SPOKANE — Mark Few, the miniature maestro behind the basketball giant known as Gonzaga, never hesitates to pay homage to the not-always-so-good old days of Bulldogs basketball. After all, he witnessed the misery up close and personal.
Twenty-three years to the day prior to Monday’s announcement that Gonzaga has become the first No. 1-ranked team in our state’s oft-humble history in NCAA Division I hoops, Few had cause to wonder if his first season as a college basketball coach might be his last.
Gonzaga, a tiny Catholic school drawing tiny crowds to its tiny arena, finished an 8-20 season with a loss to Loyola Marymount March 4, 1989. Few was working for pennies per hour – literally – as a graduate assistant coach after three years as a high school assistant.
The 1988-89 Bulldogs remain the biggest loser in school history since GU made the daring leap from the NAIA small-college ranks to Division I in 1958-59.
Few’s first Gonzaga team finished last in the West Coast Conference under Dan Fitzgerald, the colorful, hard-nosed father of modern-day Zags basketball. On Saturday, after the Bulldogs completed a 16-0 WCC run to claim their 12th regular-season championship in 13 years, Few smiled at the memory of Fitz and their painful first season together at Gonzaga.
“We won four Division I games,” Few recalled.
Back in the day, Gonzaga basketball schedules were filled with home games at Martin Centre against the NAIA likes of Whitworth, Whitman, Western Montana and Eastern Oregon. Fitzgerald gradually improved Gonzaga’s schedule and win totals on a shoestring budget when he was coach and/or athletic director. It was Fitzgerald who guided the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament in 1995.
“Fitz,” so beloved and respected by Few and countless other coaches and players at Gonzaga and rival schools, is no longer with us. Neither are the pushover NAIA opponents (other than Lewis-Clark State, a 104-57 homicide victim in November). Martin Centre has made way for the glitzy McCarthey Athletic Center. Long bus trips for road games have been replaced by charter flights.
Few, the diminutive, soft-spoken son of a small-town pastor in Oregon, is the polar opposite of Fitzgerald in many ways. Fitz was much larger than Few in size and personality. They do, however, share a deep and abiding love and appreciation for family.
Oh, and there’s one other thing. Both men, should they find themselves engaged in a game of tiddlywinks, would gladly rip assorted arteries out of an opponent’s heart in order to win.
On Monday, Few’s Bulldogs reached the pinnacle of college basketball – on paper. Only on paper, the coach stressed over and over. Few and his players echoed one another repeatedly Saturday in expressing their appreciation for a No. 1 ranking, but making it clear that finishing No. 1 at the WCC and NCAA tournaments is of infinitely more importance.
“It’s nothing but a number,” star forward Kelly Olynyk said. “It’s a great number to have beside your name, but it’s nothing but a number. We still have to play like we can and take this as far as we can.”
“It’s a great honor,” fellow forward Elias Harris agreed, “but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t come out and play.”
The next time the Bulldogs “come out and play” will be Saturday night in Las Vegas. As the No. 1 seed in the WCC tournament, Gonzaga automatically advances to the semifinals.
A win Saturday would be a school-record 30th. The only losses were respectable ones: 85-74 to then-No. 13 Illinois on Dec. 8 in Spokane, and 64-63 to then-No. 13 Butler on Jan. 19 in Indianapolis. Since then, Gonzaga has won 12 in a row.
“This group has been pretty amazing with how focused and how consistent they’ve been with their effort and preparation,” Few said.
A No. 1 ranking is worth diddly in the NCAA tournament, of course. That is true this season more than most, since five teams have carried the No. 1 honor/burden. Gonzaga, for all its many accomplishments over the past two decades, is 17-15 all-time in the NCAA tournament and advanced as far as the Elite Eight only in 1999.
Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga are favored to square off in the WCC tournament title game Monday night. The game will be nationally televised, but the Bulldogs are well aware that most of the nation regards the WCC as the junior varsity of D-One hoops.
“We’re always going to have some people that say, ‘Well, the conference is not the best,’” Harris said.
“We’ve still got stuff to prove,” teammate Mike Hart added. “There’s so many people out there who don’t think we’re deserving of that (No. 1 ranking). We’ve got to play with a chip on our shoulder.”
Under Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs forever played with a large boulder on their shoulders. Few likes to think Fitz is hoisting a cold one in the basketball heavens, happy for his former assistant and his former school now that they are No. 1 in the nation.
“How do you think he’d handle that?” Few said with a laugh that reflected his appreciation for the good times of the present and the growing pains of the past.