Early in the second half, with Cal down 12 to USC at home, head coach Mike Montgomery called a timeout. When junior Allen Crabbe, the Golden Bears' leading scorer, reached the bench he was met with a sharp shove in the chest. Crabbe and Montgomery exchanged angry words, and Crabbe had to be separated from his coach by his teammates. A furious Crabbe retreated to the tunnel to cool down, finally rejoining his team on the bench and being subbed back in on the very next stoppage.
"It was coach using his words to motivate me," Crabbe said. "I think it motivated me more. (My teammates) told me keep my head in the game."
Crabbe promptly went 1-for-6. And then, nine minutes after re-entering the game, he caught fire, scoring 12 points including three threes in a span of 1:46.
"It worked, didn't it?" Montgomery said of the shove, crediting the confrontation for getting his player going in the final seven minutes of the game, and not blaming it for the nine minutes before that, during which a visibly shaken Crabbe missed nearly every shot he took. After the game, Cal AD Sandy Barbour released this statement:
"Sunday's game was an emotional one for everyone who cares deeply about our men's basketball program, and the Bears certainly showed tremendous resolve coming back to earn a win over USC. However, it is unacceptable for our coaches to have physical contact with student-athletes regardless of the circumstances. The second-half incident was certainly out of character for Mike Montgomery, and I am confident that something like this will not happen again."
Montgomery apologized for his "inappropriate" behavior. But the reaction was markedly different than what followed after a similar incident in November, when Morehead State coach Sean Woods pushed and yelled at one of his players late in a loss to Kentucky. The details differed; the player, Devon Atkinson, had fouled out so there was no question of motivation, and Woods continued to yell at an emotionally devastated Atkinson. But the school's response underlined the power imbalance between a coach and his players, and the inappropriateness of the former putting his hands on the latter.
"We recognize that the young men in our basketball program are students first and athletes second. It is our expectation that our coaches are first teachers, who reflect the core values of the university which includes valuing the individual and treating people with respect. Near the end of the game, Coach Woods' interaction with one of our student-athletes fell short of that value and was unacceptable."
Woods, every bit as contrite as Montgomery, was suspended for one game. Montgomery, unless the Pac-12 sees things differently, won't face discipline. The narrative has been set by the outcome of the game: Montgomery wasn't being abusive; he was coaching. Crabbe says it's over with. "It's water under the bridge. He's my coach, and there are no hard feelings. I've just got to leave it at that; it motivated me."
Other teammates spoke of the motivation the incident provided, even though a 12-point deficit at the time of the shove had only become a 10-point deficit 10 minutes later. Cal need not even point to Crabbe's miraculous turnaround immediately following the confrontation (because there was none)—the Bears won, which shuts down all criticism post hoc. It's easy to get away with being a bully or sociopath in sports. All you have to do is win.
We learned that a decade ago from Bob Knight, whose reign at Indiana ended in 2000 after it was reported that he had choked one of his players during a practice three years before. Video soon emerged, but it had been no secret among players and staff—it had been an open practice, after all. Knight soon ran afoul of the school's new zero-tolerance policy and was let go. He was coming off a 20-9 season; Indiana had lost its first games in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments and hadn't progressed past the NCAA tournament's first weekend in six years. His teams weren't winning enough, so his behavior was no longer tolerable.