Kusek Column: Hoops takes Park from coast to coast

2012-01-17T22:30:00Z 2012-01-18T19:15:29Z Kusek Column: Hoops takes Park from coast to coastBy JOE KUSEK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
January 17, 2012 10:30 pm  • 

Daron Park was having a good day on the golf course.

The temperature that spring day was warm but not oppressive, while the humidity -- by Louisiana standards -- was mild and the bugs were almost non-existent.

A couple of months earlier, the associate head coach helped guide the Louisiana Tech women's basketball team to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year.

It was the sixth NCAA Tournament in seven years for Park, who was previously an assistant at Utah and Maryland.

The Great Falls native had already been with teams that had advanced to the Elite Eight three times and won Mountain West, Atlantic Coast and Western Athletic conference championships.

Along with achieving professionally, Park's family was happy. They liked the slower pace of Ruston, La., a bucolic college town of almost 20,000 located in the northern part of the state.

"It reminded me of Bozeman in the 1980s. A small town where everything revolved around the university,'' he said.

And Park loved being in the football-mad south. "Nothing is bigger,'' he said. "Every Saturday, everybody has a flag flying in their front yard ... LSU, Alabama. The tailgating at football games is second to none."

As Park walked up the fairway, his cell phone buzzed. And it buzzed again and again.

The calls were from people involved with the women's basketball program at California-Berkeley, wanting to gauge Park's interest in joining the staff of new head coach Lindsey Gottlieb. Gottlieb, who was previously the head coach at UC-Santa Barbara, was hired take over the Cal program.

Since his first coaching job at Westminster College of the Frontier Conference, Park has developed a reputation as a strong tactician and the ability to develop all-conference post players. During his career, he's worked with seven first-round WNBA draft picks.

His wasn't looking for another job, another move. But it was seeking him.

"When I took the calls, a peaceful calmness came over me,'' Park remembered. "It was ‘Yes, I would be totally interested in talking with Lindsey.' "

Park flew to the Bay Area and met with Gottlieb. The new head coach had done her homework.

"Lindsey has a specific idea of what she was looking for on her staff,'' said Park. "I had done what I needed to do at Tech. This was a chance to help another coach and be on the national stage."

Because the hiring happened so fast -- he was hired June 1 -- Park's family has remained in Ruston to provide his two children with stability.

"My wife understood it was the right move professionally,'' said Park who turned 40 the same month he was hired. He and his wife Laura have two children, daughter Rylee and son Dillon, Park is currently living in an apartment in Oakland, learning the Bay Area and devoting the bulk of his time to the Cal basketball program.

"It has its moments where it can be pretty rough,'' he added. Park talks to his wife every day and his children at least twice a week. "With technology now, it's easier to keep in touch. But the tough part is the two-hour time difference."

Along with pictures, there are other touches from Ruston around his apartment. He developed a fondness for Tony Cachere's Sauce, a famous Cajun seasoning in Louisiana. "I've have three cans in my place now,'' Park said.

And ties to Montana are also not that far away.

He shares an office wall with Mike Montgomery, the head coach of the Cal men's basketball team. Montgomery was the University of Montana head coach for eight seasons (1978-1986).

Their allegiances showed during the Cat-Griz football game in November.

"I was pumped for Cat-Griz,'' said Park, a 1994 graduate of MSU. "We were ranked No. 1 and I had it on all the televisions in our offices.

"Coach Montgomery came charging out into the middle of our practice and said, ‘Poor Bobcats.' I hope that's going to change."

Park is part of a young Cal team -- no seniors on the roster -- that is 13-5 overall and 4-2 in the Pac-12. The Bears recently beat Colorado for the first time in program history.

"We just have to keep working. We want to be there in March,'' said Park, slipping into coach-speak.

In less than four years, Park has literally gone coast-to-coast during his coaching career.

"Maybe this wasn't the path I set out to travel,'' he said. "But I feel so blessed to work with so many great programs. This profession is always so fluid, so tumultuous. I've been fortunate that I've always gone places on my terms.

"My friends joke that I want to win as many different conference titles as I can. My good friend, Mark Durham (the Montana Western athletic director) has a map on his wall of every place he coached. It fills up pretty fast. I need to do that.

"I've done a lot during my career but I still feel young. I've got a lot left to accomplish."

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