Freshly shaved heads were the badge of honor Tuesday at Gonzaga University.
The GU men’s basketball team ended nearly four decades of NCAA basketball tournament drought Monday night by winning the West Coast Conference’s berth in the national playoffs.
The players returned to Spokane on Tuesday as heroes.
About 200 people went to Spokane International Airport and later joined a rally of about 500 on campus to welcome the team home.
They were celebrating Gonzaga’s first-ever berth in the national tournament, which begins next week.
“This isn’t just for us. This is for everybody out there,” Bulldog guard John Rillie told the crowd at the rally.
The Australian with the shaved head scored 96 points in three games, setting a WCC tournament record and cementing his star status on campus.
Large black and red letters painted Tuesday on a campus graffiti wall put it this way: “Rillie is God” and “Bald is beautiful.”
Elsewhere on campus, students were sporting freshly shaved heads in honor of Rillie.
As Tuesday’s rally began, one of the players took some electric clippers and began shaving the head of graduate student Ryan Fitzgerald, nephew of head basketball coach Dan Fitzgerald.
Other players grabbed the clippers to finish the job. The crowd roared in delight.
Students crowded onto balconies of the DeSmet Hall dormitory overlooking the rally site on the steps of the Crosby Center. The GU band belted out its best game songs.
Baseball players broke up practice early to cheer on their basketball counterparts. Faculty and staff members emerged from their offices.
“I just hope we can continue to play well,” said coach Fitzgerald, who won’t learn until Sunday who his next opponent will be and where the game will be played.
Students are hoping the team will play in Boise or Salt Lake City, but they could be sent as far away as Tallahassee, Fla.
“It’s time for a road trip,” said freshman Tom Coleman.
He and his friends are willing to drive to the next game if it’s within 1,000 miles or so.
Earlier Tuesday, as the team emerged from the walkway leading off its airplane, fans clapped and yelled as the student band played. Balloons and banners added to the festive occasion.
Team manager Drew Dannels emerged first, kissing the WCC tournament trophy as he walked slowly into the terminal.
A university staffer handed players newly printed T-shirts proclaiming their WCC tournament win and the upcoming trip to the 64-team NCAA tournament.
Bill and Odette Rubright, parents of player Jason Rubright, went to the three-day WCC tournament in Santa Clara, Calif., but returned to Spokane ahead of the team.
Bill Rubright said he didn’t want to miss his son’s victorious arrival.
“It’s pretty exciting to see,” Rubright said. “I’m proud of him.”
Tuesday’s celebration was a continuation of festivities that had begun at the moment the nationally televised game ended Monday night.
On the GU campus, students who had watched the Bulldogs defeat the University of Portland spilled out of dormitory rooms and began running and yelling across campus.
“There was this one long scream for 15 minutes,” said student body president Stefan Weitz. “The whole campus was in an uproar.”
About 50 of the celebrating students stormed into the Foley Center library, running up and down the stairs cheering in excitement.
At nearby Jack and Dan’s Tavern, students stood shoulder-to-shoulder and danced on tables, said senior Lori Gandiaga.
“Everyone was just going crazy until 1 or 2 a.m.,” said freshman Phil Ball, who expects to join the team next season. “It was just great.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with story: Life of Rillie GU guard John Rillie led the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament berth ever, breaking the scoring records at West Coast Conference Tournament championship. Read more about him in a column by Dave Boling in today’s Sports section.