Mark French, the winningest coach in the history of the UCSB women’s basketball program, announced his retirement Thursday. French steps down after leading the Gauchos to 13 Big West Conference titles and 12 NCAA Tournament appearances during his 21 seasons. He will stay on as head coach until a replacement is named.

“It has been both an honor and a pleasure to serve as the head women’s basketball coach at UCSB for the past 21 years,” French said. “The opportunity to be a part of the lives of our outstanding women has given my life a richness and deep sense of satisfaction that I will always cherish.

“The time has come, however, for me to step aside and allow our program to benefit from the leadership, passion and energy of a new head coach.”

After returning to his alma mater before the start of the 1987-88 season, French built UCSB into one of the premiere programs on the West Coast. He compiled a 438-200 overall record for a winning percentage of .687. French guided the Gauchos to a winning record each of the last 18 seasons and his teams have qualified for postseason play 13 years in a row (10 NCAA, three WNIT).

Beginning in 1996-97, UCSB absolutely dominated the Big West, at one point winning 25 consecutive games in the conference tournament and earning the league’s automatic bid in the NCAAs nine years in a row. After advancing to the NCAA Tournament second round five times, French’s Gauchos finished with a 27-7 overall record and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history in 2004.

French’s squads have produced eight All-Americans and 58 All-Big West honorees. Kristen Mann (2001-05) was the program’s last All-American, in 2005.

“I want to thank all of our current and former student athletes, assistant coaches, and staff members for their efforts in building and sustaining our program,” French said. “A special thank you goes to all of the members of our local community who have provided us with fund-raising support, tremendous fan enthusiasm, and friendship over the years.

“Lastly, I will always be indebted to our administration at UCSB, especially Athletic Director Gary Cunningham and Chancellor Henry Yang, for allowing me the privilege of working with our athletes.”

Cunningham was equally laudatory.

“Mark has done a tremendous job of leading our women’s basketball program for the past 21 years,” he said. “He is not only an outstanding coach, but he’s an excellent mentor to our young women. … He will be deeply missed and we wish him the very best in his retirement.”

In his last season, French guided the Gauchos to a 23-8 record and a return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2005. After a 4-6 start, UCSB won 14 straight between Dec. 29 and Feb. 21 and went on to finish 15-1 in Big West play, claiming a 12th regular season conference title in the last 13 years. UCSB handily defeated Cal Poly and UC Davis in the Big West Tournament to earn to the program’s 12th NCAA Tournament berth, but lost to Virginia in the first round. The Gauchos entered their matchup with the Cavaliers having won 19 of their last 20 games.

Before arriving at UCSB, French coached for four years at Pacific and spent four years at the helm of Idaho State, posting a record of 98-114 in those eight seasons. Individually, he has earned an unprecedented seven Big West Conference Coach of the Year honors and was named the WBCA District 8 Coach of the Year in 2002-03. French was also a finalist for the Naismith National Coach of the Year award that season. The current dean of Big West coaches, he has nine more years of experience in the league than any of his current counterparts and holds conference records for league wins (264) and longest tenure at one school (21 seasons).

French reached two major coaching milestones in 2006-07, winning his 400th victory at UCSB on Dec. 18, 2006, before notching his 500th career victory overall on Jan. 4, 2007.

Ryan Hall is UCSB‘s assistant media relations director.