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.
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 modern-day 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, quote-unquote “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.”