Cal's search for a successor to Mike Montgomery shifts into high gear later this week when athletic director Sandy Barbour heads to the Final Four, a gathering spot for hundreds of coaches, to identify candidates.

Barbour said she hopes to have a new coach in place by the end of next week "in an ideal scenario."

In the interim, expect a steady stream of speculative media reports with the names of real, potentially real and no-chance-in-heck candidates.

So let's step back and address two issues that will shape Cal's search: the quality of the candidate pool and the authority behind the hiring process.

Is this really Barbour's show?

She was responsible for hiring Montgomery six years ago -- a deft move, for sure, but one that landed in her lap: A brilliant coach was living in the area, unemployed and seeking work.

Since then, Barbour has been involved in a series of missteps for the athletic department, from the budget fiasco and the Memorial Stadium financing mess to the embarrassing graduation rates.

She is also responsible for hiring football coach Sonny Dykes, whose rookie season could not have been worse.

The combination of events have cast Barbour's long-term future at the school into doubt and undermined confidence in her judgment within the Cal athletic community.

Will she be handed the keys to the basketball search, free to present her favored candidate to the administration for approval? Or will her every move be vetted as thoroughly as the candidates themselves?

Barbour has retained an executive placement firm to assist in the search -- the same firm, she said, that was used to identify Dykes (DHR International).

The plan is for Barbour and DHR to narrow an initial list of candidates down to a handful, then place the names in front of chancellor Nicholas Dirks and vice chancellor John Wilton, who oversees athletics.

Dirks has been on the job for just nine months. But Wilton, who was new to Cal at the time of the football search, should have a sense for the attributes that fit well in Berkeley.

Given all the mistakes the Bears have made recently -- don't forget the decision to hire defensive coordinator Andy Buh for $1.5 million over three years, only to reassign him within the athletic department -- it's difficult to imagine a rubber-stamp situation for Barbour's preferred candidate.

It's also difficult to envision a candidate pool that meets the expectations of many Cal fans.

The Bears haven't been to the Final Four since 1960 or the Sweet 16 since 1997. Within the coaching profession, Cal is considered "a hard job,'' according to the head coach of a West Coast school.

The program is in better shape now than when Montgomery arrived in 2008. But Cal is not UCLA, steeped in success and surrounded by the most fertile recruiting ground in the country. It's not Arizona, a basketball factory and the only show in town. And it's not Stanford, which has embraced its inner "Nerd Nation."

"Cal has no brand," the West Coast coach explained.

The difference between Cal and Stanford is crucial to understanding the likely shape of the candidate pool.

Both universities are among the finest in the world. But for a variety of reasons, including Cal's status as a public school, the Bears have lower admission standards for football and men's basketball players than does Stanford.

How much lower? That's difficult to quantify because transcripts and test scores are private.

But the discrepancy between the qualifications of some recruits and Cal's rigorous curriculum have created a perception within the coaching industry that it's a tough, tough gig.

Cal is more rigorous than Stanford but lacks the reputation for selectivity in admissions that shapes the Cardinal's recruiting pipeline.

Cal is more rigorous than UCLA but lacks the tradition and easy access to elite prospects.

Cal is more rigorous than Arizona but lacks the rabid community support so many recruits find appealing. As Barbour enters the heart of the search, perception could frame the reality of her options.

The recipe for success in Berkeley, it seems, is easy to outline but difficult to execute -- as the past 50 years have proved.

"You have to embrace what Cal is all about and not make hurdles an excuse,'' the coach explained. "You have to love Cal and be proud (the) players are getting a Cal education."

Contact Jon Wilner at jwilner@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5716.