When Cal two years ago announced the hiring of Mike Montgomery as its basketball coach, it seemed to be a safe, unimaginative, almost lazy, hire.
For it stood to reason that Montgomery, with a background of success at Stanford before slamming into a Warriorized version of the NBA, would have a difficult time selling himself to the nation's best ballers. He's an excellent coach, knows the game and how to teach it, but at age 61 he was neither a celebrity nor a star-maker.
And nothing stirs the 21st-century youngster like being linked with celebrity or the perception of a ticket to stardom.
But as we watch this NCAA tournament play out in all its glorious insanity, the wisdom of the decision is starting to surface.
With the exception of Duke, which lives in its own royal universe, there are two types of major college basketball programs. There are the overtly ambitious, which are identified by their mammoth budgets and their spectacular facilities and their ability to consistently attract A-list recruits. And there are the moderately ambitious, which are identified by their desire to win while recognizing academic or budgetary limitations.
Arizona, Louisville, Kansas and Kentucky would be examples of the former.
Cal would be a classic example of the latter.
With the exception of the memorable/lamentable Todd Bozeman era, an overtly ambitious time when even the best national recruits were fearlessly and relentlessly pursued, Cal basketball over the past half century has been defined by quality student-athletes who, with few exceptions, are not destined for the NBA.
Of the eight Cal players drafted in the first round since 1960, four were recruited to Berkeley during Bozeman's six-plus years (1990-96) as assistant or head coach. But Bozeman's desire to emulate Rick Pitino or John Calipari -- celebrity coaches whose names resonate with top-tier recruits -- was undone by his recklessness.
If the hiring of Ben Braun restored a measure of order in the wake of Bozeman, the hiring of Montgomery has positioned Cal to become a consistent contender in the Pac-10 and a regular presence in the NCAAs.
As for being a consistent national championship threat, that defies the concept of Cal's actual reality.
The new national championship favorite, Kentucky, has risen to this level because of the immensely gifted recruiting class Calipari secured in his first year in Lexington. It's the kind of recruiting haul he could not have achieved if he were at Cal.
Here is where we remind you, out of courtesy, that Calipari would not have considered coming to Cal.
Neither would Kansas coach Bill Self or Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski or Arizona's Sean Miller or North Carolina's Roy Williams or Louisville's Pitino -- nor anyone whose ambitions dwarf the realistic expectations of the school.
These coaches are accustomed to having their games on national TV. Their home games routinely sell out, even though some arena capacities exceed 20,000. Their office walls are lined with photos of NBA lottery picks. These coaches are drawn to programs they can sell as pipelines to The League.
When Duke shows up in your area, fans flock. After practice the other day in Jacksonville, a Blue Devils equipment manager dropped a duffel bag at center court, whereupon players pulled out T-shirts and, to cheers, tossed them to folks in the stands.
Cal then took the court, practiced before a visibly smaller audience and went back into the locker room.
Louisville's media guide is a glossy, hardcover coffee-table book. Cal's media guide can be downloaded from the athletic department Web site.
There are, you see, appreciable differences.
Factory schools treat each year separately, striving for instant greatness, knowing it means defections to the NBA. It's expected, even encouraged, that the best talent will move on after one season. Telling a kid he might need only one year in your program to line up for big money can be a highly persuasive recruiting pitch.
A school like Cal is better suited to building a program, recruiting quality student-athletes who likely will contend but may or may not develop into first-round draft picks.
That allows Montgomery to do what he does best, selling strong academics to those with more than NBA hoops on the brain, teaching and cultivating recruits to achieve reasonably desirable results. Along the way, he's bound to find the occasional Josh Childress (a Montgomery recruit at Stanford) or, in the future, a Brandon Ashley, the gifted 6-foot-8 sophomore at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd already said to be leaning toward Cal.
With college basketball operating on distinctly different levels, as it is today, Cal's only chance to compete is by building. They have a coach who knows how to do that.