March 4, 2012
“This is reason number 79 that I love Cal,” Lindsay Gottlieb exclaimed, displaying a small, generic-looking plastic tub. “Tofu, broccoli and eggplant stir-fry from the Cal Pro-Shop right downstairs! How amazing is that!”
The rest of the basketball staff nodded in agreement. They have heard these proclamations before, probably a good deal more than 79 times. A day earlier, in the same tone and with the same enthusiasm, Gottlieb had introduced them to reason number 78: softball player Jolene Henderson.
“Everyone, I want you to meet my new friend Jolene,” she had said, dragging in the smiling Cal junior she had seen walking past in the hallway. “Jolene is only like the best pitcher in America! And she’s my new friend! So tell her ‘hi.’”
Everyone said hi, because Gottlieb’s enthusiasm is infectious. As is her love for Cal.
Most new head coaches espouse a love for Cal. With Gottlieb, who enters her first year at the helm this fall, the moment you speak with her, you realize this isn’t just lip service. She genuinely loves everything about Cal, from the world-class educational opportunities to the rich cultural heritage of Berkeley to the microwavable faux-stir fry offered in the snack bar. She especially loves the student-athletes, those from other teams and especially her own student-athletes – a feeling that seems to be mutual.
On an off-day for the players, three Cal players informally stopped by the basketball office. Gottlieb, still holding her revered lunch, gave each a huge hug, the kind of embrace reserved for long-lost family members returning from the war. Gen Brandon squealed with delight. Avigiel Cohen’s normal stoicism melted into a beaming smile. Lindsay Sherbert captured some post-hug comments from Gottlieb on her Flip Cam.
In every public appearance since April 25, 2011, when she was named the ninth head coach in Golden Bear women’s basketball program history, Gottlieb has referred to this as her “dream job.” It is an appropriate, yet ironic, phrase coming from a woman who was a finalist for a spot on the 2004 ESPN reality show, “Dream Job.” Gottlieb managed to make it into the final contestant pool of 100 (out of the 10,000 who had applied to be on the show to try to become the next SportsCenter anchor) before getting cut in the last round before production.
“I realized when I was trying out that I was surrounded by thousands of people from all walks of life who thought that was a better job than the one they had,” Gottlieb recalled. “I was the opposite. I was already realizing that it was fun, but I would never leave my team. I love being involved in the journey of a sports team as opposed to talking about it.”
Gottlieb grew up in a very legal-minded family. Her father, Stephen, was an attorney who also did stints as a New York City Assemblyman and an official working for Governor Rockefeller before being elected as a civil-court judge and eventually being appointed to the New York State Supreme Court.
“It’s really pretty crazy to go to family functions,” Gottlieb said. “My sister’s husband is a lawyer and my cousin, my cousin’s wife, my uncle and my grandfather. At one point my grandfather, my dad and my uncle were the law firm of Gottlieb, Gottlieb and Gottlieb.”
The pressure to string a fourth Gottlieb on the doorplate was never there.
“It was exactly the opposite – they really wanted us to do what we were passionate about,” Gottlieb said.
As a youngster, the passion was for sports.
“I was that little girl who wanted any kind of ball in her hands at any second,” Gottlieb said. “Whatever sports season it was, I wanted to play. I pretty much just wanted to be playing ball all the time.”
Gottlieb started playing organized basketball in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t until high school that she and decided to focus on the possibility of playing in college. Of course, at that level, there is another family tradition that runs as deep as the legal profession, a very Ivy tradition.
“My father and grandfather and uncle went to Cornell,” Gottlieb said. “My mom went to the University of Michigan and then transferred to Colombia. My oldest sister had gone to the University of Chicago, which is not an Ivy League School, but is still one of the top academic institutions in the country. My brother was at Dartmouth and my other sister went to Cornell.”
This time, Gottlieb stayed with the pack and found herself a freshman at Brown and a member of the Bears’ basketball team.
“I tore my ACL my senior year of high school, so that changed what my college career was going to look like,” she said. “I think that in a lot of ways that informed my path of becoming a coach, because when you get hurt, you’re forced into looking at the game differently, looking at your own role differently.”
Her sophomore year, another event changed her life significantly. Gottlieb’s mother passed away. The tragedy caused her to become very conscious of what she wanted to get out of her college experience. As much as she loved basketball, she decided what she really needed to do was to go study abroad for a semester. So, she headed to Australia.
Gottlieb’s original intent was to spend a semester away and then return to the team in January. Shortly after arriving, she learned of a scholarship that she could strive for that would pay for a second semester. Given the choice of returning to Brown and paying for school or staying in Australia and having it paid for, she hit the books, got the top GPA, and earned the scholarship and the extended stay. She also discovered her raison d’être.
“It was during that year that I actually decided I wanted to coach basketball,” Gottlieb said. “I knew that it was the perfect thing for me because it combined kind of my nerdiness and the love of the X’s and O’s with the ability to impact 18-22-year-olds in a really significant way. To be able to do what I love, basketball, and have this intense impact on people, I felt that was it.”
When Gottlieb went back to school, she knew she wanted to be a coach, but she still had some playing left in her. She played her senior season as a hybrid player-coach, working in the office while also still getting sporadic minutes on the court.
Because of this invaluable experience, Gottlieb landed her first coaching gig one day after graduating. She headed to Syracuse, where she would serve as the third assistant for the Orange. She spent two years at Syracuse, enough time to earn her master’s degree. Then, it was a year at New Hampshire before taking a call from Joanne Boyle, who asked her to move to Richmond.
“I was 24 years old,” Gottlieb said. “She wanted me to be her top assistant. It took me about 30 seconds to say ‘I’m in.’ I wasn’t planning for it, but I knew it was the right move to make.”
It was a move that eventually led her to the Cal program with Boyle in 2005, to UC Santa Barbara as head coach in 2008, and to be sitting at home on Easter Sunday morning, at the ripe-old age of 34, with a ringing cell phone and the words “Sandy Barbour” on the caller ID. After she hung up, Gottlieb was the unofficial next head coach of the Golden Bears.
Her very next call was to her dad.
“My dad may have shed a little tear,” Gottlieb said. “The first thing he said was ‘your mom would be really, really excited’.”
That, too, runs in the family.