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John Blanchette: After 20, even 30 years, all Gonzaga players matter

UPDATED: Fri., March 16, 2018

Former Gonzaga basketball players Geoff Goss, Jamie Dudley and Jarrod Davis were in attendence at Taco Bell Arena in Boise as the Zags defeated UNC Greensboro. The three played for Gonzaga in the early ’90s and now all live in Boise. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Gonzaga basketball players Geoff Goss, Jamie Dudley and Jarrod Davis were in attendence at Taco Bell Arena in Boise as the Zags defeated UNC Greensboro. The three played for Gonzaga in the early ’90s and now all live in Boise. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Mark Few arrived at Gonzaga University in 1989, hired on by Dan Fitzgerald as the program’s “graduate assistant” at the hefty wage of $1,500 a year. He took out student loans to afford things like, you know, food.

His first hands-on coaching duty: working out the Bulldogs’ redshirting players.

This did not mean then exactly what it implies now. The Gonzaga gap year these days is the springboard for the Zags’ next standout, whether it’s the incoming transfer – Kyle Wiltjer, Nigel-Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, Brandon Clarke – doing the NCAA’s mandatory season out of uniform or a Kelly Olynyk remaking himself into a lottery pick.

Though no one could see it as such, 29 years ago it meant reshaping the program – though that notion makes Geoff Goss, one of those back-in-the-day-redshirts, chuckle.

“I remember Fitz saying at our banquet in 1994, ‘Your team is going to be the one they talk about for 20 years,’ ” Goss said. “It’s nice to think that – but now we know the reality is different.”

Still, this weekend seems as good a time as any to relive it.

In the stands at Taco Bell Arena for the NCAA Tournament, three amigos – Boise residents all – sweated out the 68-64 first-round victory over 13th-seeded UNC Greensboro on Thursday, saving them the trouble of trying to resell their Saturday seats. Goss, Jared Davis and Jamie Dudley were all part of that pivot point at GU a decade before Few became head coach – but, yes, bring more of a fan’s point of view now.

“This is going to sound a little selfish,” Dudley admitted, “but if we’d lost, that would have ruined my weekend.”

Well, he would have had company.

The Boise-Gonzaga connections this weekend are thick. Few’s in-laws are clustered here. The Zags quartered in Boise State’s homey locker room, where Broncos coach and one-time Few assistant Leon Rice offered to cook his old boss pancakes. Former Zags forward Cory Violette, who played high school ball at Bishop Kelly, came down from Spokane to sit a few rows up from courtside on Thursday. More on request.

Goss, too, is a Boise boy who returned here to practice law. Davis, who works for a private equity firm, moved his family back for a second time a decade ago. Dudley, who’s made his living in software, relocated in August 2016.

“Jarrod had been working on me,” he said. “He should be the mayor of Boise.”

If only that cachet extended to his kids.

“I spend half my time trying to convince them I was a decent player,” Davis said. “So there was a little satisfaction when Mark comes up to me and knows my name – at least they can see that.”

They go back a ways. The year Few came to GU, so did Davis, Goss, Matt Stanford, Marty Wall, Scott Spink and Eric Brady – only the last two on scholarship. Brady, as a transfer from Washington, had to sit out, but the decision was made to redshirt the rest. It took a hard swallow. That year’s Zags – with Dudley as a backup freshman guard – went 8-20, and there was help available on the redshirt brigade.

“In the first scrimmage, we ended up beating them by a pretty significant amount,” Goss recalled. “Jarrod scored like 40. There was the idea that we might be OK if we get another piece.”

It arrived the next year in the form of another gift from UW, Jeff Brown. The Zags went 14-14 while he sat out, and then in 1992 became the first Gonzaga team in 25 years to win 20 games.

The Zags have come up short of 20 just twice since, and though that’s hardly the benchmark anymore, Few has been known to reference the humble beginnings – and the contribution of his team of hungry, walk-on redshirts from that first year – in these NCAA moments.

The threads haven’t unraveled.

“Some of that’s just Gonzaga,” Dudley said. “You could be anywhere and you see a Zag shirt and you’re going to stop and talk to that person. A UCLA shirt, that doesn’t happen.”

That Zags logo can start other conversations, too.

Davis’ 9-year-old son is a Duke fan (“which is ridiculous,” he said). An old friend, longtime Nike marketer Eric Lautenbach, helped hook up Davis with tickets at Cameron Indoor Arena behind the Blue Devils’ bench for a game against Virginia.

“It was such a cool experience,” Davis said. “But talking to people back there and telling them I played at Gonzaga and seeing the reaction, it’s like telling them you played at Duke. All those schools we used to admire for their tradition, well, we have it, too.”

They may not be the team everyone talks about now nearly 30 years later. But they’re part of a bigger team.

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