GLENDALE, Ariz. —This is the place it all began, really. Well, not University of Phoenix Stadium in particular, or Glendale in general, but certainly Gonzaga basketball as we know it today was born in this desert metropolis. The Bulldogs came to the Phoenix area in March 1999 to participate in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, and no one really noticed them coming save for the two teams they trampled to get there. Everyone noticed them leaving, though.
When the Zags showed up they were so callow they were thrilled to be provided a police escort to the arena. (And that was the coaches, not the players.) But they were good enough to beat Florida by a point in a classic of a Sweet 16 game and then torture No. 1 seed —and eventual national champion —Connecticut for most of 40 minutes before falling by five.
“In no way shape or form could you ever envision what we —from that to right now,” Mark Few told the media Friday afternoon, with Gonzaga back here for their first-ever Final Four appearance.
Technically, what he said was accurate. You could not envision that. I could not. Mark Few could. He did.
Few was an assistant coach with that ’99 team, but he was elevated to his present position when Dan Monson was lured away by Minnesota for a more lucrative job coaching in the Big Ten. Over the next two years, Few took the team to consecutive Sweet 16s and built the foundation for a revolution unlike anything college basketball has seen.
In a relatively remote area of the country, in a town of about 200,000, at a private university with an enrollment of less than 7,500, in a conference that regularly sent just a single member onto the NCAAs, Few determined it was possible to invent a major college basketball power. That meant Gonzaga outgrowing the region, the league, its own middling history.
As the son of a Protestant minister, Few admits to not knowing enough Roman Catholic history to tell the story of St. Aloyisius Gonzaga. But the coach achieved his own little basketball miracle with the Zags, achieving it so smoothly they lately have been accused by some in the media and public of underachievement. “If we don’t get to a Final Four, it’s a disaster and we’re a failure,” Few said, with some sense of amusement.
So how could it be less than 20 years later that Gonzaga is standing here at the Final Four along with three competitors from big-money conferences —owning a bigger basketball brand than two of them?
How could it be that Few could lead the Zags to five consecutive tournaments, and then 10, and then more and never be tempted by the many offers presented to coach teams with bigger campuses, more profound traditions and conferences that send a significant percentage of their membership to the NCAAs? UCLA? Indiana? Oregon, his alma mater?
Few suggests it is in part because he is stubborn. “Probably my friends and family and fishing buddies would tell you that.” He allows, now that he has reached age 54, that he probably is more like his father than he might have wanted to admit when younger. Norm Few spent 54 years as a pastor at the same Presbyterian church in Oregon. “I think it’s a record” Mark Few said. “So I think probably instilled in my brain and soul and something and I didn’t even realize it at the time. So why mess with happy?”
There also was one other element to Few’s determination to make Gonzaga a “destination” job, something he hasn’t often acknowledged: fear.
Is that too harsh a word? Maybe. Not many championship-level coaches are truly fearful of competition. Any job change in any profession, though, involves a sacrifice of control. You never know if the next place is positioned for success; is everyone together, pursuing the same goal, capable of reaching it?
“Watch what happened to Dan Monson,” Few said. “He left a situation and it didn’t turn out. And then Gonzaga continued to grow and grow and grow. That’s the other part of this, is Gonzaga has continued to invest in a program and understand what it can do for the whole university. And they continue to this day.”
In that sense, Gonzaga borrowed somewhat from what Xavier has achieved in Cincinnati. The Musketeers were recruiting NBA-level talent to the Horizon League in the late 1980s and early 1990s and winning NCAA Tournament games. To continue their growth, however, they needed to climb to the Atlantic 10 Conference and eventually the Big East. XU coaches will tell you, though, one reason for the program’s consistent is so many key stakeholders on campus are invested in the program’s success.
Gonzaga has made it work while remaining in the West Coast Conference. There’s really nowhere else to go. When the “new” Big East was forming there was discussion about asking the Zags to join, but it wasn’t logical to stretch that far for a member. The Pac-12 is not an option because Gonzaga does not sponsor football.
