It was so easy for everyone to get along when the Washington and Gonzaga college basketball programs weren’t very good. The coaches knew each other, related to each other and regularly commiserated with each other over beers about their respective rebuilding projects.
Finally, they concluded: Why don’t we play each other annually in a friendly rivalry?
So eager to make this happen and accommodate their cross-state buddies, the Pac-10 Huskies, with the upper hand in bargaining power, easily could have insisted on two-for-one, home-and-away scheduling with the mid-major school from Spokane and the West Coast Conference. But they generously settled for alternating sites. Everyone was so agreeable, so cordial.
A couple of coaching changes later, Gonzaga’s surprising ascension to Top 25 prominence as well as an embrace by the ESPN cable colossus, not to mention the Zags’ court dominance, killed off all warm-and-fuzzy feelings the teams once shared. The yearly competition died too. Both teams were ranked in the Associated Press’s top 20 at the start of this season, but the only way the state’s top programs will get together is if the hoops fates drag them them into an NCAA tourney match-up.
Any efforts to rekindle this natural Northwest sporting connection have been met with outright contempt. The rivalry has become a rivalry that doesn’t involve a basketball, referees and crowd noise. Games are not going to happen again anytime soon.
The feud leaves state basketball fans with this absurdity on Saturday: Gonzaga plays Illinois at 2:15 p.m. at KeyArena, which will be about halftime of Washington’s game at Hec Ed against Texas Tech (1 p.m. start). So much for the argument that the teams’ calendars are too busy to accommodate getting together here. They simply missed each other by four miles.
Earlier this year, an olive branch was offered from Washington athletic director Scott Woodward, who proposed a new series involving a single, neutral-court engagement between the Huskies and Bulldogs at KeyArena. The bottom line was the driver – a split of yearly proceeds that projected to be $1.5 million for each school.
“I didn’t care what went on before; that’s all ancient history to me,” Woodward explained. “What made sense was making a high-profile game at KeyArena that could generate a lot of money that we would split.”
Gonzaga’s response was a pregnant pause of sorts, with Bulldogs coach Mark Few offering this now-infamous stonewall: “The chances of that happening are about the same as Bigfoot having my baby.”
Few later claimed the remark was an off-the-record joke. But he has a history of doing things only his way. He does not forgive or forget, even in the face of a potential revenue bonanza emanating from the region’s largest population base. His contempt for the Washington program has been on full throttle since Lorenzo Romar took over as coach, when Romar assistant coach Cameron Dollar broke NCAA rules in his pursuit of recruit Josh Heytvelt, ultimately a Zags’ signee.
Reporting Dollar’s missteps to the NCAA was one thing, but Few further took out his vengeance by trying to embarrass Washington in any manner he could. He openly formed a local coalition of coaches against the Huskies, enlisting former staffs at Washington State and Eastern Washington to echo his disgust. He tipped off selected national and local reporters to the situation, making sure it had full media play.
Romar, who claimed he was oblivious to Dollar’s inappropriate recruiting actions, pointedly asked Few after their first Washington-Gonzaga game together why they couldn’t have settled things in a more private and civil setting. Gonzaga’s response was to quietly make a second, and unfounded, report to the NCAA about Dollar, now the head coach at Seattle University.
Washington pulled the plug on the series after the 2006-07 game, citing a desire to play other schools. The ill will, not to mention the one-sidedness running firmly in the Zags’ favor (eight wins in nine games), were more accurate reasons.
Interestingly, Ray Giacolletti, one of the early proponents for a Washington-Gonzaga series as a Huskies assistant coach on the Bob Bender staff, since has become a Bulldogs’ assistant coach. His presence, however, will not restore previous harmony.
After Woodward’s proposal was made public, Few sniffed that any re-start of the series should be in Spokane, restoration of the home-and-home arrangement, with nothing else acceptable to him. After all, he pointed out that Washington walked away the first time and needed to make amends. The Gonzaga coach also mentioned he didn’t necessarily need the Huskies anymore, with Wake Forest, Michigan State and Xavier each agreeing to home-and-home deals.
“It’s not that important for us to play Washington,” he told SI.com.
Few clearly is his own man, unafraid to offend anyone, even if politically incorrect. Spokane reporters tell the story of the Gonzaga coach, when addressing Heytvelt’s drug-related suspension, doing a telephone interview with ESPN’s Andy Katz outside the arena on the subject and next walking inside for a news conference, reading a statement and taking no questions from local beat writers.
The Bulldogs coach, however, doesn’t always get everything he wants. While the Huskies supplement their roster with state players, Gonzaga does so only rarely, unable to make big inroads in the Seattle-Tacoma region, an outward source of contention. Local recruits acknowledge that the Spokane school offers an enlightened college experience, but shy way because of its poor track record of producing successful NBA players.
Few and his staff have responded by badmouthing the Washington program nonstop during recruiting, referring to it as taking on a “bunch of idiots” by singling out several players who have struggled academically. Former Huskies All-America guard Brandon Roy tells of hearing nothing but anti-UW slams while on his Gonzaga visit, to the point it turned him off.
With so much going on off the floor, it’s no wonder these teams don’t play each other anymore. They still have a lot in common. Three years removed from the series, Washington and Gonzaga remain consistent Top 25 programs, though not necessarily teams worthy of the Final Four. They likely will need to get there to meet again.
“We play them in other sports, such as women’s basketball and baseball,” Woodward pointed out. “Playing them in (men’s) basketball only makes sense.”
Players, fans and media members also would like to see the Huskies and Bulldogs basketball teams meet again on a regular basis. There’s money to be made by both schools. There would be plenty of hype and excitement. That’s still not enough to get anything done.
“Gonzaga and us had such great tradition; I remember watching Adam Morrison play against Brandon Roy,” Huskies guard Isaiah Thomas said. “It would be good to do it again. But if they don’t want to play us, they don’t want to play us.”