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Ralph Walter: Local hall should welcome Dick Zornes, Dan Fitzgerald

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 18, 2017

Dan Fitzgerald, left, won 252 games in 15 seasons as head men’s basketball coach at Gonzaga; Dick Zornes had 89 wins in 14 seasons leading the Eastern Washington football team. (File / SR)
Dan Fitzgerald, left, won 252 games in 15 seasons as head men’s basketball coach at Gonzaga; Dick Zornes had 89 wins in 14 seasons leading the Eastern Washington football team. (File / SR)

When it comes to sports tributes, I love them all: rings of honor, halls of fame, retired jerseys (hint-hint, East Valley.)

These gestures can elevate our biggest sports heroes into all-time greats.

On Tuesday at the Spokane Arena, the Inland Northwest Sports Hall of Fame welcomed its latest inductees: Steve Gleason, Rueben Mayes, Pamela Parks, Dennis Patchin, Alli Nieman and Dennis Spurlock. The committee also added two more to its Scroll of Honor: Sister Madonna Buder and Jay Rydell.

And while the class of 2017 is certainly worthy, I feel a twinge of disappointment when I scan the remarkable list of names that make up our region’s Hall of Fame.

Not necessarily for who’s in – it’s a who’s who of stars, from John Stockton to Andrea Lloyd Curry, from Ryne Sandberg to Jerry Kramer.

But for who’s not.

Not Dan Fitzgerald. Not Dick Zornes.

Fitzgerald, who died in 2010, spent 15 seasons as men’s basketball coach at Gonzaga, winning 252 games and leading the Zags to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 1995.

Four times under Fitz in the 1990s, Gonzaga won more than 20 games. With a staff that included Dan Monson and Mark Few, he laid the foundation for a Gonzaga basketball program that has since earned 19 straight NCAA berths, including last season’s heartbreaker to North Carolina in the title game.

If not for a late-career brush with the NCAA (Fitz, who also served as athletic director, resigned in 1997 and Gonzaga was later punished for lack of institutional control), I assume he’d be a lock for the hall. That said, he built these Zags and paved their way to national prominence (not to mention all of these fancy new buildings), and deserves his place in history.

Like Fitz, Zornes – the Eastern Washington football coach – was fiercely old school, and tough. Legend had it he could benchpress a mule. (And if you see him marching around EWU tailgates today, he looks like he just did.) During his 14 seasons, he won 89 games while guiding the Eagles from the bare-boned ranks of NAIA to Division I athletics (albeit, still fairly bare-boned).

Zornes served several years in a dual role as athletic director and put in place coaches that shared his vision: eventual head coaches Mike Kramer and Paul Wulff, among them.

The common thread between Fitz and Zornes? Loyalty.

With rigid devotion to their respective programs, these two old-timers (relatively speaking) did the dirty work that vaulted GU and EWU to where they are today: competing for national championships year in and year out.

According to the Seattle Times, when Fitz got the GU head-coaching job in 1978, Gonzaga’s recruiting budget was $700. He was paid $18,000 his first season.

Times were even leaner for Zornes. When he was hired in 1979, there were no scholarships to give, Zornes told the Cheney Free Press in 2010. His first year, he was able to come up with 20.

That’s why they belong. They wore the hard hats. They built these programs.

Think the Zags are raising a Final Four banner in their snazzy digs without Fitz’s efforts decades earlier?

Would red turf, sellouts and that national championship trophy reside at Eastern Washington without the leadership of Zornes?

My guess? Not a chance.

I hope we’ll find a permanent place in history for these two legends.

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