It’s late Monday morning and one of the most pressing issues Mike Roth faces less than 48 hours until his 24-year tenure as Gonzaga’s athletic director comes to an end is deciding which memento, trinket or piece of memorabilia will be the last to leave his office Tuesday night.
Everything else was cleared out by Monday afternoon, freeing up Tuesday for goodbyes and emotional farewells – at least, those Roth hasn’t already knocked out since announcing his retirement in early June – but Gonzaga’s longtime AD was determined to walk out of the Volkar/McCarthey complex with a piece of nostalgia in his arms.
One option is the bronze bulldog figurine that sits on top of a rear-facing cabinet and was gifted to Roth three decades ago. Awhile back, janitors dropped the decorative hound from its shelf, but repair efforts were successful and Roth was recently swayed by his wife, Linda, and longtime assistant, Gayle Clayton, to take the metal dog home despite a push from Chris Standiford, Roth’s successor and the office’s next tenant, to leave it put. Other meaningful artifacts include a black box stuffed with NCAA Tournament credentials, a white basketball autographed by members of the 1999 Elite Eight team or a photo of Roth and Robert Spitzer, GU’s 25th president and the man who elevated the Bulldogs’ AD in September of 1998.
Spitzer couldn’t have known then he was hiring the person who’d spend nearly a quarter-century in that same seat. From that standpoint, Roth considers himself “crazy lucky” because he’s also conscious of this: seldom does an athletic director get to choose when he or she cleans out their office.
“There hasn’t been a lot of athletic directors in recent years or even at multiple institutions that have been able to retire,” Roth said. “There’s different versions of retirement. Recently a lot of athletic directors are getting retired and not getting to retire. I feel really good about that, I feel really good this was a decision I was able to make and my timing.”
On Monday, Roth considered a piece of advice he once shrugged off. It came from a peer, Jim Livengood, a former athletic director at UNLV and Arizona, a few years into Roth’s tenure as Gonzaga AD, just as the Bulldogs were beginning to build a national brand on the basketball court.
“‘Mike, you’ve got to understand something,’” Livengood told Roth. “‘The more successful your programs are, especially your premier programs. The more success you get, the more being the AD is living in dog years.’ I laughed about it, I kind of thought, yeah he’s joking. Well, it didn’t take me many years to realize he was right.”
“Dog years” or “Bulldog years,” Roth’s lived plenty at Gonzaga. As for human days? In total Roth’s spent 8,393 as the Bulldogs’ athletic director. On Monday – err, day 8,392 – The Spokesman-Review sat down for an all-encompassing Q&A with Roth in which the departing AD reflected on his tenure at Gonzaga, hiring Bulldogs coach Mark Few, the next phase of his life and much more.
This interview was edited for brevity.
Spokesman-Review: What does your schedule look like the last few days on the job?
Mike Roth: “It’s looked different for, heck in some ways since June, when we announced my retirement and Dr. McCulloh announced Chris as AD and Shannon (Strahl) as Deputy AD. They’ve been taking the reins. The three of us have discussed that many times leading into this, that I didn’t want to be making decisions they’re going to have to live with. A lot of the decisions have been collective, but that’s the way we’ve operated for years, too. Now through the summer here, it’s been a lot more of them telling me what’s going on rather than, ‘What do you think we should do?’ Which has been great. From day one, I said this is 100% my decision. I was working things out with the president, even this spring he came back with, ‘One solution Mike would be you just stay another year.’ I was like, ‘I already did that once.’ … What I’m looking forward at is, my legacy’s going to be how successful we are after I’m gone. If I’ve done my job, if I’ve prepared everything the way I hope I have and that we have, we will continue to do what we’ve been working on every year, which is getting better from the year before.”
S-R: Even if you’re comfortable with the direction this athletic department is going, is it still hard to let go?
MR: “Oh yeah, for sure. I’m still going to care when we win or lose. The number one question of course is, ‘Are you going to sit down at games? Are you going to sit down at games now?’ When they asked Chris that question, Chris said ‘Mike gets to stand wherever he wants.’ Chris doesn’t say ‘Mike gets to sit wherever he wants’ he says, ‘Mike can stand wherever he wants.’ You’ve got all these pieces going on at the same time and I continue to watch and pay attention and I’ll see Chris and Shannon meeting on something and they’re meeting with some other people. I’ll say afterward, ‘So, what’s going on?’ I told them last week, that’s going to be the thing I have to work on personally is not needing to know, because I don’t need to know anymore. Yet the flipside of that needing to know or knowing is also the big relief. … I recall in April, I was home and 6, 7 at night and I was out for a walk. Phone rings of course and OK, here’s a problem, we’ve got to solve it, oh my god. We worked through our strategy, I hung up the phone and I realized, not only next year, a year from now, not only will I not have to deal with it, I won’t even know it’s happening. … So just going to basketball games and enjoying being a part of those games. It’s going to take me awhile, maybe the rest of my life, to not care whether we win or lose. But as far as other teams, I’ll probably be able to enjoy those more. And again, the issues as they pop up are the ones I won’t have to deal with and as I said, won’t know about. I’m looking forward to that, I really am.”
