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Gottlieb has fun-loving Cal in first Elite Eight

Lindsay Gottlieb’s Golden Bears shared the Pac-12 title in her second season as coach. (Associated Press)
Lindsay Gottlieb’s Golden Bears shared the Pac-12 title in her second season as coach. (Associated Press)

Lindsay Gottlieb can run from the limelight, but she can’t hide.

Not with her California basketball team enjoying the best season in school history, and having so much fun doing it the players made a YouTube video to celebrate.

The video alone says less about free expression in Berkeley, Calif., than it does about the coaching philosophy of a self-described geek who still wants her players to have a little fun.

Gottlieb herself prefers the film room to the glare of the media lights.

When she learned last week that the Bears play a Sweet 16 game against LSU and its famously fashionable coach, Nikki Caldwell, she knew how her players would respond.

“They know that their coach is going to be outdressed,” Gottlieb said. “I’ve lost the fashion battle already. … I will watch film.”

And more film.

Said senior center Talia Caldwell of Gottlieb: “Definitely, she’s passionate about basketball. It’s really fun to see, like watching film for her, she’s not dreading it. Like she loves it. She could watch game film over and over again.”

Attention to detail has made life easier for the players – “so we can just play, not think so much, and do what we do really well,” Caldwell said.

Which they have: The Pac-12 co-champion Bears are 31-3 and playing in the first Elite Eight game in program history. A win tonight against Georgia would put Cal in the Final Four, but a sense of history hasn’t yielded to a sense of awe.

“They know it’s a bigger stage, but I don’t think that scares any of us,” Caldwell said

Gottlieb may be the least-known of the four coaches at the Spokane Regional. Andy Landers took over the Georgia program in 1979, when Gottlieb was 1 year old. Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer has won two national titles and been to 11 Final Fours, but she was among the first to congratulate Gottlieb after the Golden Bears’ 73-63 win over LSU on Saturday night.

“I cannot say enough what a class act Tara is and how much she has supported me,” Gottlieb said. “And the first text message I had after this game was from her: ‘Hey, great job. What do you need?’ ”

Gottlieb is a student of the game, and its history.

“I read their books … It’s not lost on me what these people have done for our game,” Gottlieb said. “Tara gave up law school and didn’t know if she was ever going to make any money doing this. And she did, and that has allowed my generation to do what we do at this level.”

Gottlieb played basketball at Brown in the late 1990s; barely halfway through, she decided to be a coach. Even as a senior in 1999, she played and served as a student assistant.

“It was a really neat opportunity,” Gottlieb said.

Later, Gottlieb was an assistant at Syracuse, New Hampshire and finally Richmond, where she served under Joanne Boyle and helped the Spiders reach their first NCAA tournament. Boyle brought Gottlieb with her to Cal, promoting her to associate head coach after two years.

One year later, Gottlieb became head coach at UC Santa Barbara. In three seasons, her teams won two Big West Conference titles and an NCAA berth in 2009. Back at Cal as head coach last season, Gottlieb coached the Bears to second place in the Pac-12 and a first-round NCAA win.

It’s only gotten better this season, partly because of a strong senior class but also because of Gottlieb’s “confidence that the basketball is serious to them,” she said.

That in turn loosens up the team the way a few 3-pointers loosen an opposing defense.

“I think you have to embrace their nature of being fun-loving,” Gottlieb said.

Even when it comes to producing a YouTube video in March?

“And I said, ‘OK, get after it’,” Gottlieb said. “They’re very creative, they’re very smart kids. … If anything I think that when they’re happier and enjoying it they’re more likely to play hard and play well.”