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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Unfathomable at the most.’ Past and present, Gonzaga assistants riff on Mark Few’s ‘mind boggling’ quest to 700 wins

From 1991 to 1996, three of the brightest basketball minds in Spokane lived under the same roof. Dan Monson offered his tenants rooms free of charge; Mark Few and Bill Grier repaid the favor by picking up the occasional household chore and indulging their landlord with lengthy basketball conversations that spilled late into the night.

The three Gonzaga assistants, all in their late 20s or early 30s and consumed by their work, started conversations at the old Kennel that finished at the dinner table back home. One moment, they would discuss offensive concepts. The next, defensive philosophies. For a nightcap? Recruiting.

Monson, Few and Grier were always looking for ways to gain an edge. Always bouncing ideas off each other with hopes head coach Dan Fitzgerald would put one into action. Always plotting the next big thing for Gonzaga at a time when winning a single game in the conference tournament qualified as a big thing. On that front the Bulldogs missed five straight years, from the inaugural tournament in 1987 to 1991, before finally picking off San Diego and Santa Clara in 1992.

“They were talking about, ‘Hey, we need to find a way to win a game, the school’s never won a game in the conference tournament,’ ” Grier recalled. “From that to what it’s become … it’s been a process and it’s taken time.”

Time, yes, and an immeasurable commitment from one of the young, eager assistants who took Monson up on free rent back in the early ’90s. Twenty-five years into his Hall of Fame career, Mark Few still hasn’t deviated far from the strategy Fitzgerald’s staff used in those early conference tournaments.

Win one game.

That approach, now executed 699 times, has placed the longtime coach in a position to lock up another career milestone. With a win Thursday at Pepperdine, Few would become the ninth current Division I coach with at least 700 victories and the only active coach to accumulate 700 at the same school. Good friend Tom Izzo, who’s spent all 29 years of his career at Michigan State, is not far behind at 697 wins.

A calculated, methodical approach has allowed Few to reach the achievement at an accelerated pace. By winning Thursday, Gonzaga’s coach would pick up his 700th win in his 840th career game. He still leads all active coaches in winning percentage (.833).

The only Division I coach to reach 700 at a faster clip was Adolph Rupp, who won four national championships at Kentucky from 1948 to 1958 and is revered as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.

“It’s so hard to win one game,” said Leon Rice, the Boise State coach who served as an assistant under Few from 1999 to 2010. “It really is and what goes into all the prep, all the coaching and all the recruiting and everything you have to do to get your team in position to win that one game and to do that 700 times, it’s remarkable.”

“If you would’ve just asked me, ‘How many games do you think he’s won?’ I would’ve thought maybe 500,” said Ray Giacoletti, a GU assistant from 2007 to 2013. “It’s just absolutely amazing, but it’s no different than the entire Gonzaga story.”

“Seven hundred, it’s unfathomable at the most,” said current assistant Brian Michaelson, who has been on Few’s staff in various roles since 2008.

“An extremely, extremely impressive accomplishment,” said former assistant Donny Daniels, whose term at GU spanned from 2010 to 2019.

“It’s amazing,” said third-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd, who still holds the title as Few’s longest tenured assistant, working at Gonzaga from 2000 to 2021. “I was honestly lucky to be there for every one of them except for the last couple years.”

“It’s just unbelievable,” Grier added. “It’s mind -boggling quite honestly.”

Gonzaga coaches Donny Daniels, left, Brian Michaelson, Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd watch the second half of a game on Dec. 21, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga coaches Donny Daniels, left, Brian Michaelson, Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd watch the second half of a game on Dec. 21, 2018, in the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When he arrived at Gonzaga as an unpaid assistant in 1989, Few was fresh off one year as an assistant coach at Eugene’s Sheldon High School, and still a decade from accepting the head coaching position in Spokane. It would have been difficult to wrap his mind around winning one game as a Division I coach, let alone the next 699, but Few had a distinct vision for Gonzaga even before he replaced Monson ahead of the 1999-2000 season.