S-R: Do you still remember your first day on the job? Your very first day as AD?
MR: “Yeah, let’s not talk about it. We’re not talking about that one. That first year on the job, that was ’97-’98 and it was challenging. We’re dealing with some situations, I’m first-year AD, Dan Monson is first-year head coach. We’re coming through a situation that was different. We’re in a budget crisis at the university, athletically we had our situation, institutionally we had an interim president. … Every day was a challenge and every day was a challenge for me of, can I do this? Do I really have the chops and don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure that feeling’s ever stopped. I think even after all these years, I wonder am I really worthy? Am I worthy? I’m just a hick that grew up in Moses Lake and just a simple person. I’ve been crazy, crazy lucky. … I think the people are what I take most pride in. The thing I focus on the most is those people. … There’s a lot of pictures of me holding up three fingers, because we have three simple goals – I call them goals, Chris and Shannon now like to call them pillars – and all three are about winning. We’re going to win on the court, the water, the field, we’re going to win. We’re Division I athletics, we’re not here to finish second. We’re here to win. But the same goal, they’re all equal, is we’re also going to win in the classroom. We have shown there’s not a sacrifice that needs to be made. Then the third piece, we call it winning in the community. … So you have to do all three. Almost nobody can, but we’ve proven you can. Lisa (Fortier) has never had a student-athlete not graduate. Fewie’s been our head coach for 22 graduating classes. He’s only had one student-athlete in those 22 years, it was very early on, that wore the uniform as a senior and didn’t graduate.”
S-R: You’ve alluded to the athletic department’s struggles when you took over. Is there something that demonstrated just how bleak things were back then?
MR: “Institutionally, the summer of ’98 was a really difficult summer for the university. Our enrollment was way down and especially then, we were an enrollment-based private university. We didn’t have a very big endowment. And we had to make some really hard choices of what we were going to do to survive financially. So, whenever that happens at any institution, the first place people look is athletics. Why are we spending this money on athletics? What are we getting in return? So, there was a lot of discussion that summer of, should we drop from Division I to Division III. I acknowledged, I sat in my office with multiple different groups of people – campus people – seemingly every week throughout that summer and we’d go over the budget. I was wide open. We’d save, at that time, it was a million dollars right off the bat going Division III just by scholarships. Then our travel would come down, everything else. So, we’d save a whole bunch of money. But the flip side was we would lose any opportunity we have. We had a great example here. Whitworth has for years been a very successful Division III program, but outside Spokane and even for people in Spokane, how much branding do they really get through athletics? Then of course it was that spring in 1999 we go to the Elite Eight and that changed everything because then all the sudden everyone realized athletics can change a university.”
S-R: What do you remember about hiring Mark Few in 1999?
MR: “In those days, we started changing (Don) Monson’s contract during that Elite Eight run. We met with him right before the Sweet 16 game, we told him this is going to be your bump and right after the Sweet 16 game we met with him again and added to it. The season ends and he gets a phone call from another school and they really want him as coach and he doesn’t want to go and he comes into my office and says, ‘Mike thanks for the raise otherwise I probably would’ve taken that job and I really didn’t want to take that job.’ The dust settled, we get through April, but that’s when Minnesota imploded, had already been imploding and they couldn’t get anyone to take the job. So I get a phone call from Monson’s attorney and he said they’re flying a jet out to take Monson back there. I go, ‘Oh boy.’ I told Monson’s attorney, ‘If he gets on that plane, he ain’t coming back.’ That’s what happened. Give Monson credit, he pushed away from the table twice. They just put more on the table until he couldn’t say no anymore. I remember him calling me, because we’d kept in touch and he’s crying and I’m crying and I let him know, Dan this is the right move for you. You are making the decision that is right for you. We’re going to support that. Whatever is right for you is going to be right for us. So then my next call was to Father Spitzer to tell Father, by the way Monson took the job. I’d warned him it was going to happen, so now he goes, ‘What do we do Mike? What do we do? What do we do?’ I said, ‘Well slow down Father, Mark Few is our next head coach. Monson’s press conference is tomorrow afternoon, we’ll hold a press conference tomorrow.’ … But I go, ‘Mark’s already the coach, it’s already decided.’ He goes ‘Good, good, good, good, good. That’s great. Which one is he?’ Now he learned very quickly who Mark Few was. … I’ll never forget, that was so funny. Now Mark is arguably one of the, viewed as by his peers as the best basketball coach in the country, at Gonzaga. Thirty years ago you would’ve said that and, ‘What kind of chemical substance are you using?’ A famous alum said actually during the Final Four this year, ‘When we were playing, we couldn’t dream of dreaming about.’ It was inception, two dreams deep.”
