A lot more people are mispronouncing “Gonzaga” today, because the little school that could has finally chugged to the top of the mountain in college basketball.
Say it loud and proud: The Bulldogs are No. 1.
In the Associated Press poll, Gonzaga snagged 51 of the 65 first-place votes cast by sportswriters across the nation. In the ESPN poll, all but two coaches thought the Zags should be on top.
Sure, there’s a tournament that will ultimately crown the champion, but this still stands as one shining moment for the small Jesuit university on the banks of the Spokane River.
To understand how far Gonzaga has come, recall that in 1998 the university had been placed on athletic probation for mismanagement of funds, and enrollment dropped to under 4,500. By the following spring, the Bulldogs were the talk of the nation by upsetting three teams in the NCAA tournament.
That was the start of 14 straight tournament appearances, soon to be 15. Only perennial powers Duke, Kansas and Michigan State boast longer streaks.
The university has effectively leveraged that success to build new academic, athletic and residential facilities, and enrollment has climbed to about 7,800. The school may soon break ground on a state-of-the-art, four-story student center that would transform the campus. The Bulldogs abandoned the cramped Kennel for the gleaming McCarthey Athletic Center, which hosts 6,000 raucous fans for every basketball game. It’s the most coveted ticket in town.
The annual run to the tournament brightens Spokane’s cold, dreary winters. The Coaches vs. Cancer events have become a philanthropic fixture, raising more than $5 million. Gonzaga gear is everywhere.
But this No. 1 ranking changes the dynamic. The glass slipper has been crushed; it’s no longer a Cinderella story.
On March 14, 1999, the Bulldogs bounced powerhouse Stanford from the tournament, and a Spokesman-Review article noted: “As the seconds ticked away, fans taunted Stanford, seeded No. 2 in the region, chanting: ‘Over-rated!’ – a phrase some fans joked they’d never hear about their own team.”
They will now.
The Zags have gone from underdog to top dog, and the media and basketball fans across the country will pounce if they lose. Gonzaga has never advanced to the tournament’s Final Four. Now, it’s an expectation.
For the time being, the region should enjoy the national spotlight. Spokane is at the center of March Madness. Amazing, but true.
The Spokesman-Review is commemorating this historic occasion with extensive cover in print and across our online and mobile platforms. If you want to share the excitement with others, visit the interactive http://guboards. spokesmanreview.com.
We hope this thrill ride continues, but even if it ends in March sadness, this achievement cannot be erased.
So call them Gonzaga, or – cringe! – Gone-Zawg-a; just as long as you call them No. 1.