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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Ralph Walter: Now’s the perfect time to apologize to Gonzaga coach Mark Few

UPDATED: Sat., March 24, 2018

I probably owe Mark Few an apology.

Not that he’s asked for one. Gonzaga’s storied basketball coach doesn’t know me from (Alvan) Adams.

And in the wake of GU’s 75-60 Sweet 16 loss to Florida State on Thursday night, it probably offers little comfort to him or anybody else at the moment.

But I’ll sleep better if I get this off my chest.

You see, about 15 years ago, my pettiness might have gotten the best of me.

The Zags were only a few years into this magical run when I bumped into Few and then-Eastern Washington University coach Ray Giacoletti at a downtown watering hole. I didn’t know either of them personally, but as any obsessed fan will do, I walked up, rudely interrupted their conversation and introduced myself.

That’s when the trouble started.

As I chatted up Giacoletti, I noticed Few – still relatively unknown at the time – looking at me, somewhat puzzled. (More than likely he was simply baffled that a grown man could get so excited about meeting the Eastern Washington University basketball coach. Looking back, Giacoletti might have been giving me the stink-eye, as well.)

I didn’t purposely ignore Few, it’s just that Eastern was my team. The Eagles were coming off a solid 18-13 season that saw them make the NIT. Earlier that year, EWU lost a 67-64 nail-biter to Gonzaga at a sold-out Spokane Arena – the second straight year the Eagles had taken a double-digit lead into the second half against the Zags only to collapse in the end.

Anyway, later that night, I hatched what seemed like the perfect plan to avenge my alma mater’s heartbreaking, back-to-back losses to the Zags.

I enlisted the help of former S-R columnist (and unwitting accomplice) Doug Clark, an EWU grad himself whose band, Trailer Park Girls, was playing the smoke-filled bar that evening. Between songs, I goaded him into making an announcement:

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Clark told the packed house, “we’ve got a special guest here tonight. Let’s hear it for the area’s best college basketball coach …”

Then he paused.

“… Ray Giacoletti of Eastern Washington University.”

Giacoletti and Few – whose GU team was coming off a thrilling, two-overtime loss to Arizona in the Big Dance a month earlier – both laughed, one a little harder than the other.

Finally, a victory! Chalk one up for the Eags.

So why bring this up now?

Because over the years, as a jilted EWU fan and basketball “expert,” I often joined in the chorus of Mark Few disses heard around town: He can’t win the big one. The WCC is such an easy conference. He’s no Ray Giacoletti.

Blah. Blah. Blah.

I get it now. It’s all nonsense. Despite Thursday’s GU loss, I’m convinced: Ladies and gentlemen, Mark Few is the nation’s best college basketball coach.

You can have Coach K or Tom Izzo or Bill Self. I’ll take Few.

What he’s accomplished over the past 19 seasons has been historic: 535 victories, 19 straight NCAA Tournament appearances, eight Sweet 16s, 17 seasons with at least 25 victories.

But what he’s done the past two seasons has truly been jaw-dropping.

A year after losing leading scorer Kyle Wiltjer to graduation and Domantas Sabonis to the NBA, Few retooled and led the Zags to a gaudy 37-2 record and last season’s NCAA runner-up finish.

This season, after losing three-fifths of his starting lineup – as well as talented freshman Zach Collins to the Portland Trail Blazers – he still managed to coax 32 wins out of a “rebuilding” team picked to finish second in the West Coast Conference. He even had them on the cusp of another Final Four had Killian Tillie not been hurt.

All this and never any trouble with the NCAA.

Still not persuaded? Don’t take my word for it. Let’s hear from the professionals:

Giacoletti, the former EWU coach and Gonzaga assistant: “This past year was an amazing accomplishment. To put it in perspective, the year he just had would be any other coach’s career highlight. For Mark, it’s just another year. Coaching is such a cruel profession and business, yet he has found a way to stay above all the things basketball is going through and continue to do it with great morals. It’s the model program in college basketball. He’ll be in the hall of fame. That’s not even a question.”

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans: “He’s the man! If he wanted to take a job in the Power 5 (conferences) right now, there are only a handful of schools that wouldn’t fire their coach and hire him this minute. He’s someone young coaches look up to … I know I do. All he does is win. He’s never in any scandals. He’s got great players but … it’s not like he’s doing this with DeMarcus Cousins, or Anthony Davis, or Marvin Bagley.”

Former EWU head coach and current Idaho assistant Kirk Earlywine: “It’s unbelievable what he’s done. If you look across the country, find me one program – even the big boys from the Power 5 conferences – who in the last 15 years have never taken a step backward. They just keep getting a little better each year – the Elite Eight, then Final Four last year. And they’re right back this year. It’s remarkable.”

West Valley High School basketball coach Jay Humphrey, who was especially close to Dan Fitzgerald, the former GU coach who hired Few: “What he’s done with this little team from this little town in this little 6,000-seat arena is nothing short of miraculous. He’s big-time. I think he’s just a great coach. I think we were all ready for a step back or two this year … and then this!”

Need we say more?

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