The world is watching now. But it wasn’t always that way.
There was a time – and it really wasn’t all that long ago – when Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth remembers looking around the Martin Centre and wondering if there were more people on the team benches than there were in the stands.
Fast forward to Thursday night. With the Spokane weather in the single digits and the roads still just barely plowed, fans packed the sidewalks around the McCarthey Athletic Center. A little cold and some highly questionable snow berms are a small price to pay to watch big-time college basketball’s last unbeaten team play.
And that team is the Zags.
The glass slippers don’t fit as well on everybody’s favorite bracket-buster like they used to. A No. 5 ranking, 18-straight appearances in The Big Dance and more Sweet 16s than you’re gonna find at a Justin Timberlake concert make it hard to call the Bulldogs anything other than next-generation hoop elites.
Except Roth knows better. “So many people have worked so hard,” he said, deflecting any credit. “Some might think we’ve been a little lucky. I think we’ve been blessed.”
This is a man who has done just about every conceivable job in Gonzaga’s athletic department. When he first arrived here as graduate assistant coach for Jay Hillock in the early 80s, he had to do everything. Laundry. Clean the locker room. Sweep the courts. Oh yeah, there was coaching, but it was far from glamorous.
That’s why the slipper still very much fits when Roth looks at the Bulldogs. And the Kennel is a castle compared to the old digs.
It’s a Magic Kingdom that Roth knows his way around. Especially on game days.
When he walks around the McCarthey concourses well before tip-off, people make a line to him to shake his hand. He talks to them all. Looking them in the eyes. Nodding with a smile. Always willing to talk a little more about a team that is more than just the talk of the town.
Whether you’re eating something tasty in the hyper-exclusive Herak Club, or grabbing a bag of caramel corn – also quite tasty – Roth has time to thank you for coming.
He’ll tell you he’s a behind-the-scenes kinda guy and not really all that comfortable in the public light. He’ll also tell you he’s tall and that makes him easy to spot. Even in an arena built for extremely tall people to play basketball in, you can find him if you want to, he jokes.
It’s also because people know him. That happens when you’ve been at a place for this long. And when national publications continually name you one of the top 10 basketball athletic directors in the nation.
Roth has been Gonzaga’s A.D. for 20 years. He’s been at the university for 30 years.
He’s watched a lot of games. Way more than he could count. He’s watched as the Zags have become the envy of most schools whose names don’t rhyme with Ransas, Ruke or Renrucky.
But on Thursday night, he watched a packed house celebrate as the Zags won their 16th game of the season, without a single loss. No other team in college basketball can say that this year. Even in January perfection is, well, perfect.
And it’s not just the people of Eastern Washington who are watching. Through Christmas, the Zags were among the most televised teams on ESPN this season.
It’s a far cry from those old days with all of those empty seats at the Martin Centre.
“It helps all of us keep our feet on the ground – especially all of us who were here when Gonzaga was something different, ” Roth said as the cleaning crews sweep up the popcorn from the stands and a couple of kids shoot baskets on a court that will be featured all over SportsCenter for the next 24 hours.
“We know where we came from, and we will never take this for granted.”
And regardless of whether the world is watching or not, there’s no place he’d rather watch a game.