WeissCrax: French birds of a feather

Mark French Hallf of Fame game

Former players of Mark French gathered at the Thunderdome on Saturday to play in tribute of their former coach.

They flew in from near and far …

From perches Newport Beach … Westwood … Seattle … Phoenix … Hawaii … China … and everywhere else.

Now fully-fledged, they all flocked home in near-formation to the Mother Nest for a blast of nourishment.

They came in droves!

“This thing just snowballed,” offered The Organizer & Legend of the Dome, Barb Beainy, the one with the shortest flight from, well, right here in SB.

Mark French, right, sits with current UCSB women's head coach Carlene Mitchell. (Randy Weiss Photos)

‘This thing’ she is referring to is aka: Gaucho Reunion aka UCSB Athletics Hall of Fame Weekend.

A time to honor one of their own.

The Big Bird, so to speak, himself…

Mark French, Coach Extraordinaire.

His presumably first ballot and well-deserved//no-brainer induction into the prestigious HALL prompted this Saturday morning love fest…

GO GAUCHOS!!

Very fittingly too, because today it’s clear…

More than French’s zillion victories (actually 438) over his brilliant 21-year Gaucho coaching career… the many Big West Championships that seemingly rolled along every year (nine straight in one stretch) … the NCAA playoff seeds (12) and one Sweet 16 Finish (2004)…

All overshadowed here by the individual and collective impact of those indescribable gifts he gave these ladies during the very impressionable seasons of their youth — their collegiate years right here on this great campus overlooking the beach.

He taught them to fly.

He helped give them wings.

More than X’s and O’s.

More than winning.

And not winning.

He nurtured skills necessary to be successful in life, itself.

“It’s surreal to be back,” said another Legend of the Dome and rock star Kristen Mann, a former WNBA’er and now physical education teacher and coach in Hawaii.

“Coach shaped my life and made me who I am today. As I get older, I appreciate it more and more each day.”

Coach Mann employs similar strategies fed to her as a Gaucho: her teams not only win but they also care about each other and are tightly woven into their communities.

And she gives a ‘Big Mahalo’ to Coach French!!

Then, of course, there’s the newest Legend of the Dome…

The alumni game was part of the festivities that saw Mark French inducted into the UCSB Athletic Hall of Fame.

“It’s great to be back here to honor Coach for all the many positive things he has done for me in my life,” adds super-buffed Newport Beach fire fighter Erin Alexander, here with young ‘Mini-Me’ looking daughters.

Further …

“It’s hard to put into words what Coach has done for me,” echoes Kayte Christensen, who now calls Phoenix home.

“He took responsibility for us when we were just kids and with our parents, turned us into good human beings. It’s great to see everyone and honor Coach,” she added.

“He is a special man. I’m blessed,” smiled former blue-collar Gaucho hoop ace and now solid-citizen Kristi Rohr, a math teacher in the Northwest.

“This is an important part of our history,” explained Cori Close, now living her dream as UCLA head basketball coach. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without these wonderful people in my life. My Gaucho experience will always be very special.”

“It’s really testament to how much we, his former athletes, all care about Coach and how much he still means to us,” said Barb Beainy, a UCSB fitness instructor.

It all sounds so ‘Wooden-esque’ …

Oh!! Almost forgot!!

During it all, a basketball game broke out – where else? – in the Thunder Dome.

About 100 fans – mostly from the Gaucho-passionate Fast Breakers Fan Club – turned out to watch.

The Gold Team, coached by Beainy & Tony Newnan (former Gaucho Assistant & current Bruin Assistant) verses The Blue Team coached by French & Carlene Mitchell, UCSB head hoops coach.

Former French players include Stacy Clinesmith, left, and Cori Close, right.

From Alexander’s first trey to start the scoring to former WNBA’er Stacy Clinesmith’s (who coaches at Santa Clara and still ‘Got Game’) last one to win it for The Gold Team, there were occasional flashes of that brilliance of yesteryear – but this was more about ‘family’ and just having some plain good ol’ fun.

Plus, a nice flashback of Coach French ‘looming large’ on the sidelines…

The keys to this Gaucho Kingdom are now securely nestled into the hands of almost second-year Coach Mitchell — a few years out after French’s 2008 retirement.

“Carlene is entrusted to carry on these traditions – such as Gaucho Heart and great defensive teams—and I couldn’t be more comfortable with her,” said the brand new Gaucho Hall of Famer French.

“And she has reached out to all of us.”

With her first Big West Championship and having one of the top defensive teams in the country in only her first season, Coach Mitchell is well on her way …

“That’s even better than Coach French,” chided Newnan after asking Mitchell, who initially and very humbly balked when asked after the game to sign his child’s ‘retro basketball poster.’

She did sign it.

And her autograph symbolically melded that rich Gaucho past with this new championship era of the present and all with the hope of the future.

A wonderful ‘French Connection’ f’sure.

And something very special, of course, to chirp about …

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