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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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There was a time when Bulldogs didn’t dance in March

There are kids in their first year of college who have never known a time when Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball program failed to make the NCAA Tournament.

And there are rabid Zags fans out there who were too young to remember Dan Monson and Matt Santangelo from that magical, pre-millennial run to the Elite Eight in 1999 when GU was still routinely referred to as a “Cinderella” team. It’s a far cry from the current Big Dance, where even though the Bulldogs are a No. 11 seed, they are a trendy pick to upset sixth-seeded Seton Hall, third-seeded Utah and advance to the Sweet 16.

There are die-hard fans who have never known a time when Mark Few wasn’t the Gonzaga coach and can’t remember GU assistants Bill Grier, Leon Rice and Ray Giacoletti, who all went on to become head coaches, or that Giacoletti came to GU after leading Eastern Washington to the NCAA tournament.

There are Gonzaga fans out there to whom players like Casey Calvary, Blake Stepp, Kyle Bankhead, David Pendergraft and Dan Dickau are just legends from the wall on the outer concourse of the Kennel.

And there are Gonzaga fans out there who never sat in the bleachers of the Kennedy Center and who have no idea that their seats would have landed them somewhere in the infield of the old Pecarovich Field, the school’s baseball stadium back in the good old days before Gonzaga became a regular in the NCAA Tournament field.

And boy, that makes me feel old.

It’s good that the program is fed by a steady stream of new blood to keep things fresh and timely. Who can add the passion born from youth that makes a student willing to stand in line on a winter’s night for a choice seat to see whatever program signed on the dotted line to play in the Kennel.

But it needs those of us from the old guard who still remember the old days and have a deep appreciation of this 18-year run because they lived through the days when Gonzaga’s primary claim to fame was Bing Crosby and the biggest mystery on campus wasn’t who the Bulldogs would draw in the first round, but who swiped Der Bingle’s pipe.

And if for no other reason than we still remember that there was a Pecarovich Field.

I don’t go all the way back to the great Frank Burgess, but I know more than a few who do. I go back only as far as ABC.

Back in the day, ABC was the affectionate nickname of diminutive coach Adrian Buoncristiani, who was Gonzaga’s head coach from 1972 to 1978. He succeeded Hank Anderson, who had resigned after 21 seasons at GU to become the coach at Big Sky Conference rival Montana State.

Under ABC, Gonzaga finished with a winning record only once, and never finished higher than third in the Big Sky. The highlight of the season was generally when cross-state rival Seattle U came to town – in part for the visual of the 5-foot-6 ABC standing next to Seattle’s 7-footer, Jawann Oldham, who went on to play 10 seasons in the NBA for eight different teams.

In those days, there wasn’t the fervor for basketball. Women’s basketball played in nearly empty gyms and men’s games drew slightly better than a good Greater Spokane League game.

The best thing about the ABC days was the fact that, when he was encouraged to resign in April of 1978, he was replaced by former assistant coach Dan Fitzgerald, whose time at GU is both revered and legendary.

It was Fitz who pushed for Gonzaga to change from the Big Sky Conference to the now-familiar West Coast Conference, swapping places with Nevada. And who pushed the program well beyond its string of sub-.500 finishes

There’s something to be said for having lived through Gonzaga basketball’s pre-history. For remembering a time when Don Monson was the head coach at Pasco High who was hired to coach at the University of Idaho, and understanding the pedigree at work when Fitz, by then the athletics director, hired his son, Dan, to succeed him as GU head coach.

Growing old with a habit is different from growing up with one.

When you remember the days when Zags and Big Dance were rarely uttered in the same sentence, you appreciate just how incredible 18 straight years of playing in the NCAA Tournament is.

So when it comes time to sit down today and cheer on the Zags, there will likely be a wry smile on the face of we, the old codgers who have seen it all. Because we really have.

Steve Christilaw can be reached at steve.christilaw@ gmail.com.

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