Seated eight rows behind the Bulldogs bench, Thayne McCulloh is just as nervous as the rest of the 1,000 or so people decked out in Gonzaga colors in the Honda Center.
Maybe more. And he wonders if a hot dog might calm him down.
Before Thursday’s Sweet 16 game against Florida State, the school’s president attended a Zags pep rally in the parking lot of a restaurant across the street from the massive home of the Anaheim Ducks hockey team.
Of course, there was food at the rally. He just forgot to eat. And no one reminded him.
In this era of big-time college athletics, most university presidents travel with an entourage. Especially at showy events like the NCAA Tournament. And this being Southern California, entourages are totally a thing here.
Just not for McCulloh.
This is a university president who is practically the poster child for unpretentiousness.
That’s how I ended up sitting with him for the Zags game against the Seminoles. He asked where my seats were for the game.
Second row, behind the GU bench, to be honest. So not bad. Not as good as John Blanchette and Jim Meehan’s courtside seats, but also pretty spectacular.
The thing is, I’ve sat in those seats before. And it’s not that they’re not totally cool. Because they totally are.
But how often do you get to watch a Sweet 16 game with the president of one of the universities playing? You typically don’t. Unless you’re in an entourage.
None of this means that he walks to his seat and is ignored. Far from it.
You hear his name constantly, just like you hear younger fans yell the names of their favorite players as they walk on and off the court, hoping to get their attention. Only these are adults.
He turns and waves each time it happens, always smiling.
Many come to talk with him. He shakes their hands.
If you are a Gonzaga fan or alum, shaking McCulloh’s hands at an NCAA game is the best. Why? Because it’s the only time he wears the rings from various different Gonzaga basketball championships, including the team’s 2017 Final Four ring.
Everybody stares at the rings. Then he asks if you want to wear one of them. Or some of them. Or even all of them.
The answer is always “yes.”
They’re huge. They’re heavy. They’re like wearing a mini disco ball – like an old class ring turned up to 11 with more sparkle than a Disney princess.
It’s the ultimate costume jewelry for a Gonzaga basketball fan.
Once the game starts, it’s pretty much exactly like watching a college game with anyone else. He comments on just how big Florida State’s 7-foot-4 center looks out there compared to our players and that it might be helpful if he got two quick fouls.
Two minutes later, Christ Koumadje picks up his second foul and I can’t help but wonder if maybe we should have visited the casino together during the WCC tournament in Las Vegas a few weeks ago.
Every once in a while, he pulls his phone out. If you follow him on Twitter, you know what he’s doing. He posts a picture of the Gonzaga band with a note about how great they sound tonight.
People around him ask him questions, mostly about the basketball team … like “how did Rui end up in Spokane?”
“Tommy” he says, talking about the Gonzaga assistant coach Tommy Lloyd, whose overseas recruiting skills are becoming so good he basically could be the ambassador of basketball to the United Nations.
When the first half ends with a last-second steal and hustle layup by Josh Perkins that draws a foul, he’s standing and cheering as loud as anyone in the section, with high-fives coming from all directions.
At halftime, McCulloh heads up to the concourse, talks and jokes with fans, takes a few pictures with people who ask, and is still shocked at the size of concession-stand lines. He does get a bag of peanuts.
About halfway through the second half, the massive video board at the Honda Center plays an emotional and powerful tribute to the U.S. Armed Forces, with a focus on those who play and coach in the NCAA. The announcer then asks if all military veterans in attendance would stand to be recognized.
After he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, primarily serving with the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Polk, Louisiana. He left the Army with the Army Commendation Medal and the Army Achievement Medal, and immediately enrolled at Gonzaga.
With the less than five minutes left, Florida State closes the gap to four points. He says what everyone around him is thinking: “This is stressful.”
At this point, the GU band and cheerleaders are doing their best to get the Gonzaga fans standing. Then you see what you notice all game – McCulloh is often the first in the section to stand and yell encouragement at the team. The rest of the section often follows his lead.
At the three-minute mark, he does it again, this time standing and motioning for others to join him. Again, they do.
Zach Norvell Jr. hits a 3-pointer. An excited McCulloh holds up three fingers on both hands, each finger wrapped in one of those big rings. It’s a sight you can’t help but smile at.
When it’s all over, he’s excited. He’s relieved.
And he’s totally ready to do it again Saturday.
I’ll make sure he eats before that game.
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