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Gonzaga Basketball
Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s ties bind like no other program

Former Gonzaga basketball coaches, from left, Billy Grier, Dan Monson, Leon Rice and Ray Giacoletti gather at a press conference to listen to GU head coach Mark Few speak to the media in Phoenix. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Gonzaga basketball coaches, from left, Billy Grier, Dan Monson, Leon Rice and Ray Giacoletti gather at a press conference to listen to GU head coach Mark Few speak to the media in Phoenix. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – There is something almost Rat Pack-y about them, only they’re in shorts and sports shirts instead of tuxes and unknotted bow ties.

Also, there are no obvious parallel roles. Dan Monson as Dean Martin? Not quite.

They stood in the back of the room during Mark Few’s podium session with the press on Sunday, and they watched Gonzaga’s closed-to-the-public practice. In the celebration of the unprecedented present and homage to the foundational past that Few has orchestrated in the Bulldogs’ remarkable run to Monday night’s NCAA championship game, they have been both ubiquitous and necessary.

Not a posse. Just Few’s guys.

And it’s Few who has insisted this unique Gonzaga moment be shared in a uniquely Gonzaga way.

So Monson, Few’s predecessor as the Bulldogs’ head coach, and former Few assistants Ray Giacoletti, Bill Grier and Leon Rice have been made to feel as much a part of the team that will play North Carolina for the title as Przemek Karnowski or Tommy Lloyd are.

With all the chops-busting you can imagine.

“We went back to Mark’s room after they beat South Carolina on Saturday night, Ray and I,” Rice recalled on Sunday. “We watch the end of the North Carolina-Oregon game and we’re just kind of quiet when they flash on the screen, ‘Championship game: Gonzaga vs. North Carolina.’ I look at Mark and he looks at me and says, ‘And I had to talk you into leaving Yakima Valley.’”

That’s where Rice was in 1999, coaching junior college basketball, when Few needed to fill out his first Gonzaga staff after Monson made his tear-filled exit to become Minnesota’s head coach. Grier stayed behind, too; when he left for his head coaching chance at San Diego, Giacoletti took his place.

But the ties reach further. Few, Grier and Rice all got their starts as Oregon undergrads working summer camp under Monson’s father, Don – though Monson thought Few might not survive the old man’s evil eye after walking in late the first day.

Those are the connections. But this is more than that.

“And Mark has made it that way,” said Monson. “When you leave, you know in your heart you’re always going to be a Zag, but you don’t know how others will feel. This team could be thinking, ‘Hey, that’s 18 years ago – this is our team.’ But they haven’t. That’s why it’s a bond. It’s every Zag’s team.”

The defining touch? When Few invited a group of former players – and there are scores here this weekend – to make a cameo at a team film session the other night.

Where they were given a standing ovation – by the current players.

No generations, no eras, no lines. Just Zags.

Of course, the coaches of the Zag Pack don’t have gaps to bridge. If you don’t see the same assistants’ reunion quality with other Final Four participants, it’s not simply because this is GU’s first trip.

“I mean, it’s only the three of us,” Grier laughed.

Marveled Rice, “I’ve been at Boise State for seven years and had 10 assistants.”

There’s some irony to that continuity, in that Monson departed right after the first NCAA run in 1999. He’s been a popular interview in Phoenix this weekend – the guy who let Gonzaga get away. But he’s handled it gracefully, explaining what doesn’t need an explanation, deflecting credit for the start of this improbable story and sometimes coming to tears – in particular when he’s reminded of the late Dan Fitzgerald, the Gonzaga coach who hired Monson, Few and Grier, and ponders what he might think of all this.

But he’s dished out some beauties, too.

“I always tell people Mark’s the only assistant I’ve had in 20 years,” Monson said, “that I worked for.”

Yet if Few’s cocky side is fair game for his friends, there’s an admiration that trumps it.

“If there’s one person who had the vision that Gonzaga could become this, it’s Mark,” Monson said. “And I think he also had the vision that ‘If I ever get there, this is how I’m going to do it.’ It was Mark’s idea to have all the coaches sit together at the game.

“The best part last night for me was someone saying, ‘We’ve got to get out of here – they’re trying to work.’ The assistants are breaking down film. And Mark’s saying, ‘We’ve got 20 minutes until the players are back. Sit down. The coaches are fine – they’ve got it dialed in.’”

No one’s more serious about winning than Few. Or that there’s a way to do it – to share it.

And maybe this is really one of those instances that only the circumstances of the Gonzaga basketball story allows it to happen.

“Where else has everybody been in everybody else’s wedding?” wondered Monson. “Where all of us lived together, and started it together?”

And Few was determined that they would all see it through together – acknowledging in public the contributions of all, and the debt to Monson for championing him to Fitzgerald in the first place.

Which allowed Monson to unsheathe his needle again.

“I tell him, ‘Mark, if you’re going to give me credit for starting this, don’t give me second place,’” Monson joked. “I need a national championship if I’m going to have a tie to it.”

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