“I tell you, going back to when we were assistants together, he’s the one that’s always had this belief that we could do something at Gonzaga, you could build something at Gonzaga. Why not Gonzaga?” Grier said. “It’s been his belief in the whole thing and it really propelled it. There’s not enough adjectives to describe how unbelievable it is. Just think about it.”

In the lat ’90s, Few struggled to find others who shared the same mindset. The Zags qualified for the 1995 NCAA Tournament – the first in program history – and made a Cinderella run to the 1999 Elite Eight that’s now viewed as the launching pad for everything that’s happened since. But most felt Gonzaga’s instant success was fleeting – a fine story, but Spokane wasn’t a destination for any coach with big aspirations.

“I mean, he made us all believe and we all believed,” Rice said. “But outside people always told him you’ve got to go somewhere else to do what you think you can do and he never did.”

Added Michaelson: “The fact he kind of blazed his own trail and stayed here, honestly set a standard for a lot of coaches who’ve chosen to stay where they are, that the grass isn’t always greener and what he’s built this place into.”

During the early stages of the build, Few and another local Division I coach in his late 30s would meet for weekly dinners to converse about each other’s programs, air out frustrations, trade advice, etc. Few’s wife, Marcy, would prepare food one Sunday; Giacoletti and his wife, Kim, would return the favor the following week. Giacoletti eventually landed a job on Few’s staff, but from 2000 to 2004, he accumulated a 69-50 record at Eastern Washington, guiding the 2003-04 Eagles to the NCAA Tournament.

“We both were trying to help each other, give advice,” Giacoletti said. “I would listen to what he’s going through and vice versa. I don’t think there would’ve been any way to see what the future would hold. We were just trying to take care of ourselves, both of our programs and ourselves at the same time. Just trying to get through the next game.”

EWU normally put its recruits up at Spokane-based hotels, requiring frequent trips into town for Giacoletti and numerous car rides past Gonzaga’s campus.

“That whole campus is basically brand new since all this has taken place,” Giacoletti said. “There wasn’t anything. Literally all those buildings are brand new.”

Two-and-a-half decades later, Few is still abiding by one of his principal beliefs.

“He always has a great saying,” Daniels said. “He says ‘Don’t mess with happy.’ ”

High-major colleges have attempted to poach Few since 2001, offering financial packages and resources that would be enviable to many of his peers. But the longtime coach hasn’t expressed any outward desire in running another program. Outside of offseason work with Team USA, with whom he will reunite this summer for the 2024 Paris Olympics, Few also hasn’t shown interest in coaching players at the next level.

“There’s a lot of coaches that are always talking two jobs ahead and our group has never really been like that,” Rice said. “I mean, I’ve been at Boise for 14 years now, but we’ve just got to bloom where we’re planted. … We wake up every day and enjoy that and fight that fight. We’re not idealizing a future somewhere else, we’re competing at the place we’re at and the other stuff, that takes care of itself or it’s something we don’t spend any energy on.”

In addition to creating a program that’s been attractive to a diverse group of players – local products that grew up in the shadows of the Kennel, international players from every continent, top-20 recruits like Jalen Suggs and Chet Holmgren – Few has fostered an environment that’s been appealing to assistant coaches.

“He had a way of allowing you to feel like an owner,” Lloyd said. “You felt like you were contributing to success. You weren’t a hired gun or you weren’t consulted. You were a literal owner in the company and an owner in the process.”

The list of assistant coaches who have worked under Few is significantly shorter than most who have spent a quarter-century at one school. Few’s assistants generally haven’t bolted for comparable positions at high-major schools that might offer more lucrative salaries. In some cases, they have turned down head coaching opportunities, opting for the stability of Gonzaga instead of gambling on their future elsewhere.

“What I usually say is, ‘this is the destination,’ ” Michaelson said. “This isn’t a stepping stone. This place is unbelievable.”