S-R: A two-part question: what was your most challenging day on the job and your most rewarding?
MR: “To be honest with you, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about those things. There has been of course real challenging days. 9/11. 9/11 was a challenging day. We had soccer and volleyball, cross country going. All the sudden the towers come down and, what are we doing? This is uncharted territory. It’s 20 years ago now, and for some people, our freshmen, they weren’t even alive. People don’t really think about it. They commemorate the date, but they don’t really think, we all lived that. In athletics it was, what do we do? Are we playing, are we not playing? When are we playing, how are we playing, who’s playing? … March of 2020 was crazy difficult because (Killian) Tillie just gets healthy, he’s playing really well, team’s playing really well. We knew things were on edge. I flew back the night after the game, the championship game in Las Vegas. The team comes back the next day and while they’re in the air, the decision is made no fans. No fans and we’re going to be in Spokane for the first time. The men get to play in Spokane and the women were going to host, too. So we were on cloud nine. While we were in the air, that happens. So they land, get back to campus, I’d called Mark and we met with them and we told them. It was really tough news, but what I reminded them, what Fewie reminded them, we’re still getting to play guys. We’re still getting to play. Twenty-four hours later we call them back in and say we’re not playing. … Think of what Spokane would’ve been for those couple days.”
S-R: If you could point to the biggest change in college athletics between your first year and now, what would it be?
MR: “Name, image and likeness needed to happen, it’s just unfortunate the way it’s happening. Our student-athletes needed to get more than just their room, board, tuition and fees. But now we have politicians that are involved in putting that together and a lot of pieces that are still moving there and it’s going to take its toll. There’s only so much money to go around, so we’re going to see money that’s normally going to a school for sponsorships let’s say that help run that athletic department, some of that money is now going to the players. But is there enough money to make up for that? Ultimately what could happen, there could be unintended consequences, there could be less opportunities for total number of student-athletes. This time we’re in right now, 2021 going forward with all the different pieces – NIL, transfers, conference realignment, NCAA shakeup and then you throw in COVID still being involved in that – it is really an unknown. I had planned my retirement well before that, but some people have asked that question. Are you leaving because of all that stuff? I’m not sad that I am. (Laughing).”
S-R: When you look at the future of conference realignment, where do you think Gonzaga fits in five years from now? Ten years from now?
MR: “That’s crystal ball stuff. … Right now we’re crazy attractive because of our men’s and women’s basketball programs but also because we could be the best baseball program, or one of the best baseball programs coming in, or cross country. … From that standpoint, those are the things we can control. And then connections, I’m retiring as AD but I’m not completely walking away and never going to return. Over the years, I know a lot of people and I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and I think they respect Gonzaga. So I will continue to work that with Chris’ own experience and Shannon’s experience, so we position ourselves when or if things make significant change, we’re going to be right there and be a part of that. The thing I think people right now understand, because they want to see movement right now, movement right now is football. That’s it. Let’s face it, the Big-12 is a mess at the moment. People say well, ‘Mike, where are you guys with basketball because basketball has to fit in.’ Wait a minute, you realize Kansas is not being discussed at all in this whole conference realignment. They’re the ultimate blue blood of the blue bloods. College basketball was birthed there … they’re not being discussed in any of this conference realignment because it’s all about football. Once the football stuff shakes out, now the basketball discussion will take place.”
S-R: Tuesday is your last day as Gonzaga’s athletic director. What will Wednesday look like?
MR: “Victoria Fallgren, our assistant women’s golf coach, the university had a picnic last Wednesday. She goes, ‘So Mike, what are you going to do when you wake up on Wednesday?’ I said, ‘Roll over. I’m going to roll over and go back to sleep.’ My wife Linda retired … she retired in December. She’s been practicing, so what we decided is, we’re not going to make any plans initially. The biggest thing is not so much what I’m going to do, it’s what I’m not going to do. I’m going to not be stressed. It’s taken its toll. That whole dog years thing takes its toll. … I had somebody tell me one time, ‘Mike, you care too much.’ I told them, well that’s something I can’t turn off. I can’t turn off caring too much about this. That’s just who I am. Now, will I still care? Yeah, I’ll still care. But I won’t know and I’m not going to ask either. I’ve told people, I think the toughest decision I’ll be making is what I’m having for lunch. These guys laugh about it because they know I’ve been eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every day for my whole life. Seriously, since I was in grade school. … We love the outdoors, we do outdoors things. Right now I don’t have the excuse that I can’t do this weekend because I have two soccer matches and three volleyball matches I have to be at here in the fall. Somebody said to me, ‘Every day’s Saturday for you from here on.’ I just said, ‘I hope every day is your Saturday because if every day is my Saturday, I’ll be in the office for six hours and attending three events.’