Mark French is on vacation. It may be the most deserved vacation any member of the UCSB Athletic Department has ever earned, considering what he has accomplished in 21 years as UCSB women’s basketball’s commander in chief.
Heading into the 2007-08 women’s basketball campaign, Head Coach French had already achieved legendary status. Not only was he known and loved in the Santa Barbara community as one of the premier coaches in UCSB history, but his impact on the lives of hundreds of young women was not lost on the world of women’s basketball. Having accomplished so much already, French turned in perhaps his best year at the helm of what few thought would be his swan song.
“We went through a lot this year, but Coach French was able to keep us together all the way through,” senior center Jenna Green said. “His leadership played a huge role, and we wouldn’t have been as successful as we were without him.”
One of the hardest things in coaching is to bounce back, and that is exactly what French and the Gauchos did this year. Upstart UC Riverside had dropped UCSB in back-to-back Big West Tournament championship games and snapped Santa Barbara’s streak of 11 consecutive regular season titles. French and the Gauchos responded in a big way, battling through a tough non-conference schedule – including a four-point home defeat at the hands of perennial power Maryland – to prime them to reclaim the stolen crowns.
Instrumental to UCSB’s success this year was French’s ability to develop every player on the roster so he could call upon them if the time came. Every athlete was on the floor in crucial games all season long, and a different player stepped up in a big moment each night, helping the Gauchos overcome the loss of senior center and early Big West Player of the Year candidate Green for the season after appearing in only four games. Especially important was the development of freshman forward Ashlee Brown and the emergence of junior guards Whitney Warren and Sha’Rae Gibbons, who went from good to great players with the help of French.
“I think that what you learn over time, especially with all the teams that he had, he spends a lot of time developing his entire roster,” UCSB men’s soccer Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “I don’t think he necessarily relies on one player. They’re deep enough and good enough to lose a really good player and still maximize everything else the team had.”
One thing that every player donning UCSB blue and gold realizes upon entering the program is how much belief French has in putting forth as much effort as possible on the defensive end. French helped mold Warren into the Defensive Player of the Year, while introducing an in-your-face, high pressure defense that confused opponents all season long. The result was the third best defense in the conference and a roster full of scrappy defenders.
“I learned a long time ago that if you’re not as talented as other teams that you can compensate by your effort, especially defense,” French said. “You don’t have to be a physically talented person to be a great defender. Our defensive system relies on teamwork tremendously, where everyone has to help each other out.”
Part of the allure of French is the aura that seems to flow from him and affect everyone around him. His imposing frame demands instant respect, while the thick gray moustache immediately alerts outsiders of his jovial nature. Players have said for years that the main reason they chose to come to UCSB wasn’t the beach or the Isla Vista party scene, but their desire to play for Coach French. Not only does he have the respect and loyalty of the young women that have come through his program, but also that of other coaches who are respected in their own right.
“He was the first coach when I came on board 10 years ago that really was talking about winning the national championship,” Vom Steeg said. “It was never just about Big West, it was about how can we recruit, how can we put people in the stands, how can we do things that are going to give us a chance to compete for a national championship. It helps elevate everyone else.”
The impact that French has had on the sport of women’s basketball and UCSB’s athletic department will never be forgotten. He never won a national championship, but his 2003-04 squad that lost in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament to eventual National Champion Connecticut went down as one of the most successful teams in school history. His streak of 13 straight postseason appearances may never be matched. And despite all his success, French saved one of his best tricks for last by returning the Gauchos to the top of the conference he has come to dominate.
“It’s a big loss for the department because he set a very high standard for UCSB athletics,” Vom Steeg said. “Undoubtedly, he would say that this was one of the best coaching years he’s had.”