Newspapers often publish stories exposing aspects of college athletic programs that coaches would rather shield from publicity.
In a way, this is one of those.
Coach Mark Few takes his Gonzaga Bulldogs into their 14th consecutive NCAA men’s basketball tournament with a Thursday game against West Virginia. It’s the fourth-longest streak in the nation.
In his 13 seasons as head coach, Few has put together the second-best winning percentage in the nation, second only to Roy Williams.
Be reminded, Roy Williams got those wins at powerhouses Kansas and North Carolina, while Few was winning eight out of 10 games with the little Jesuit school in Spokane.
All that, however, has very little to do with this story, because this is an exposé in reverse, publicizing the good things a coach does for which he tries to duck credit.
The win totals and national attention for his program have created a platform for Few, allowing him to take on community causes with such dedication that in 2008 he was given an award for humanitarian deeds.
But Few is by nature a private man, and particularly uncomfortable with any spotlight illuminating moments that might include sick or needy children, when deepest respect calls for privacy.
“There are so many things that a lot of people don’t see; it’s really a spectacular thing,” former Zags guard Matt Santangelo said about the culture of giving Few has built. “He is pretty reserved and humble he’d probably be upset I told you this story.”
As it turns out, there are a number of stories involving Few’s impact in Spokane, but let’s start with one about Brandon Chastain.
WITHOUT ANY HESITATION
Like many Spokane third-graders, Brandon Chastain is a huge fan of Gonzaga basketball. He’s 11. He’s been battling brain cancer since he was 3. He beat it back twice but in the process absorbed a lifetime’s tolerance for radiation and chemicals, leaving no further options when the cancer attacked a third time last fall.
Friends contacted Santangelo.
“They said he was on day-to-day watch and, literally, his last wish was to meet the Gonzaga men’s basketball team,” said Santangelo, who played for the Zags from 1996-2000. “It was really a powerful story.”
This was November, though, and Santangelo understood the pressures of a college basketball season, and knew finding time for a visit would be tricky.
“I didn’t want to put any unfair demands on Coach Few’s time, but without any hesitation, he said, ‘Sure, what can we do? Can he come to a practice or a game?’ But I didn’t think (Brandon) was in position to do that,” Santangelo said. “He said ‘Well, we’ll come to him.’ ”
Santangelo recalled the itinerary for the Zag players and staff the day after Thanksgiving.
“We all met up, spent the morning at the Union Gospel Mission handing out food, then they practiced, then went directly to Brandon’s home, visited with him, and then went back to Gonzaga to watch (basketball) video,” Santangelo said. “What a full day of all different types of exposures.”
When asked about that first meeting with Brandon Chastain, Few talked about how good his players were, especially senior center Robert Sacre.
“I’ll be honest,” Few said. “I’m not very good in those situations; my dad (a Presbyterian pastor) is a superstar, but I’m not. I’m kind of a mess, just trying to hang on. But Rob has such a gift; he was laughing and talking away, and for that hour, everything bad was forgotten.”
But it wasn’t forgotten; Marcy Few can attest. She’s worked so closely with her husband on causes in Spokane that many in the town tend to lump them together as a single civic-minded entity: “Mark and Marcy.”
The trials of Brandon are particularly close to their hearts.
“He has affected both of our lives,” Marcy Few said. “Mark gets tears in his eyes whenever we talk about him.”
Marcy Few graduated from Gonzaga and feels a loyalty to the school deeper than it being her husband’s employer.
“Marcy spearheaded a lot of this and continues to be very passionate about it,” Santangelo said. “People say they’re giving back to the community, but ‘giving back’ implies some kind of an obligation. They do it because they want to, and see it as a genuine need, and they take real satisfaction in that part of it.”
Taking time for a phone interview for this story, Marcy Few oversaw the play of her four children and a couple other visiting playmates as she answered questions. When the inevitable sounds of an exaggerated “boo-boo” arose, she put down the phone and could be heard saying: “It’s OK come here let mommy kiss it.”
The crying stopped, of course. But Marcy Few understands a poignant reality that others are facing every day: Sometimes a mother’s loving kiss can’t stop the crying.
“To watch (Brandon’s experience) minimizes what we go through on a daily basis,” she said. “The stress of Mark’s job seems like nothing when we think about this single mom living a couple miles from us watching her 11-year-old son and we can’t do anything about it.”
COACHES VS. CANCER
The truth is, they are doing something about it. The most obvious and practical way is generating money, via donations, for the fight. The second is showing how important it is that others do the same with their involvement with the Coaches vs. Cancer event and the Spokane Ronald McDonald House.
Marcy Few recalls a trip east when Mark was a new head coach at GU.
“We got invited to an event, the Jimmy V Foundation,” she said, referring to the organization started by former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, who died of bone cancer in 1993.
While there, Juli Boeheim, wife of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, told them of a black-tie event they put on to raise money: Coaches vs. Cancer.
Considering the project for Spokane, Marcy Few said she looked at the challenge and “felt totally inadequate.” But her husband was fully behind it, and as she researched the possibility, supporters began lining up and have continued their support to a degree that “truly floors me,” she said.
“In the 10 years of the event, we’ve raised over $5.4 million,” director Jerid Keefer said. “That it’s become the largest Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser in the country is pretty remarkable.”
The Zags also play one home game each season off-campus at nearby Spokane Arena to benefit the Spokane Ronald McDonald House, which aids families of those receiving cancer treatments.
