Firmly rooted in a basketball-rabid land of Zags and Cougs, Phil Von Buchwaldt has cast his glare far afield and awaits the day Santa Clara men’s basketball returns to national relevance.
Von Buchwaldt was a center at Santa Clara during the Broncos’ halcyon era in the 1990s when the team qualified for the NCAA Tournament three times in four years. The team is trying to end a 22-year tournament drought, however, and he acknowledged it hasn’t been easy living in the back yard of the Broncos’ West Coast Conference rival, Gonzaga.
“I am a pro-Santa Clara guy all the way. Absolutely,” said Von Buchwaldt, now a vice president of commercial lending at Washington Trust Bank in Spokane. “But it’s a challenge because we’re not very good. That’s the reality.”
Santa Clara (7-6) visits Spokane Arena on Saturday to square off with Washington State (7-5) in a nonconference game tipping off at 11 a.m. The contest will serve as the final tuneup for each team before conference play begins next week. Santa Clara returns to Spokane to play Gonzaga on Jan. 5.
Von Buchwaldt, 45, was born and raised in France, where he played for the country’s U-17 national team. He parlayed that experience into a trip to America, where he participated as one of a handful of Europeans in an ABCD basketball camp in front of college coaches.
“I was 7 feet tall,” he said. “That helped.”
Santa Clara coach Dick Davey offered him a scholarship, and he joined the Broncos as a member of a freshman class that included future Hall of Famer Steve Nash. They finished their initial campaign with a run to the NCAA Tournament, where as a No. 15 seed they registered one of the biggest opening-round upsets in tournament history, defeating second-seeded Arizona.
“I got here my freshman year, and we played our first preseason game against a team from New Zealand,” Von Buchwaldt said. “It was like a 5,000-seat arena, and there were maybe 400 people there. … The arena was too big for the team. But after we beat Arizona, I’d go to the same spot to grab a sandwich and people there knew our names all of a sudden.
“Everyone got excited about the program. Then we kept it going, which was great. We went to the NCAA Tournament in my junior year and the next year made the second round. Our senior year we did Midnight Madness. It was just a completely different feeling. It was a lot of excitement. We were a group of six freshmen that came in, and by the time we left the program it was totally different.”
Santa Clara hasn’t returned to the NCAA Tournament since 1996, Von Buchwaldt’s final season.
“They’ve hired Herb Sendek as a coach, so they got the right coach,” said Von Buchwaldt, alluding to Sendek’s resume that boasts conference coach of the year honors at three universities, including Arizona State. “He’s experienced. He’s had success at other programs. He just needs time.”
Von Buchwaldt met his wife, Susan, at Santa Clara – “Boy from France meets girl from Montana in California and moves to Spokane,” he summarized. After playing professionally in Europe for four years, he returned to Santa Clara to acquire an MBA in finance to go with the marketing degree he earned as an undergrad.
In other words, Von Buchwaldt has little motivation to switch allegiances. It’s Team Nash, not Team Stockton or Team Klay in the Von Buchwaldt home.
He said he likes the full-page ad that appeared in The Spokesman-Review six weeks ago that alerted Gonzaga coach Mark Few, his players and their supporters that Santa Clara has grown weary of its status as a WCC also-ran. It shows Santa Clara is boosting investment in athletics and expects to challenge the Bulldogs for conference titles in short order.
“I loved the ad,” Von Buchwaldt said. “The tone wasn’t rude. At the same time it wasn’t deferential to Gonzaga. We’re trying. We’re coming for you. It’s gamesmanship. I loved it. It made me very proud to be from Santa Clara. But we’ve got a lot of work ahead to get there.”
Von Buchwaldt serves as a guest commentator when the Broncos’ radio crew travels to Spokane for the Gonzaga matchup every year. He said he’ll watch Saturday’s game against the Cougars from the comfort of an arena suite.
That comfort will have its limits, though.
“I know some Wazzu alums,” Von Buchwaldt said. “I’ll be in the suite with my family, but it’s going to be crowded in there for sure. I’ll be wearing my Santa Clara colors proudly, and I know the Wazzu guys will do their part, too.”
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