Every year, former Gonzaga basketball player Ross Rettenmier makes his way to Spokane from his home in Seattle to watch the Zags play.
Each time he steps inside the Kennel walls, he’s taken aback – this isn’t the basketball program he remembers from years ago.
“It’s astonishing how far this program’s come,” he said.
A lot can certainly change in 40 years, which is about how long it’s been since Rettenmier last put on a Gonzaga uniform. He played for the Zags from 1975 to ’79, long before Gonzaga basketball stepped into the national spotlight.
It was a small program working off a small-school budget back then, and it barely garnered enough funds to operate.
“The athletic budget was minimal. The coach back then, Adrian Buoncristiani, used to joke that the budget at WSU for stamps – for postage – was the Gonzaga athletic budget,” Rettenmier said. “It was just a challenge back then to get the program off the ground. Obviously winning makes all the difference.”
Even ten years after Rettenmier hung up his jersey, the team was still struggling to find support. Gonzaga was practically giving away tickets to fill seats in the early ’90s when the Zags were working up to their first postseason appearance in the 1994 National Invitation Tournament.
“It was an echo chamber in there when we were playing,” said Brad Pinney, who played for the Zags from 1988 to ’90.
Only the students kept game nights fairly enjoyable. At that time, the school had already formed the Kennel Club, and the section of students did well at making up for a somewhat desolate arena.
“The Kennel Club was still just as crazy back then,” Pinney said.
Pinney and Rettenmier were back in the arena on Saturday night and sat together in the stands with 24 other former Zags to watch Gonzaga down the Santa Clara Broncos 101- 52. They brought along their families for Gonzaga’s annual alumni night, which is normally scheduled for a game during the winter break when the students are gone and there are extra tickets available.
Gonzaga started pulling together the ex-players for a night inside the Kennel when former head coach Dan Fitzgerald was still running the team more than 20 years ago. It’s a good excuse for the men to reunite with some of their teammates and to swap stories about Gonzaga’s humble beginnings between the diffferent generations of Zags.
Pinney, who still resides in Spokane, was able to find some of his teammates on Saturday, including Paul Verret and Jim McPhee.
Also in the stands were Derek Raivio, who was named the West Coast Conference co-player of the year in 2007, and Scott Snider, who helped the Zags to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1995. Sitting close by was Jeff Brown, who was on the team that went to the NIT 24 years ago.
Bob Hunt was one of the oldest former players at the game on Saturday. In the early 1960s, Hunt played alongside all-time leading scorer Frank Burgess, who’s No. 44 jersey was retired and now hangs inside the MccCarthey Athletic Center alongside John Stockton’s No. 12 jersey.
A few more recent players joined the crew of alumni, including Corey Violette, who played for the Zags from 2000 to ’04. He was part of the beginning stages of what is now a 19-year postseason streak that began in 1999.
Violette’s squad of Zags made it to the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament all four years that he was on the roster. They went as far as the Sweet Sixteen in 2000 and 2001.
Violette sat with the alumni in the lower section across from the Gonzaga bench. Although separated by decades, the group of 26 former Zags had one sure thing in common – not one of them got the chance to play under their own NCAA Final Four banner.
This year’s Zags are the first to have such an opportunity after Gonzaga’s run to the big stage last season.
Violette was among the mass of former Zags who traveled to Arizona last year to watch the 2017 Zags fight on the Final Four stage inside the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Gonzaga made it to the championship game, where the team fell to North Carolina in the final minutes.
Although some felt miles away from where the Zags were last season, Violette spoke for all the self-proclaimed ‘Old Dogs’ in the stands on Saturday and said they all felt just as part of the program’s success as the Zags on the court.
“They made us feel like we were part of it when we went down there,” Violette said. “It was amazing to see them do so well, and to see Gonzaga on the center stage at the highest level and not be overmatched at all.”
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