“In the partnership with Gonzaga, we probably raised almost $400,000,” said Mike Forness, executive director of the Spokane Ronald McDonald House. News coverage of the game and ancillary association, he said, multiplies that value.
But the efforts of Few, he said, have other significant – yet unseen – benefits.
“He’s really set the bar for performance,” Forness said. “If you’re a CEO or an executive director, his success sets a high bar for you. Through his conduct and his faith, and his commitment to the student-athlete, he’s made a significant impact on this community. He doesn’t get up in front of the microphone and talk about his values, his faith and his focus he goes out and demonstrates it.”
These are the events when publicity and attachment to the Gonzaga program help attract donors. But there are other aspects that are personal and private.
“People come in from all over the country for Coaches vs. Cancer because of the Fews’ involvement,” Santangelo said. “But it’s the little things that go unnoticed, the impact on local individual families that nobody ever sees, bringing them in, giving them access to practices, to the locker room, to the inner workings of Gonzaga basketball that is really something very extraordinary and that goes unheralded.”
Those close to Few have no trouble identifying the root source of his sense of community involvement.
“You just look at his childhood; his father (Norm) was a pastor at the same church in a small town (Creswell, Ore.) for 50 years,” said Greg Heister, who does television play-by-play for Gonzaga, and also is a frequent companion on the coach’s many fishing outings.
“That showed him the impact that one person can make on people, and that obviously helped mold the person he is today.”
Gonzaga basketball already had a culture of giving, Marcy Few noted, going back to longtime coach Dan Fitzgerald and Few’s immediate predecessor Dan Monson.
“They had the team visiting children’s hospitals and involved with organizations like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, guild schools, children’s hospitals,” she said. “And then it was innate in Mark because he has such a strong upbringing with parents who live a life of service.”
Athletic director Mike Roth cited “service and education” as key elements in Gonzaga’s mission as a university. And on top of going a long way in redefining the possibilities for competitive success a mid-level school can attain at a national level, Few’s efforts in the community “go hand-in-hand with what the university is about,” Roth said.
“On a regular basis, Mark takes the team to the Ronald McDonald House, the Shriners Hospital, and hardly a week goes by that we don’t have somebody at practice,” Roth said. “The community doesn’t see all that; it’s mostly private, not for public acknowledgement, and that’s the way we like it.”
Forness, whose Ronald McDonald House continues to benefit from the efforts of a number of former Zags players, said that Few’s example creates a ripple effect of incalculable value.
“Mark passes it on,” Forness said. “He doesn’t really like the spotlight or taking credit for what he does, and I think that’s why so many of his players get involved in the community even after they’re finished, because they see he’s doing it all for the right reasons. It’s really a deep-seated value that he passes on to them.”
Does any of this help win games? That’s not a consideration.
“(Mark) is trying to make a difference in young people’s lives,” Roth said. “And that includes his team, to see there’s more than just playing basketball. When our 18- to 22-year olds see a 12-year-old getting chemo treatments, that’s life and that’s real, and they see there’s a lot more to it than making jump shots. They’re learning you can make a difference in people’s lives by smiling and being there for them and sitting with them and reading for them or whatever might be the case.”
Mark Few called those moments “incredible perspective-givers” to everyone involved. “I think a lot of people look up to the team and look to them for inspiration or hope, and it’s up to us to do our best and use this platform to help make them feel better. It’s an unbelievably powerful experience.”
These experiences have had the curious effect of rooting so many former players to Spokane. Keefer cited the numbers of them that took up residence and have advanced up to board-level involvement in local charities.
“Mark and Marcy have had an impact on the community that you can quantify by the $5.4 million raised (by Coaches vs. Cancer),” Keefer said. “But maybe the biggest legacy is that so many former players are still here and are giving back so much.”
THE GONZAGA WAY
It’s fair to think this link to the community and its people also helped tether Few to Spokane, despite attempts by many high-profile, high-paying programs to dislodge him. Roth said he’s come to think of every April as a time for the “Mark Few Sweepstakes.”
“I’m not sure that will ever really change,” Roth said. “Mark is always going to be on people’s lists, and part of me says that’s what we want, it means we’re still doing things the right way.”
Heister sees a Mark Few far different from the one who so often seems to be dealing with a toothache or dyspepsia at courtside. On the rivers, with a fishing rod in his hands, Few “is really a reflective guy,” Heister said.
“He spends a lot of time in his own thoughts, and that may be part of what makes him a successful coach; he’s able to separate himself from the fray so well, and that keeps him grounded. He’s humble and private and he lives for his family and doesn’t pat himself on the back or want praise or glory. He mostly appreciates his quality of life.” And that, Heister said, is why Spokane and Gonzaga are such a great fit for him.
Marcy Few sees the effects of this all on her 49-year-old husband. “We’re getting even more thankful for what his position has allowed us to see,” she said.
“There’s a lot of pressure being a public figure, but there’s so much blessing to it, and he sees that. He doesn’t know if he’s getting older or wise, but I think he’s softening in some ways, seeing the bigger picture of all this.”
She said he’s come to recognize that coaching is so insecure, and success so temporary.
“Coaches tend to have pity parties here and there and make their situation seem like it’s really hard,” Mark Few said.
But then you spend time with someone like Brandon Chastain.
“To see somebody who is really struggling with health issues, it has a tendency to slap you in the face and you realize how good you have it, and you realize you have the potential to try to make a difference,” he said. “And if we can help somebody in even a tiny way, even for a day that is what is really important.”
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440