So Few just stayed in the same place and made it happen.
“His greatest strength is he has high expectations,” said Tommy Lloyd, an assistant coach since 2001 who has specialized in international recruiting. “He has a way about him of not settling until his expectations are met —without yelling and screaming, without stressing out. Somehow he does it. And every day those standards don’t get met, but over time they do. And it happens in an organic way that allows him to coach the guys all season and they don’t shut him out.”
Few has won 502 games and owns a winning percentage of .818. One of the most easily overlooked facts of this Final Four: Gonzaga is 36-1. It’s one of the best records carried into the NCAA Tournament during the expanded bracket era.
Assistant coach Donny Daniels is in the Final Four with a third different head coach, having previously made it at Utah with Rick Majerus and UCLA with Ben Howland.
“There’s different ways to do it. Mark is not a real raise-your-voice, take-it-personal kind of guy,” Daniels said. “I think he treats everybody the same, that I’ve witnessed. Every coach I’ve been around —Coach Howland, Majerus —they do treat everybody the same. A little differently the same, but the same nonetheless.”
Residing in the WCC allows many to continue to dismiss Gonzaga as a “mid-major” program, but early in the program’s revolution Few made the decision not to settle for that. In 2003, ESPN staged its first “BracketBusters” event, endeavoring to match the best such programs for an all-day TV extravaganza each February. The Zags already had a series scheduled with Tulsa, and the network wanted to include it as the showpiece game. Few was resistant, but ultimately relented because of how much ESPN had done to help the program’s growth.
After the Zags’ game against Tulsa in 2004, however, they never again appeared in BracketBusters.
The program’s old gym, nicknamed “The Kennel”, was replaced by the more modern McCarthey Athletic Center. (It’s also nicknamed The Kennel, but it’s too nice to be considered a doghouse.) The team travels by charter plane to nearly all away games now; there still are programs in big-money conferences that have yet to take that step. Few’s base salary is listed by USA Today as more than $1.6 million, and he doubtless earns more from outside compensation.
The university has grown along with all this, and at least partly as a result of the basketball team’s success. Enrollment is nearly twice what it was in 1999, the endowment has doubled as well —and the budget has tripled. Many deeply involved with Gonzaga believe basketball saved the university.
It really hasn’t been that long that Gonzaga was criticized for failing to reach a Final Four. Because Few never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 in his first 15 seasons, merely getting to the Elite Eight was considered beyond his reach. After the Zags got that done in 2015, losing to eventual national champion Duke in the South Region final, then the target was moved.
“I thought over this run of 20 years we probably had three or four —probably three teams, I don’t know —that could have made it here,” Few said. “My stance all along was you just got to be good enough and then eventually it’s going to happen. We wanted to stay nationally relevant. And I think we’ve done that year after year after year … and then eventually you’ll kick the door down and break through.”
Although the Gonzaga’s team is along for the first time, this is not Few’s first Final Four. Because the National Association of Basketball Coaches convention is staged concurrently, many if not most college basketball coaches will visit the site each year.
When Few, Monson and current Colorado assistant Billy Grier were working together as assistants at Gonzaga, sharing a house Monson could afford “because he was making a whopping $45,000 or something,” Few said, they traveled together to the Final Four. Before they left, Monson was so excited about the trip he left a message on the answering machine boasting about why the three would be absent and unable to return messages for a few days.
“Like, ‘Hey, we’re out of here, we’re going to a Final Four and we’ll be back on Tuesday,’ or whatever,” Few said. “So we come back on Tuesday —our entire place, they stole everything. They took everything. There was nothing left. Needless to say, we’ve learned from that.”
Thing is, everyone knows Gonzaga is here now. The Zags are a big deal. They represent the single most remarkable transformation of a college athletic program since Knute Rockne turned a Catholic college in Northern Indiana into one of sports’ most recognizable names. No one saw Notre Dame coming, either.