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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Admirers recall Fitzgerald’s impact

Hundreds gather at Northern Quest Casino to memorialize coach, mentor

More than 1,000 people fill the Pend Oreille Pavilion at Northern Quest Casino to pay their respects to Dan Fitzgerald on Wednesday. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
More than 1,000 people fill the Pend Oreille Pavilion at Northern Quest Casino to pay their respects to Dan Fitzgerald on Wednesday. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON)
The Spokesman-Review

Even before the first words were spoken, the huge crowd at a memorial service for Daniel John Fitzgerald on Wednesday quietly defined the legacy of the beloved former Gonzaga University basketball coach.

There was the woman who, as a 10-year-old girl, kept score for him when he coached at a Catholic high school; the former GU standout who spent 32 hours traveling from Australia for the service; and the law student who was one of Fitzgerald’s first statistics keepers.

“He would remember everybody’s name here,” said Eddie Hilfer, who went from that stats desk to become a New York attorney.

Nearly 1,200 people filled the seats and stood along the walls of the Pend Oreille Pavilion at Northern Quest Casino near Airway Heights for Wednesday’s memorial.

Fitzgerald, 67, was working as the casino’s communications manager, serving in its charitable giving programs, when he died on Jan. 19. The cause of death was presumed to be a heart attack, his family said at the time.

Fitzgerald may be known as the coach who laid the foundation for Gonzaga’s national prominence in basketball, but those who knew him best said his success came from something greater than his demand for excellence.

Above all, he was their friend and supporter, they said.

“When you were with Fitz, he treated you like the most important person in the world,” nephew Jim Fitzgerald said from a stage decorated with flowers. An urn holding his uncle’s ashes stood at center stage.

“Players are an extension of their coach, and the coach was as tough as they come,” said nephew Ryan Fitzgerald, basketball coach at Cheney High School.

Watching him prance up and down the sidelines, yelling at the officials and throwing towels, he said, “I knew I wanted to be like Uncle Dan.”

Fitzgerald was well known for his conviviality, his one-liners and his late-night huddles in darkened bars.

The coach once told former player Geoff Goss he was so slow that Fitzgerald could time his running with a sundial, Goss told the crowd.

Teammate Jeff Brown, who played in the 1990s when GU’s dynasty was formed, said, “Fitz often joked I couldn’t jump over the Spokane phone book, even without the yellow pages.”

Calling it “a privilege to work for the man who created the term ‘Zag,’ ” Brown said that overcoming GU’s underdog status was a reward for the hard work of winning basketball.

Fitzgerald’s role as GU head coach began in 1978. In the early 1980s he stepped away from his coaching position for several years to concentrate on duties as GU athletic director before resuming the coaching job.

In 1994, his team won the West Coast Conference title and in 1995 qualified for GU’s first NCAA tournament appearance. He stepped down in 1997 with a record of 252-171.

Fitzgerald was born at home in San Francisco on March 3, 1942. His father owned a bar in the Haight district.

As a child, he had a number of health problems and wore braces to straighten his legs and feet, said his brother, Jim Fitzgerald.

During his high school years, he attended a Roman Catholic seminary but left as a junior. He became a talented baseball player but turned away the chance to play professionally.

He and his wife, Darleen, who survives him, met in their teens and married in 1962.

Fitzgerald’s first coaching job was for a grammar school. He went on to coach at the high-school level in California, including Archbishop Mitty High, where he led the school to a league title and regional championship game.

Robert Freitas, an attorney in Menlo Park, Calif., played for Fitzgerald on one of those Mitty teams.

“He would push you and drive you, and you always felt he was with you,” Freitas said.

Mary Hile-Nepfel was his 10-year-old scorekeeper at Mitty. One time, she said, Fitzgerald defended her competence to a doubtful referee.

“He was the kind of person who made you feel special,” she said.

Maybe it was Fitzgerald’s inspiration that led Hile-Nepfel to a career coaching women’s basketball for 19 years at the University of San Francisco, she said.

John Rillie, another player from the 1990s, said making the journey to Spokane from Australia was an easy decision because if it hadn’t been for Fitzgerald’s belief in his potential, he probably wouldn’t have won a basketball scholarship to GU.

Dennis Awtrey, a former Santa Clara basketball player who went on to a career in the NBA, said he met Fitzgerald through an annual golf tournament at Santa Clara and would come to Spokane frequently to visit him.

He said fellow golfers would stay up late in the bar just to be with Fitzgerald. “You didn’t want to miss anything because you knew it was going to be fun.”

Fitzgerald coached as an assistant at Santa Clara University and GU before becoming head coach at Gonzaga.

Awtrey, of Manzanita, Ore., said the turnout for Fitzgerald’s service was not a surprise to him. “This is what I would have hoped for,” he said.

Phil Haugen, the assistant general manager at the casino, said Fitzgerald was hired more than three years ago “because he knew everybody” and became a perfect fit in the tribal casino’s outreach programs.

“He truly was an incredible man, and I will miss him,” Haugen told the crowd.

Fitzgerald’s daughter Kelly also stood before the crowd and acknowledged the outpouring of sympathy. “I think if it’s possible even my dad would be speechless,” she said.

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