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Friday, October 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: We can all learn from Zags’ success

Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) dribbles the ball during the first half of an NCAA National Championship men’s basketball game on April 3 in Glendale, Ariz. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga guard Silas Melson (0) dribbles the ball during the first half of an NCAA National Championship men’s basketball game on April 3 in Glendale, Ariz. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It was a joy to pick up practically any national publication over the past few weeks and read about Gonzaga and its march to the national championship basketball game.

It was a magical march through a magical March.

When you’ve experienced those early days when Gonzaga basketball was a quaint diversion from everyday campus life, it will never get old to watch the fervor of today’s Zag Nation, a fever than has never turned jaded, even after 19 years of unbroken success. We are fast approaching a time when Gonzaga’s NCAA tournament success has lasted longer than most Gonzaga students have been alive. It already predates the average freshman and some sophomores.

It was fun to see the father-daughter duo of John and Laura Stockton taking in everything the Final Four had to offer and to see such Zag greats as Adam Morrison and Ronny Turiaf and Kelly Olynyk rooting their successors on.

But what was most interesting were the national stories that traced the run of success back to its starting point.

Dana O’Neil, a senior writer with ESPN, and Adam Kilgore, from the Washington Post, among others, wrote insightful stories on Dan Monson, the head coach who got the Bulldogs started on all this annual March Madness.

Former Seattle Times writer Bud Withers has chronicled the story over the course of two books on Gonzaga basketball: “BraveHearts: The Against-All Odds Rise of Gonzaga Basketball,” and “Glory Hounds: How a Small Northwest School Reshaped College Basketball. And Itself.” The latter was published last November.

Both O’Neill and Kilgore discuss the revered place Monson holds in the Zag story. And the credit Mark Few and athletics director Mike Roth give him for making the changes that allowed unprecedented success to take root.

Dan Fitzgerald groomed the Zags and prepared the program, but it took a change in the mindset of the Gonzaga brain trust to first turn it into everyone’s Cinderella and then transform it into a national power.

O’Neil wrote:

“Dan Fitzgerald ran the place for nearly two decades as head coach and, later, athletic director. But he was more a resolute pragmatist than big dreamer. At the end of each season, he’d take his coaches out to dinner and reiterate the same refrain – why the Bulldogs could never win their league.

“ ‘Every school has better weather. Every school besides Saint Mary’s has better facilities. Every school has better players in their area to recruit,’ Monson remembers the late Fitzgerald saying. ‘And it was hard to argue with any of those reasons.’ ”

That pragmatism changed when Monson took over the program, and success followed almost immediately. In his first year, he took Gonzaga to the NIT, then launched the 1998-99 run to the Elite Eight that changed not just the basketball program but the university itself and the community that surrounds it.

And that’s the point that struck home with me over the last few weeks.

Gonzaga didn’t transform itself into a basketball power because of any single player who arrived on campus and put the program on its back. It wasn’t a brilliant change in strategy that suddenly catapulted a little school onto the main stage of college basketball.

It was a change in the way the program thought about itself.

Dan Monson and his assistants, all successful head coaches in their own right, refused to continue being pragmatic and unleashed their dreams. And then they set to work making them into a reality.

“He changed the thinking,” Roth told O’Neil about Monson. “We made a conscious decision to be different, to be something more than what we’d always been.”

It sounds so simple. But there is no Elite Eight run without it. And without that Elite Eight run, there is no run to the National Championship game all these years later.

There are a lot of dominoes between Dan Monson’s time at Gonzaga and the Bulldogs’ battle with North Carolina on college basketball’s biggest stage, and who knows what would have happened if any of those dominoes fell differently. But without that first one to fall, none of the others really matter.

It’s a lesson we can all learn.

Success starts with just a thought.

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

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