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John Blanchette: For all the successes, Gonzaga remains grounded by its humble history

UPDATED: Sat., April 8, 2017

Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga basketball coach on the sidelines. “The Fitz” tournament this weekend at Lewis and Clark High School features national teams against local teams and benefits charity. (The Spokesman-Review / File)
Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga basketball coach on the sidelines. “The Fitz” tournament this weekend at Lewis and Clark High School features national teams against local teams and benefits charity. (The Spokesman-Review / File)

You want an idea how far Gonzaga basketball has come?

Consider this additional context:

In February 1981, I joined The Spokesman-Review to write columns, only to discover the incumbent columnist still humming along quite capably, thank you, and months from surrender. The tiny writing staff in sports at the time numbered just three – four if you count the outdoors guy, though in that case addition by subtraction is the appropriate math. So in casting about for more to do, I asked who covered Gonzaga.

“Uh, no one, really,” came the answer.

“Want me to do it?” I offered.

“That would be great.”

Now, some would say that was as much a commentary on the newspaper as it was on the state of the Zags, and maybe so. That team won 19 games and was told to print NIT tickets before that postseason reward went up in a cloud of smoke-filled-room horse trading. In Gonzaga’s conference that year alone were six players who would log 36 seasons in the NBA – OK, so 19 of them were by John Stockton – and another who put in five in the NFL.

But I also remember pulling into the parking lot at what was still called Kennedy Pavilion three minutes before tipoff one night and having a choice of several slots in the first row, and often breezing in without having to show a credential or a ticket. The signal of the AM station that carried GU games was too faint at night to make out the play-by-play.

Though that, too, may have been more of a commentary on my car radio than on the state of the Zags.

The point is, Gonzaga was the mom-and-pop store of college basketball. To underscore the image, one of the assistant coaches lived in a spartan apartment in the corner of the building just 10 steps from the gym floor.

But, hey, rent free – and he had use of the pool next door.

And now the Bulldogs have been back less than a week from their first Final Four and a down-to-the-final-minute appearance in the NCAA championship game. One rally wasn’t enough to savor the achievement; the campus turned out for two.

It was 1999 all over again, when the Bulldogs first made a dent in the national consciousness. And it was more.

“They absolutely ignited a lot of stale people that were kind of bored with the Zags,” coach Mark Few said, “and saying that we haven’t been capable of achieving something like this.”

Kind of bored. That’s probably more of a commentary on contemporary sports culture than it is on the state of the Zags.

The people who weren’t numbed by all that winning and the 19 straight NCAA Tournament trips had become downright irritated, either with the constancy or the lack of a Final Four. But with that box checked and the party subsiding, it’s time again to reaffirm that the real charm of the Zags is that very constancy – reflected against just how truly humble were the first 100 years of Gonzaga basketball.

The sport wasn’t even an afterthought before World War II; Hank Anderson didn’t take the program to Division I until 1958. His successor, Adrian Buoncristiani, sold 2-for-1 restaurant coupon books to goose a $1,000 recruiting budget. The next coach, Dan Fitzgerald, staged jog-a-thons.

And how’s this for a Gonzaga icon of the era: The beater purchased and parked in the Bay Area to save on recruiting-trip car rentals and dubbed “Baretta” – after the rusted-out Impala that Robert Blake drove in the old TV series.

But every so often, there was an important turn, even in a tread-water time. Players like Frank Burgess, Gary Lechman and ultimately Stockton and Jeff Brown, the first program-changing transfer. Fitzgerald’s insistence on joining the West Coast Conference and leaving behind the Big Sky. The 8-20 season endured while five players redshirted – a group that two years later would win 20 games, which immediately became the norm.

Oh, yeah. And the Kennel Club.

It’s understandable that the fans of a phenomenon just now a generation old wouldn’t grasp such history. The old-school fans with context – count Mike Shields among them – know even one NCAA tourney should be treasured.

“After ’99, I started going to all the away games,” Shields said. “I figured I had to enjoy this while I can because it isn’t going to last. This can’t go on forever, right?”

It’s gone on forever.

Few, for his part, slept on a few floors before the breakthrough was made and money stopped being an issue. He fielded a question during the tournament wondering if part of him didn’t pine for the “purity” of those days.

“Not really, no,” he said. “I mean, we experienced it, you know? And it was part of this. If we hadn’t gone through that, we probably never would have prepared ourselves to do this.”

He sounded appreciative, and still amazed.

As should we all.

Follow along with the Zags

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