January 21, 2010 in Sports

Here’s one to Fitz, among countless possibilities

By Correspondent
Dan Pelle photo

Gonzaga University men’s head basketball coach Dan Fitzgerald keeps an eye on things during a game against WSU in December.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

In Fitz’s memory, a story about Fitz. Not the best one, not the worst. Dan Fitzgerald never ranked them like a Top 25 anyway, because there were too many for that.

He had given up coaching basketball at Gonzaga University to be a full-time athletic director, but he still booked himself on the team’s Bay Area trip – and not just because he grew up the son of a saloonkeeper in San Francisco. The rooming list for the weekend paired him with a sports writer, on the road with the Zags for the first time because the competing staffs of the morning and afternoon papers had just merged and there was all this money to spend, for one season anyway.

The Zags lost Friday night at USF, and after the game story was filed for the morning paper the roommates repaired to the bar, where the sports writer was ensorcelled by anecdote upon Fitz anecdote, saga upon Fitz saga. At closing time, they repaired to the motel – the Zags bunked in rooms that opened out on parking lots in those days – and the filibuster continued. And at 5 a.m., the sports writer insisted he repair to his keyboard because another deadline approached. So Fitz turned in, and an hour later so did the sports writer – hoping the afternoon subscribers might forgive his sins and not cancel.

At 8 o’clock, the door banged open and sunlight flooded in behind Fitz, his T-shirt soaked with sweat from a morning run.

“What are you?” he boomed at the sports writer, still abed. “A recreational sleeper? C’mon! Breakfast!”

Later, the sports writer recounted the events to the basketball coach, who could not suppress a grin.

“Why do you think,” the coach said, “we had you room with him?”

We still have the stories. We have the memory of him in full snarl and stomp on the sidelines, the gift of personal kindnesses big and small that he made routine and the pleasure of watching Top 25 college basketball in our town year after year – something not possible had he not been hand cranking the cement mixer in the first place.

We just don’t have Dan Fitzgerald himself, his shocking death on Tuesday a cruel rebuke to those of us who considered him indestructible.

That the man could coach ’em up – he won 252 times at Gonzaga and took the Bulldogs to their first NCAA and NIT appearances – was not incidental, but it was secondary to his feel for people and a personality that was irresistible, unless of course you wore stripes and had to run past his bench 100 times a night. And even then you wouldn’t mind going out for a cold one afterward.

Charisma is the only word in the dictionary that works, but it’s as inadequate as a soft zone was against John Rillie.

But this is the sports page, and his mark here matters, too – and it matters a great deal to Gonzaga today.

The first thing? He made the Bulldogs a tough out.

Then he endured an 8-20 season while five program-changing players redshirted, a trade 95 percent of his lodge brothers wouldn’t risk.

And then he had the courage in midcareer to hire three young assistants – Dan Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier – who worked cheap, recruited like mad, challenged him and expanded the vision about just what could be achieved at Gonzaga. And we mean challenged. Just the memory tickles his friend Jud Heathcote, who grew a coaching tree without peer himself at Michigan State.

“Mark would make a suggestion and Fitz would ignore him,” Heathcote said with a laugh, “and so Mark would say, ‘Go ahead and lose this game if you want to.’ ”

It takes some self-assurance to hear that without retaliation. It was also self-assurance of a sort – his concealment from the university of money he used to properly fund his program – that led to a token NCAA probation and his split from Gonzaga, though the NCAA firmly concluded neither he nor his players profited. And it’s ironic that since his resignation in 1997, the athletic department has never wanted for anything.

It’s sad now that no one ever reached out for reconciliation. It’s even more telling that a reconciliation with the community and his many friends was never necessary.

Jeff Brown was the linchpin on those teams that changed the face of Gonzaga basketball in the 1990s and Fitzgerald’s friend ever since. Last week, they met at Fitz’s workplace, Northern Quest Casino.

“It was an hour breakfast that turned into two and a half,” Brown said. “It was impossible. He was excited to show me all the things they’re doing out there and he wanted to know how my boys were, my wife, my parents. It was just Fitz.

“I was late for a management meeting. My CEO understood.”

No doubt he heard the stories. Now’s the time to pull up a stool and share them.

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