After 21 seasons at the helm of the UCSB women’s basketball program, Head Coach Mark French announced his retirement yesterday, just weeks after leading the Gauchos to their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance.

French returned to his alma mater in 1987, and quickly built one of the top programs on the West Coast, winning 13 Big West titles and leading the program to the postseason in each of the past 13 seasons, including the school’s only Sweet 16 appearance in 2004.

“It has been both an honor and a pleasure to serve as the head women’s basketball coach at UCSB for the past 21 years,” French said. “The opportunity to be a part of the lives of our outstanding women has given my life a richness, and deep sense of satisfaction that I will always cherish. The time has come, however, for me to step aside and allow our program to benefit from the leadership, passion and energy of a new head coach.”

The timing of the move is particularly shocking as next season’s roster looks to be one of the most talented in program history, with only two players graduating from a team that went 23-8 overall and 15-1 in the Big West en route to the conference championship.

“We knew he couldn’t coach for the rest of his life, but we figured he would stick around one more year because we’re going to be so good next season,” sophomore forward Jordan Franey said. “I thought he was so much more involved this year than last year. He did a great job, and he even told us that he thought he brought his A-game all year, but for anyone to have to motivate a team day in and day out for so many years takes its toll.”

The 58-year old French cited a lack of passion to fulfill off the court duties such as recruiting and fundraising as a primary reason for his departure.

“I was hopeful winning would fire me up again, but it didn’t ignite my passion to do all the things necessary to lead the program,” French told the Santa Barbara Independent on Thursday. “I don’t want to be a coach who gets after the kids to do all they can, and not do it myself. These women deserve a head coach who lives up to habits of excellence.”

Displaying the kind of class that has made him a coaching icon both in the community and the conference, French held a team meeting on Wednesday night to discuss the move with his players before making the announcement public.

“Shocked is the word to describe the atmosphere [at the meeting]. We had absolutely no idea and none of us saw this coming,” Franey said. “I think some people felt a little let down because he’s the reason that we all came here, and I know he’s 100 percent the reason I came to play here. After he explained his reasons, though, I think we all saw that he’s thought this out, and we all kind of understood. People don’t realize that coaching is a lot more than just what happens on the floor.”

A 1973 graduate of UCSB, French played two seasons of basketball and four seasons of baseball during his time as a student-athlete. He retires with over 500 career victories, with a 438-200 record at UCSB. The winningest coach in Big West history has coached eight All-Americans and 58 All-Big West honorees during his 21 seasons, which is a conference record for longest tenure at one school.

“Mark has done a tremendous job of leading our women’s basketball program for the past 21 years,” UCSB Director of Athletics Gary Cunningham said. “He is not only an outstanding coach, but he’s an excellent mentor to our young women, and I can’t thank him enough for all he has done. I have great respect for the program he has built here, and I want to congratulate him on his many achievements. He will be deeply missed, and we wish him the very best in his retirement.”

French will continue to lead the program until his replacement is named, with the search process starting immediately in hopes of naming a new head coach as quickly as possible. Franey said the team expects a replacement to be named soon, so the new coach has plenty of time to get acclimated before next season, and to prepare for the future as all five of next seasons projected starters will graduate following the 2008-09 campaign. While some of the current assistants will likely be in the mix to replace French, the favorite figures to be Florida State Associate Head Coach Cori Close, a 1993 graduate of UCSB. Close started four years for French while at UCSB and captained two teams to the NCAA Tournament before joining the coaching staff and eventually becoming French’s top assistant for three seasons. A 2005 inductee into the UCSB Athletics Hall of Fame, Close made her mark as French’s associate head coach, creating the Fastbreakers booster program and playing a crucial role in bringing in three Top-10 recruiting classes.

Coaching changes in college basketball are often followed by player departures, but Franey indicated that she expected the Gauchos to unite as a team, as they deal with the fallout of French’s decision.

“We’re all in shock, and I don’t think anyone really knows how to react, but this is a time for all of us to band together.”