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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A Grip on Sports: Alternate histories can be fun but not when they reflect today’s college athletic reality

A GRIP ON SPORTS • Let’s have some fun this cold – shall we saw frigid, to be more accurate? – Saturday morning. We’ll start by taking a look back 25 years ago. At Gonzaga and that magnificent 1999 NCAA run. Then leap back to the present. And take another look, using the prism of the current college athletics landscape.


• No matter where your allegiances lie, no one in Spokane was immune to Gonzaga’s more-Cinderella-than-Cinderella run in the last year before Y2K was supposed to destroy us all. The upset of Minnesota. Handling Stanford. The putback. The Quentin Hall escapades. An Elite Eight berth.

It was not only the first time just about anyone outside of the Inland Northwest had heard about Gonzaga, it was the beginning of 25 years of unprecedented success. It has been an incredible story. One that wouldn’t be written today.

Let’s go back. Add some spice. And a few current rules.

See, in our revisionist history, former Arizona athletic director Cedric Dempsey did something wild. Named NCAA director in 1996, he pushed the NCAA two years later to change the transfer rules. The organization, somewhat out of the blue, agreed and allowed all college athletes to transfer once without penalty or having to sit out. That led to the creation of a “transfer clearinghouse.”

Added in with a new directive that allowed athletes to market themselves and keep the money, known as the Tarkanian Rule, as it was agreed upon as part of the former UNLV coach’s lawsuit settlement with the organization in 1998, college athletics are about to enter a new era.

And the Zags are on the forefront of it. Gonzaga coach Dan Monson heads off to Minnesota after that stunning NCAA run and finds every business from St. Paul to Duluth wants to support Gopher athletics. Suddenly, he has a tool to entice players to the Great Cold North. Gonzaga seniors-to-be Matt Santangelo, Richie Frahm and rising junior Casey Calvary announce together they are transferring to Minnesota and they will be repping Luther Automotive, Murray’s Steakhouse and seven other companies in a deal that will net each up to $500,000.

New Gonzaga coach Mark Few wishes the trio well and begins the tough task of trying to rebuild the Bulldog’s roster. But he’s saddled with a Spokane economy that’s in a funk and all he can attract is 6-foot-8 Idaho transfer Kaniel Dickens, a junior-to-be. Meanwhile, new Pepperdine coach Jan Van Breda Kolff, armed with family connections, is able to lure two UCLA and one Cal State Fullerton player to Malibu. With the additions, and holdover Brendan Armstrong, the Waves roll to a perfect regular season, including an upset of sixth-ranked Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse.

Including in the win total is a WCC tournament championship, earned with a tough 69-65 overtime win over GU at Santa Clara’s Toso Pavilion. The Zags, with an 18-11 regular season mark, do damage in the NIT but come up just short, losing the final in New York on a disputed out-of-bounds call.

On April 15, Few announces he’s accepted the open Oregon head coaching position, replacing Ernie Kent, who was named Illinois’ coach earlier in the week. Phil Knight approves, and starts a collective with a $27-million donation.

Gonzaga, saddled with aging facilities and a lack of and little in the way of Tarkanian Money, as it’s called, next competes for a WCC basketball title in 2006, when hometown product Adam Morrison leads Leon Rice’s group to 20 wins and their first NCAA berth since 1999.

Two days after the season ends, Morrison transfers to UCLA. And stars in a new biopic about Che Guevara.

Farfetched? Sure. But not out of the question. Not anymore. Not with what happened yesterday in Seattle.

The Huskies lived the Gonzaga legacy this football season – though their fans would never call it that. And it didn’t come out of nowhere. But Kalen DeBoer walked into a Monson-like situation. A program stacked with just the right players, ready to explode on the national scene.

And, like Monson, DeBoer was ready as well. He may be the best game coach in college football these days. His record – 104-12 in nine seasons as a head coach – certainly says he is. The Huskies’ run through the regular season and playoffs was electric. It energized a laid-back city. It caught the attention of the nation. And, ultimately, it came up just short of perfection.

Now it is all over. Within the past 48 hours DeBoer has left for Alabama and, possibly, the Gene Bartow treatment. The Husky players? They are scattering, either heading to the NFL – something that would have occurred without the coaching change – or the transfer portal – probably not if DeBoer had stayed.

Washington will be rebuilding.

