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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s calling card of greatness won’t go away with the departure of Tommy Lloyd

UPDATED: Wed., April 14, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

So does Tommy Lloyd have to give back the calling card now?

It’s an old story, retold often in the 20 years since it happened. That when Lloyd came aboard Gonzaga’s basketball staff at the age of 26, the central piece of advice from his new boss, Mark Few, was to carve out an identity, a connection in player procurement, to distinguish himself in the coach-eat-coach world of college basketball. Like, say, recruiting beyond our borders, since Lloyd played overseas himself. And Few flipped him his international calling card to get him started.

Not long later, Few returned with a phone bill for $2,000 and asked his new guy whether the card had been lost or stolen.

When in fact that two grand had been invested in a career launching pad.

Calling cards, of course, are a bygone thing, like the old Flex offense that was once the heart of the Bulldogs’ playbook. The landscape has changed – it’s been remade, rather – and at Gonzaga it was Tommy Lloyd who did much of the remaking.

Now he’s done it again.

Lloyd’s days as head-coach-in-waiting – for some time he’d been contractually guaranteed to become Gonzaga’s head coach whenever Few decided he’d had enough – are over. On Wednesday, he became head-coach-in-fact, only at someplace else.

In another development no one could have imagined even five years ago, the University of Arizona – the flagship of college basketball in the West for the better part of 30 years – pried away Gonzaga’s longtime assistant in hopes of restoring that grandeur.

Not the head coach. An assistant.

Just another stroke of the Zag editing pencil to the manuscript of Things That Just Aren’t Done.

This informed much of the drama around the Arizona job since the firing of Sean Miller a week ago: that it could go to someone outside the Wildcats “family” with – horrors – no head-coaching experience. Yes, sometimes that proves to be a liability, and sometimes the rookie head coach ends up being Tony Bennett or Tom Izzo – or Mark Few. The success/failure rate is about the same for head coaches who jump to bigger jobs.

Besides, the gamble is mutual.

There probably needs to be some outreach to Arizona program alums who felt one of their own should be anointed, and to supporters still with their shorts in a snarl over Miller’s dismissal despite the way the program has been both muddied by scandal – with significant penalties presumably to come – and a drift toward, well, mediocrity. The Wildcats haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game in five years.

But as deep as Lloyd’s to-do list in Tucson is, it starts with throwing open a window and letting in some fresh air. He’s good at that, and a lot more.

Amazingly, you learn a few things as an assistant that are actually applicable when you move over one seat.

There’s a to-do list in Spokane, too.

It is gospel now that so much of Gonzaga’s unprecedented basketball story rests with the program’s remarkable continuity – starting with Few and athletic director Mike Roth, yes, but Tommy Lloyd, too. Staff churn is inevitable in the wake of success, and Few’s early lieutenants – Bill Grier, Leon Rice, Ray Giacoletti – earned cracks to run their own programs.

Lloyd received overtures, too, and stayed – for two decades. The Santangelos and Calvarys were in the program when he arrived. He worked out Dan Dickau during his redshirt year. He contributed to every part of the evolution, hard-assed players when necessary, offered the boss a contradictory thought, strategized scouting reports for the biggest games, celebrated the victories, found lessons in the defeats.

And developed that niche.

Gonzaga had international players before – Australians John Rillie and Axel Dench were notable on the first two NCAA teams – but the arc changed when Lloyd and the Zags landed Ronny Turiaf. What followed was an enduring line of some of Gonzaga’s most popular and productive players – Elias Harris, Domantas Sabonis, Przemek Karnowski, Rui Hachimura, to name but a few.

It changed the entire scope of Gonzaga basketball.

The dynamic will change now, too. Oh, Few is still very much in charge as always – and the most important piece – and outstanding aides remain in Brian Michaelson and Roger Powell. The replacement will be exceptional, whether it’s someone with Gonzaga roots or thoroughly new blood.

But Gonzaga basketball is always changing. Few, Lloyd and the rest have never confused continuity with complacency.

Maybe the only shame of Lloyd’s long stay was his inadvertent typecasting: international recruiter. He’s been so much more. His role in player development – another Gonzaga trademark – has been pivotal.

“Your most important job as a coach,” he said during the latest NCAA run, “is to do a great job with the players you’ve got.”

That’s a calling card.

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