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John Blanchette: West Georgia coach Michael Cooney has fond memories of Gonzaga hoops

How solid are your Gonzaga bona fides?

Michael Cooney was 6 years old when his father took him to his first Bulldogs basketball game. Joseph and Sadie Cooney – season ticket holders in the days when you could show up 30 seconds before tipoff and find seats in the first four rows, possibly without paying – would host regular dinners for the team.

“I’d come home from school when I was 11 or 12,” said Cooney, “and play one-on-one with Joe Clayton in our driveway.”

Nowadays, there might not be 10 people in McCarthey Athletic Center on a game night who know Joe Clayton was the ’70s Gonzaga answer to Domantas Sabonis – meaning 5 inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.

Mike Cooney not only remembers Clayton, he can name the rest of that season’s lineup – Greg Sten, Chris Nickola, Larry Carter, Blaine Bundy.

“All the guys from those years – Ken Tyler, Willie Daigle, Jim Grady,” he recalled. “Those were my heroes.”

Some of those ghosts will be with Cooney on Saturday night when he returns to the GU campus with a basketball team of his own – the University of West Georgia Wolves – to take on the Zags in an exhibition game.

Cooney – Gonzaga, class of 1985 – is in his 10th year as head coach of the Wolves, who last season made their third trip to the NCAA Division II tournament on his watch.

It’s a rare homecoming. College teams often finesse a road game so a senior can play in front of his family and old friends. But this time, it’s the coach’s mom setting the table for the team, and Cooney giving his guys a tour of the old Corbin Park neighborhood.

“These are bucket list items for me,” Cooney admitted.

No one would have received a bigger charge out of the whole scene than Joe Cooney, the prominent Spokane attorney who passed away 20 years ago this month. His devotion to the Zags was such that he’d arm-twist bank presidents into buying game tickets to give away as Christmas presents to customers.

He thought he might even see his son suit up for Gonzaga – former coach Adrian Buoncristiani had agreed to let Mike walk on once he graduated from Gonzaga Prep. But when that time came, ABC had been fired and the new head man, Dan Fitzgerald, was left to deliver a brutal truth.

“My walk-ons,” Fitz told Cooney, “are going to be 6-foot-7.”

So Cooney put in two years as a manager instead. When he graduated, it was presumed his career track would loop back to his dad’s practice, but he returned from taking the LSAT with bad news.

“I can’t do this,” Cooney told his father.

What he could do – and wanted to do – was coach high school basketball, and he had a line on something in California.

“Well, if you want to shovel crap,” Joe Cooney said, putting it in more earthy terms, “go shovel it.”

Dad didn’t stay disappointed for long.

“When he saw how happy I was,” Cooney said, “he couldn’t have been happier for me.”

But Cooney did have to do some shoveling – actually more than some.

His first gig was actually a grade school – St. Joseph’s, near LAX – where he coached flag football and basketball and begged out of track and baseball “because I had no voice left,” he said. Then came two years of JV basketball at St. Bernard’s before he talked his way into a volunteer position at Loyola Marymount with former GU coach Jay Hillock, who later helped him land a spot at Morehead State in Kentucky. When Paul Westhead had one of those old “restricted earnings” jobs open at George Mason, Cooney put in four poverty-level years there, found greater rewards. It’s where Cooney met his wife, Sherry.

Then came a 10-year apprenticeship to Ed Murphy before succeeding him at UWG in Carrollton, which Cooney calls “a small Spokane – just a great place. And it’s a school I’m proud to be a part of.”

There, he divvies up 10 scholarships among some Georgia kids, a few Californians from his old contacts and a sprinkling of international players.

“We’re pretty athletic, we press and play fast, we’ve got a lot of little, quick guards,” Cooney said, “and we foul too much.”

Mike Cooney is 55 now, dues paid up, and maybe a little surprised to find himself not so consumed with winning as with “what I can do for kids.

“That’s why I’m so grateful to Gonzaga and Mark (Few) for giving my guys this opportunity,” he said. “They all had dreams of being D-I players and to play in that atmosphere against a great program is special. I remember Fitz always saying that we’re responsible for memories, and they’ll have a good one.”

Cooney, too. Not that he doesn’t have them already.

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