As the Pac-12 disappears – something so mind-boggling even we couldn’t figure out a way to meld it into our fantasy above – Washington’s hopes of competing in the Big Ten next season seems to be fading as well. And an entire fanbase is melting into a puddle of anger, sadness and recrimination.

The joy Gonzaga fans felt in 1999, even the frontrunners who joined that season, was real. Just as the Husky faithful’s was this year.

The difference is, back then the Zags built from it. On it. With it. The bedrock season informed and supported all the achievements since.

In 2024 the reality is such things are built on sand. There is no foundation for most athletic programs. The support structure is based in large part on how big your pile of money is, what you can offer players and how devoted your coach may be. It’s different. More fleeting. Less permanent. And certainly not as much fun.


WSU: You want the Cougar men’s basketball team to make the postseason? Today, with No. 8 Arizona coming to freezing Pullman (Pac-12 Networks, 3 p.m.), is a great day to help ensure that happens. … Though the recruiting notebook Jon Wilner passes along in the Mercury News is a little outdated for the school across the state, the Washington State notes still hold true. … Elsewhere in the Pac-12 and the nation, DeBoer’s decision not only has ramifications for Washington – of course it does, though maybe not as much as feared – it also could impact schools throughout the nation. Wilner delves into both today. … If you are looking for more on the Huskies’ situation, subscribe to Christian Caple’s On Montlake Substack. He’s got you covered. … The impact in Seattle? More Huskies are leaving. … Nationally? Not much, yet. But we have some stories to pass along. … On the West Coast? Arizona is feeling it, what with Jedd Fisch a hot candidate and his extension not yet signed. … Oregon sees it as a positive, what with Dan Lanning staying and the Ducks attracting some key transfers. … Former WSU defensive assistant Roy Manning is out at USC as the Trojans continue to make changes on that side of the ball. … How will UCLA’s defensive line look next season? The Bruins also made new hires recently. … In basketball news, it is inevitable Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer will pass Mike Krzyzewski as college basketball’s winningest coach. And it will come soon if the Cardinal get the benefit of more officiating like they received Friday night at Utah. We’ll give the Deseret News credit. If you are going to detail the issues, showing the receipts is mandatory. And the story does. Wow. Stanford is good enough already. … Oregon State won the night’s best game, holding off visiting Arizona 73-70 in double overtime. … Oregon picked up its first conference win, defeating Arizona State at home. … Fifth-ranked Colorado rolled California 76-61 in Boulder.  … No. 9 USC hosts No. 2 (and undefeated) UCLA today. Will the Galen Center be as lively as Pauley was a couple weeks ago? … The USC men battle Colorado in the mountains tonight (ESPN2, 7) … The Oregon men are, get this, in first place.

Gonzaga: The loss at Santa Clara overshadowed another outstanding Anton Watson performance and a Braden Huff sighting. Theo Lawson delves into both as he looks back. … Jim Meehan has the news former GU players Drew Timme and Malachi Smith are teammates again. … Elsewhere in the WCC, Santa Clara has what may be an even tougher assignment today. The Broncos host Saint Mary’s. You can only watch on ESPN+.

Whitworth: The Pirate men remain atop the Northwest Conference standings after defeating George Fox in Oregon last night.

Idaho: The hits just keep on coming for UI in the Chris Gonzalez story. The administration was alerted to issues more than a year ago.

Preps: Dave Nichols has a roundup of the top action from Friday.

Chiefs: Dave also has this story on another Spokane loss, this one 7-4 in Calgary. The game was played in the NHL arena.

Kraken: There was an eight-game win streak last season. This one seems different.

Seahawks: Pete Carroll is still in the region’s news as the rest of the nation turns its attention to wild card weekend. … It will be Spokane cold in Kansas City (Peacock, 5 p.m.). … Houston should be warmer as Cleveland visits (NBC, 1:30). … Bobby Wagner earned another award.

Sounders: Seattle added depth with a couple signings.


• What is there to watch today, besides the NFL playoff games? And have you checked to make sure you have Peacock available? Well, there are some great college basketball games, besides the Cougars and the matchup between Idaho and EWU (SWX, women at 1 p.m., men at 4). Our favorites? Virginia is at Wake Forest (ESPN2, 11 a.m.), which means former Zags Hunter Sallis and Efton Reid host Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers, which feature local players Jake Groves and Blake Buchanan. That’s fun. Until later …