GLENDALE, Ariz. – During the two decades Jerry Krause was involved with Gonzaga basketball, mostly as director of basketball operations, there was a mantra that he always put at the top of each travel report:
“A Continuing Quest For Excellence.”
Krause saw that quest as the GU basketball program grew from a West Coast Conference bottom-feeder to perennial WCC champion to, now, a Final Four team.
“This one will be pretty special because it will have all these players from all over the country that we’ve coached at GU for 25 years,” Krause said. “They’ve been waiting for this moment, too.”
Krause has attended the last 48 Final Fours, but the 2017 edition in Phoenix is the first time he will have a real rooting interest. Usually Krause goes in his capacity as research chairman for the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
In the early days, he went as a coach. He will never forget that first trip to Portland for the 1965 Final Four. After all, that’s where he met John Wooden.
In 1965, Krause was working as a graduate assistant at Colorado State College, now Northern Colorado. His head coach was George Sage, who brought his young graduate assistant along for the trip.
Krause’s first welcome-to-the-big-time moment came at the airport, when legendary coaches Adolph Rupp of Kentucky and Henry Iba of Oklahoma State walked off the UCLA team plane.
But there was only one coach Krause wanted to meet.
“I was poking my head coach in the ribs. ‘I want to meet John Wooden, I want to meet John Wooden,’ ” Krause said. “Of course, he knows George Sage.”
Sage did know Wooden, so Krause got his chance to meet the most revered coach in the history of his sport.
“I blurted out ‘I want you to give me a recommendation!’ And he did. He was so gracious,” Krause said. “The one thing I’ve always picked up from that moment was he took a young rookie coach, said, ‘What was your name again?’ I’m a little busy this weekend, but I’ll contact you and invite you down to our summer camps to observe our practices.’ And it came true. Eventually he was on my recommendation list when I was coaching.”
At that Final Four, Krause also got to watch Princeton’s Bill Bradley, who was an Olympic gold medalist as a basketball player before he was a Rhodes Scholar and United States Senator.
“He had a routine that was very memorable. Not like the show practices today. They actually did things and then had a little time you could stay after and watch them,” Krause said. “He would make seven in a row on a move and certain type of shot before he would leave and go on to the next type of move. That was astounding. I thought the best players, if they made three in a row, that’d be marvelous.”
Krause also saw the worst of what can happen in the sport’s biggest moments at that Final Four. Michigan’s quest to prevent Wooden’s second consecutive championship was derailed when center Bill Buntin inbounded the ball after a UCLA basket at a crucial juncture.
Buntin attempted a long pass in the hopes of going over UCLA’s vaunted 2-2-1 press. The pass caromed into the backboard right above his head. The Bruins won 91-80.
The pass, “nearly took his head off,” Krause said.
Krause also recalls a similar, more famous incident of a title game involving Michigan turning on a blooper – that of Chris Webber’s phantom timeout against North Carolina in 1993.
The Wolverines trailed by two points with 11 seconds left in the game when Webber, who had 23 points and 11 rebounds that night, called timeout. Only the Wolverines did not have any to spare, meaning the Tar Heels would get possession of the ball and two foul shots. UNC won 77-71.
“Everybody was so stunned that he didn’t know that, because they had a timeout before that. How could that not get communicated with the family of coaches you have on the bench in modern basketball?” Krause asked. “ Wooden had a saying that really is apropos to that: It isn’t what we teach. It’s what they learn that’s critical. I didn’t think there was a lot of wisdom when he said it, but the more I coached the more I’d think, ‘There’s a good example of that.’ ”
Such sights stand out amid the blur of 48 consecutive Final Fours. But there is little doubt that for Krause, this year’s in Phoenix will be the favorite.
“This has been a long, long road at Gonzaga in that quest for excellence from the time I came there until now,” Krause said.
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