It only took 19 years – and that was just how long ago the nation first became aware Gonzaga had a basketball team – for the Bulldogs to become an overnight sensation.
A Final Four will do that.
Of course, the rap on the Zags and coach Mark Few had been that they’d taken too long to reach this promised land. Just guessing that a few of the 91 schools that beat Gonzaga to it – Notre Dame, George Mason, Seattle U., to say nothing of Washington and Washington State – might have swapped their shorter wait for years of sustained success.
So maybe it’s time for a five-point, short-course refresher in how the Zags kept themselves in the position for this moment, instead of fading away as a one-hit wonder back when the calendar turned over to Y2K.
The overtures Few has deflected from schools either sending out feelers or trying to induce him to leave is oft-told Zags lore. Oregon came hard; Arizona, Indiana and UCLA all nibbled, at least.
But a key moment goes back to his being hired as head coach in 1999 – and that was actually more than a year in the making, before the Bulldogs were anyone’s Cinderella with the Elite Eight run earlier that year.
“It was the summer of 1998 and Mark was being pursued by some other schools to be an assistant,” said Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth, “and for more than we were going to be able to offer – we weren’t who we are today. (Head coach) Dan Monson came to me and asked if there was anything we could do.”
Their solution: make Few, already 10 years an assistant, the head coach in waiting, as Monson had been under Dan Fitzgerald. The wait turned out to be more of an express lane. Monson left for Minnesota after the 1999 run. One of Roth’s favorite stories followed, involving GU president Robert Spitzer, who had been on campus just six months.
“Dan leaves and Fr. Spitzer is freaking out: ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Roth recalled, “and I tell him, ‘Father, it’s already done.’ And then he asks me, ‘Which one is he?’ ”
Said Roth, “Mark’s proven to be a great coach. But we were looking for the best person for the university and that’s what he was.”
Spitzer has his own story – how on a trip with Few to Salt Lake City to approach brothers Phil and Tom McCarthey for money to build up GU’s athletic endowment, the coach pressed him to float a new basketball arena instead. And that when the school had come up $2.3 million short of the 80 percent that had to be raised to start the $26 million project, Spitzer had to go back to the McCartheys – which he did, after the Zags’ 2003 NCAA Tournament loss to Arizona.
Not that it was a surprise to the McCartheys.
“They had intel from somebody,” Spitzer said back in 2009. “All they wanted to do was make me make the ask, but I’m sure they knew every penny I needed.”
The 6,000-seat McCarthey Athletic Center opened for the 2004-05 season, and only once – against Montana that year – has attendance not been announced as a sellout.
“It changed our program,” said Roth, “not just visually on TV or in the stands, but more importantly in the eyes of recruits. They no longer came into a gym and saw a gym.”
How’s this for strategy?
“At the start of this thing we sat down with what was at the time Fox Sports Northwest and negotiated how much we’d pay to be on TV,” Roth said.
That’s right, pay. The Zags were going to have to buy their way into even regional living rooms – five games for $22,000 apiece that first year.
In 2001, along came Lon Lee of KHQ, who offered to put six games a year on his station – no charge, but no fee, either. That number was exceeded every year (“they always overdelivered,” said Roth), and three years into the agreement Gonzaga was in a position to get paid.
But to be a national program, they had to be national programming – and that meant getting on ESPN.
“We were a team they liked having on,” Roth said, “and we were in a great time slot because ESPN didn’t have the Pac-10 at that time.”
That league’s decision in the 2000s to put its games on Fox helped turn the Zags into a household word. By mid-decade, the Bulldogs were on about 15 times per year, as they were this season. That includes the early season tournaments the network owns and neutral court games it helps arrange, which brings us to …
In 1981, DePaul coaching icon Ray Meyer walked into Kennedy Pavilion at Gonzaga, felt the big-timer’s claustrophobia and grumped, “I thought when we got to be No. 1, we wouldn’t have to go to places like this anymore.”
The Blue Demons actually had been No. 1 the year before, but they were still the first ranked team to play GU in the old Kennel. Now the Zags get visits from Notre Dame, UCLA and Arizona, among others – and meet up with many more in neutral site trysts.
That’s been a happy outcome of a new building, TV matchmakers and Few’s networking – and respect – among his coaching friends and acquaintances who have come to realize an important thing.
“If they lose, it’s not a black mark,” Roth said. “If they win, it’s a resume builder. And then they get us their building for a chance at another resume builder.”
It’s no bulletin that the talent level at Gonzaga has grown. Last year, for the first time, a McDonald’s All-American – center Zach Collins – signed with the Bulldogs out of high school.
Just as important, though, is the evolution of how the Zags have evolved. The 1999 splash was made largely with Northwest players. Later came the international wave, which the Bulldogs still ride. More recently, as transfers from other four-year programs increased, the Zags have mined that market, prudently and with good outcomes for those players.
“Just like in any business,” said Roth, “if you’re just going to do it the way you’ve always done it, chances are you’re going to be left behind. If we’d kept doing it the way we’d done it 18 years ago, we probably wouldn’t be where we are today.”
So that’s five – but we haven’t talked about luck. There always has to be some. Maybe it’s luck to have a head coach who values quality of life over another million. Or play the equivalent of a home game as a 10 seed – against a team that suspended two starters 48 hours before – for your first NCAA Tournament win. They say it’s lucky to be prepared for opportunity. The Bulldogs have certainly prepared for this.
“Did we feel lucky on Saturday night?” asked Roth. “You bet we did.”