander, her fianc