March 10, 2013 in Sports

Tracing No. 1 back to Fitz

By The Spokesman-Review
 
File photo

The late Dan Fitzgerald, center, helped build the Gonzaga men’s basketball program, including hiring eventual head coaches Dan Monson, left, and Mark Few, right.
(Full-size photo)

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Vince Grippi has an opinion about everything local, especially sports. Every Sunday we provide samples of his daily riffs. Read him daily at spokesman.com/sportslink.

Sportslink, Tuesday: Anything happen around here yesterday? I was a bit busy and didn’t have time to check. What, you’re kidding? Gonzaga is No. 1 in the nation? In what, ROTC rankings? Basketball? Men’s basketball? You have to be kidding.

It’s no dream. Yep, the Bulldogs are atop the polls. It was a long time coming for a program that’s been on an upswing for the entire century. A little too long in one way.

It’s awful sad that Dan Fitzgerald isn’t here to enjoy it. And he would. The godfather of today’s program, it was Fitz who built the foundation for the GU program we see today, first as head coach, then as athletic director.

It was Fitz who hired Dan Monson, Bill Grier and Mark Few. It was Fitz, even after his breakup with Gonzaga following a run-in with the NCAA, who was the keeper of the flame, the man with the institutional knowledge of where the program had been.

Ask a former Zag who crossed his path and they’ll tell you how much they miss Fitz. I understand.

After leaving GU, Fitz kept in touch with the Spokane basketball community in many ways, one of which continues after his passing a couple years ago, the Fitz Camp for high school basketball players (it occurs this year March 15, 16 and 17 at West Valley High).

I was honored many years ago when Dan asked me to instruct at the camp, something I did for a few years before moving to Pullman to cover the Cougars. But that didn’t end the relationship. In fact, it nurtured it. Fitz knew everyone and everything in basketball, it seemed, but he always wanted to know more.

He would call occasionally just to talk hoops, wondering what Tony Bennett was up to, asking about practice, relating stories about coaching against Dick Bennett, asking about Ken Bone, even posing an occasional football question.

When Fitz was holding court in a tavern or classroom, telling stories about the old days, whether at GU or his years in California, you just listened. And laughed. When he would call, though, there was more interaction, as he was trying to learn – though he was always willing to explain why something was happening, a trait I really cherished.

I learned a lot of basketball in my five years in Pullman, some of which went over my head at first. Fitz had a way of explaining it that I could understand. Which, I guess, is why he was a good coach. And an excellent mentor for other coaches.

It’s too bad he isn’t here to see one of his protégés take the Gonzaga program to heights I’m sure Fitz never really envisioned.

Let the chant begin

Monday: Today’s the day. The day folks in Spokane can raise their index finger high in the air and yell … well, you know. After all, there isn’t anyone in town who didn’t attend Gonzaga.

There is that guy on the North Side who admits to having attended Mississippi State and the gal out in the Valley who went to ITT Tech. And the handful of Cougar and Eastern graduates who meet at the Swinging Doors once a week. Other than that, nope, as far as I can tell, everyone else is a Gonzaga alumnus. At least they will be today if the Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 for the first time.

Is it because everyone wants to be associated with a winner? Sure, that’s part of it. But it’s also because those of us who have lived in the Spokane area a long time (30 years this month for your friendly neighborhood blog columnist) or are native to the area have a bit of inferiority complex about the place. We know it’s stupid – this is a great place to live – but we can’t help ourselves. So when there is a chance to be recognized as No. 1 in anything other than car theft, we all jump on the bandwagon.

It would be validation for the program Mark Few has built here and, if you want to stretch the meaning a bit, validation for all of us who choose to call the Inland Northwest home. We picked this place, so it is No. 1 to us. It will be nice when the rest of the country agrees for once.

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