Rice spent 11 years on Few’s staff before accepting the head coaching position at Boise State. Grier served 17 years at Gonzaga, eight of those under Few, before leaving in 2007 to accept his first head coaching job at San Diego. Giacoletti was a seven-year assistant at GU before Drake lured him away to become a head coach, and Daniels only stepped away after 10 years to dial things back in a smaller role at Utah before retiring. Lloyd’s tenure in Spokane lasted two decades and Michaelson has shown similar loyalty to his alma mater, now in the middle of his 16th year on Few’s staff.

“There’s such a great culture amongst the staff and amongst the players and around the community, you go someplace else and there isn’t a place like that out there. There’s just not,” Grier said. “Maybe Duke, Kansas, a couple places like that. … So you take a lower level head coaching job and it’s not all it’s cracked to be.”

Lloyd, an ace on the recruiting trail during his time in Spokane, left Gonzaga to take over at Arizona following an unbeaten run to the 2021 national championship game, where the Bulldogs lost to Baylor. Lloyd was in line to eventually take over for his mentor at Gonzaga and only after turning down a handful of potential opportunities in high-major conferences did the longtime Zag assistant accept a position with one of the premier Division I programs on the West Coast.

“One of the reasons I made the decision I made is because I never wanted to be underneath the guy who built it and have people or him think he needed to leave for me to be the head coach,” Lloyd said. “He deserves to be the head coach as long as he wants and he didn’t need a young Tommy Lloyd underneath him chomping at the bit, getting impatient.

“I felt the best thing for me to do was explore an opportunity and I wouldn’t have done it for many programs. Arizona might be the only one.”

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and assistant Tommy Lloyd discuss a point with an official during a game against Arkansas Pine Bluff on Nov. 9, 2019, at the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, left, and assistant Tommy Lloyd discuss a point with an official during a game against Arkansas Pine Bluff on Nov. 9, 2019, at the McCarthey Athletic Center. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

Arizona hasn’t truly broken through in the NCAA Tournament under Lloyd, but the Wildcats have spent 20 weeks inside the top 5 of the Associated Press poll since he took over in 2021-22. There are plenty of similarities between the program Lloyd’s running at Arizona and the one he left at Gonzaga, both in the on-court product and day-to-day operations – “I mean probably so much that you don’t even realize,” he said – but the 49-year-old is also introducing his own ideas, installing his own concepts and diverting from the Few way in some instances.

The man who advised him to do that?

“One thing I learned from (Few),” Lloyd said, “is you have to be willing to do things your own way.”

Arizona, for example, holds regular staff meetings – something that wasn’t always deemed necessary at Gonzaga with a group of coaches who had been together longer than a decade.

“We could say, ‘Hey remember how we did this three years ago? Let’s kind of look at that,’ ” Lloyd said. “Now I have to say, ‘Hey, remember what I did five years ago?’ and no one remembers.”

Ever since 30-win seasons and Elite Eight runs have become the norm, the standards Few has created at Gonzaga have warped expectations from a fan base that’s grown threefold since the early days.

The Zags squandered their first opportunity to give Few his 700th win last Thursday, coming up short in a 77-76 loss to Santa Clara at the Leavey Center. It was GU’s first loss to the Broncos in 11 years and left another blemish on the Bulldogs’ resume that could impact their chances of earning an at-large NCAA Tournament berth come March.

“He’s built that monster where the expectations are beyond ridiculous,” Rice said while his BSU team was in Spokane for a game against Washington State. “But I hope people don’t lose the appreciation for winning the league, I hope they don’t lose the appreciation for the consistency year in and year out, regardless of what’s happened.”

Few’s 700th win, whenever it comes, may not garner the same fanfare it would in a season in which the Bulldogs have one or two blemishes, as opposed to one in which they have sustained five losses through their first 16 games and sit squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Perspective might be an important tool for fans who have manufactured unrealistic year-to-year expectations of their school.

