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Gonzaga University Athletics
Sports >  Gonzaga athletics

John Blanchette: Early heartbreak didn’t deter Mike Roth at Gonzaga, it only made him want to help the school succeed even more

UPDATED: Tue., June 8, 2021

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

It isn’t quite Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team, but it’s less apocryphal and tells you just as much about its subject as the shoe king’s story says about him.

Because Mike Roth got cut at Gonzaga, at least in essence.

Here’s where the stories diverge. Jordan’s demotion to JVs planted a chip on his shoulder that he’s carried for a lifetime. Roth, bummed at his bad news initially, chose gratitude.

And he ended up repaying school by helping turn it into an athletic giant.

Now, at summer’s end, Gonzaga’s athletic director of 24 years will turn over the store to his longtime deputy, Chris Standiford – another in-house handoff in what under Roth has become every bit the Zag specialty as 30-win basketball seasons and graduation rates that top out higher than the thermometer in August.

“You grow people up here,” said Lisa Fortier, the women’s basketball coach and one of countless staffers in that category.

At a news conference Tuesday, the retiring AD peppered his thanks with a few “Rothisms” about the Zag Way. One referenced a picture in his office from the vantage point of a driver looking out his windshield at a vast horizon of possibility, and with just the smallest image in the rear-view mirror.

“That’s who we are,” he said. “Our focus is what’s in front of us.”

OK, but exceptions can be made at a valedictory.

The Gonzaga story, it’s been said again and again, is virtually without precedent in college basketball, and Roth is probed by peers regularly to reveal the “secret sauce.” He could probably turn fielding those inquiries into a pretty lucrative consultant’s gig if he so wished.

But the point is it is a sauce, with too many ingredients to identify, and it has spread well beyond basketball with Roth as the head chef. Space does not allow quantifying all the achievements – championships, facilities, All-Americans, academics – nor can justice be done to all the concepts: continuity, trust, empowerment.

Maybe a few stories can illustrate an element or two of the Roth era.

  • Like hiring the right people.

It was Roth who promoted an under-the-radar Mark Few to run the men’s basketball program after the shock-the-world splash of 1999, which prompted then-president Robert Spitzer to inquire, “Which one is he?” He did the same with Fortier in the wake of Kelly Graves’ departure, prompting her to inquire “Who, me?”

“I was doing an individual workout,” Fortier recalled, “and Mike walked in and said, ‘When you get back (from the Final Four) I need to talk to you about a staff.’ It was not on my radar at all that he would possibly want to hire me. Zero percent. It wasn’t that I wasn’t confident – I’d applied for other jobs. Portland, Pepperdine. But I was thinking whether I should try to stay on with the new head coach or go with Kelly to Oregon.”

Roth saw a competitor who’d had a role in what had been built, and her own vision – not at all unlike what he saw in Few.

  • Or emotional investment.

It wound up as wallpaper or screen saver on more than one laptop in the GU athletic department – the image of Roth bounding from the shadows of the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium when the Zags’ Jalen Suggs hit the overtime 40-footer to beat UCLA in this year’s national semifinals.

Shannon Strahl, who will be Standiford’s deputy AD, has a memory even more vivid.

“We’re in Seattle for the women’s tournament in 2010,” she recalled, “and we hit that last-second shot to beat Texas A&M. I’m standing with him in the vomitory as we always do and we win and he picks me up and twirls me around in the vom and then puts me down – and then says, ‘I’m really sorry.’

“He gets so excited and cares so much – in a good way, not an over-care. And you can see it and feel it.”

  • Or candor.

Roth grew up in Moses Lake and came to Gonzaga in 1975 as a walk-on in Adrian Buoncristiani’s program. He played on the JV team back when colleges had them – Steve Hertz, who helped out with the coaching, remembers him hitting some key free throws to beat Montana’s freshmen in Missoula.

But after the season, he sought out Buoncristiani to ask if he’d have a shot at varsity minutes the next year.

No, coach said.

“I was devastated – and he knew I’d be devastated, so it took some courage,” Roth said. “And it bugged for a while. But it also didn’t tease me along and allowed me to make some decisions. It’s why I tell our coaches to make sure you’re honest with kids.”

He would transfer home to Big Bend Community College, then to earn his degree at Willamette. By 1982, he was back at Gonzaga as a graduate assistant to Jay Hillock, earning a lordly $200 a month – so, obviously, no hard feelings.

Which put him in the room where Hillock broke it to a recruit named Steve Kerr that he wasn’t good enough to play at Gonzaga.

Hey, honesty can’t trump a bad evaluation.

The graduate degree he took at GU was in athletic administration, and his plan was to be an AD – at a junior college. Instead, he’s been managing an eight-figure enterprise that’s become a favorite toy of ESPN and CBS, and an obsession in Spokane. When he became AD in 1997, there were maybe 10 full-time staffers who weren’t coaches; there are six times that now.

And yet the vibe can be as tight as a tiny JC department.

Standiford pinpointed the keys in bridging that divide.

“Vision about the landscape,” he said, “and a feel for people. He always has found a way to get people to consensus or conclusion without serious conflict, but it’s more in the way he does it.

“In the end, he’s always trying to do right. And that usually makes for good decisions.”

On Tuesday, he stepped aside so someone else can fix a gaze through that windshield. Mike Roth will count it as another good decision.

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