Stub­born streak el­e­vated Gon­zaga

Few’s Bull­dogs face UNC for ti­tle

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - BY ED­DIE PELLS AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

GLENDALE, ARIZ. | For those who fol­low col­lege bas­ket­ball, the idea that Gon­zaga is play­ing North Carolina for the na­tional ti­tle doesn’t seem all that strange.

For those who don’t — or only get in­volved when it’s time to fill out a bracket — it still might.

Gon­zaga? Re­ally?

That a Je­suit school with 7,800 stu­dents based in Spokane, Washington is go­ing up against a be­he­moth from Tobacco Road in Mon­day night’s NCAA fi­nal is tes­ta­ment to a coach with a stub­born streak, an ad­min­is­tra­tion that bought in to bas­ket­ball and the mod­ern­day re­al­i­ties of a sport that al­lows for lit­tle guys to reach the biggest stage.

“I know you have to be­lieve,” Gon­zaga ath­letic di­rec­tor Mike Roth said. “The biggest draw­back some other schools have is that some­one in that hi­er­ar­chy says, ‘We can’t do that,’ or ‘We can never be like ...’ Well, if that’s the case, then you prob­a­bly can’t.”

In the mid-1990s, Gon­zaga was a noth­ing pro­gram, an af­ter­thought in the West Coast Con­fer­ence with a dandy of mas­cot, the Bull­dog, that wore a sailor’s cap .

Chang­ing the mas­cot was part of the equa­tion.

Dan Mon­son, a long­time as­sis­tant coach, got the top job and put some other pieces in place.

He nabbed a group that in­cluded the scrappy for­ward with the awe­some name, Casey Cal­vary. Gon­zaga made the tour­na­ment in 1999 and pulled off upsets over Min­nesota, Stan­ford and Florida on the way to the Elite Eight. At that point, it was a Cin­derella story, the likes of which we see al­most ev­ery year when pro­grams like But­ler, Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth (VCU) and Ge­orge Ma­son come from out of nowhere and make any­thing look pos­si­ble.

But in Gon­zaga’s case, 1999 marked the first in a string of 19 straight trips to the NCAA Tour­na­ment, the last 18 of which have come since Mon­son left for Min­nesota and the cur­rent coach, Mark

Few, took the helm. Count­ing his time as an as­sis­tant, Few has been at Gon­zaga since 1989.

“When we first started coach­ing, our boss, Dan Fitzger­ald, would al­ways say, ‘Don’t waste the school’s money on (re­cruit­ing) a Pac-10 player. We’re not go­ing to beat those schools,’” Mon­son said. “To Mark, that was mo­ti­va­tion. It would make him re­cruit the kid harder. That’s who he’s al­ways been. He’s very smart and very stub­born, and for a coach, those are two re­ally good qual­i­ties to have.”

The team the Bull­dogs face comes from the sort of school that is, quo­te­un­quote “sup­posed” to be here.

North Carolina is a blue blood with five na­tional ti­tles.

North Carolina is Dean Smith and Michael Jor­dan and James Wor­thy and Roy Wil­liams.

North Carolina is a cam­pus with 28,000 stu­dents.

North Carolina is em­broiled with the NCAA in a long-run­ning aca­demic scan­dal, which, sadly, is as de­fin­i­tive a marker as any of a school’s sta­tus in the big time.

“It’s eas­ier to get here coach­ing at the places I’ve been coach­ing,” said Wil­liams, who led Kan­sas to four Fi­nal Fours be­fore tak­ing the Tar Heels to five. “I don’t pat my­self on the back too much about that.” Nor does Few.

But it’s dif­fer­ent.

It took Few’s urg­ing for Gon­zaga to sup­ply the coach with re­sources he needed to stay suc­cess­ful. A few years into his ten­ure, Few and Roth met with the school pres­i­dent at the time, Robert Spitzer, who had pre­vi­ously been re­cal­ci­trant about up­grades to the bas­ket­ball fa­cil­i­ties.

“He asked us, ‘What are things we need?’ ” Roth said. “Mark was em­phatic. ‘We need a new arena.’ We were in a gym. You’re not go­ing to re­cruit cer­tain ath­letes to a gym.”

A new 6,000-seat arena opened in 2004, and at around the same time, Gon­zaga be­came the first West Coast school to char­ter flights to all its road games.

Few’s win­ning per­cent­age in the West Coast Con­fer­ence over the last 10 years: .893.

The peren­nial ques­tions about whether Gon­zaga re­ally is le­git play­ing in a mid­dling con­fer­ence with one, maybe two, threat­en­ing op­po­nents each year is some­what off­set by the ag­gres­sive sched­ul­ing of non­con­fer­ence games that the new arena made pos­si­ble. This trip to the fi­nal has pretty much ended any resid­ual sec­ond-guess­ing.

Few dreamed about all this, then fought for it, then stuck around when other pro­grams came call­ing.

Stub­born? Sure. But when asked why he has stayed put all these years, the son of a Pres­by­te­rian pas­tor in Creswell, Ore­gon, boils it down to this: “My dad was 54 years at the same church. I think that’s prob­a­bly in­stilled in my brain and soul. Why mess with happy? We’ve al­ways had a great time up there.”

Which takes it back to the ques­tion: What is Gon­zaga?

Roth touts it as “no dif­fer­ent than most Catholic, Je­suit in­sti­tu­tions: We’re a lib­eral arts school” with well-re­spected ed­u­ca­tion, busi­ness and en­gi­neer­ing de­part­ments, among oth­ers.

There’s a new stu­dent cen­ter on the 131-acre cam­pus over­look­ing the Spokane River, and Gon­zaga tra­di­tion­ally ranks in the top 10 in in­tra­mu­ral sports par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Daniel Incerpi, the pres­i­dent of the bas­ket­ball team’s highly mo­ti­vated booster club , grew up go­ing to Catholic school and wanted a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence in col­lege.

He took a trip to Gon­zaga, went to a bas­ket­ball game, and the rest is his­tory.

“You get out­side the Gon­zaga bub­ble and every­one thinks our school is pro­nounced Gon-ZAWG- a , (It’s Gon-ZAG-a) and all we have is bas­ket­ball,” he said. “The goal is to have that brand keep grow­ing, and bas­ket­ball is a great place to start.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Gon­zaga has made the NCAA Tour­na­ment 19 straight times, with the last 18 un­der coach Mark Few.

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