Kansas and Michigan State are the only other programs with longer NCAA Tournament streaks than Gonzaga, with 33 and 25 consecutive appearances respectively. Since GU’s last miss, North Carolina’s failed to qualify five times, Kentucky didn’t get in on three occasions, and Duke missed once.

“If people are frustrated, they probably need to check themselves for one,” Lloyd said. “The reason they’re frustrated is it’s a byproduct of them having so much success.”

Lloyd, who spoke on the phone with The Spokesman-Review one day before his fourth-ranked Wildcats lost in a blowout at Stanford, has quickly become familiar with lofty expectations and high standards.

“Things happen, injuries happen, you end up with a quirky recruiting year every once in awhile,” the Arizona coach said. “I don’t specifically know.”

External standards for Gonzaga can’t be much higher than the ones Few has set for himself. Rice recalled a sequence of games in 2006 at the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden. The Bulldogs upset second-ranked UNC in their first game but stubbed their toe two days later, losing 79-71 to Butler.

“We had that standard even back in our day,” Rice said. “… Like, we just lost to Butler and it was the start of their whole big run of (coach) Brad Stevens’ success. So they were pretty darn good, but we just held ourselves to such a high standard. So that’s where it started, but the thing about that is, the higher your expectations you have and the higher fans’ expectations have for a program, the less appreciation they have.”

Few’s teams constantly meet or clear those expectations. If the Zags don’t make the Sweet 16 this spring, it would mark the first time since 2011-12 they didn’t advance to the second weekend.

“His oldest son does not know what it’s like not to go to a tournament,” Daniels said. “That’s nuts, right? The first time he doesn’t go to a tournament, he’s going to have to live with the idea of, ‘Hey coach what happened?’ ‘Hey man, we went to 35 of them. Give me a break.’ ”

Butler, James Madison, VCU and other midmajors have tried to follow the Gonzaga model, but to no avail.

“They have come and they have gone and he’s stood the test of time,” Daniels said.

The Few formula may not be replicated, at least not at this level or at a school that started where Gonzaga was in 1999.

His assistants – both past and present – all point to something different when asked to give their best theory on what’s made the unprecedented run possible.

“In this day and age where everything’s just so analytics driven, he’s got one of the most remarkable feels in basketball and you have to have that to be a great head coach,” Rice said. “I think that’s lost in all these young coaches. The analytics say this, the analytics say that. He’s won these games because of his mastery of feel and not only feel for the game, but feel for his players and people and what buttons to push and when to push a guy, when to help a guy, when to hug a guy.”

“He has some incredible strengths,” Lloyd said, “and one of them, he has really high standards and he has a really unique way of getting a group to meet those standards without just beating them down or badgering them.”

“I think everybody would like to try to figure out how they’ve done it, but Mark’s different than almost any other coach – basketball or football that I’ve known – because he’s got unbelievable balance,” Giacoletti said. “His faith is No. 1, his family’s 2, fishing’s 3.”

“I think Mark has an ability to push buttons in a proper way to get guys motivated to get guys to compete at a high level,” Grier said. “That was his big thing was always competing.”

At his current clip of 28.6 wins per season, Few could conceivably reach another career milestone – 800 wins – by the 2026-27 or 2027-28. Only 14 coaches have reached that plateau, but a few active ones including Tennessee’s Rick Barnes (791) and Kansas’ Bill Self (786) are knocking on the door.

“I think he’s got a lot of time left in him,” said Rice, who postulated that while Few may not be a coaching “lifer,” his commitment to USA Basketball indicates he doesn’t have any immediate plans to retire.

Few generally doesn’t think about his career in those terms, certainly not in the middle of a season. Once he secures this milestone, the Hall of Fame coach will be focused on the next big thing: No. 701.

“He’s calling the shots and when he’s ready to be done, he’s ready to be done,” Lloyd said. “If he’s not ready to be done, let him go as long as he wants.”