In the beginning, the bulldog wore a sailor cap.
In the summer of 1998, Gonzaga athletic department officials called a meeting. The entire staff came; it did not require a large room. They wanted to change how people viewed their program, and it would begin with literal visual changes. The uniforms — light blue and white — needed an update. Their mascot needed even more work.
“It was a full-body bulldog with a frickin’ sailor hat on,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “It just wasn’t a look.”
The snarling, spiked-collar Bulldog of Gonzaga appeared Thursday at its first Final Four, plastered on the facade of University of Phoenix Stadium, gigantic in its vividness. The logo of a small Catholic school from Spokane, having long ago become a ubiquitous presence at the upper echelon of college basketball, had made it to the side of a spaceship in the American desert.
The Gonzaga story is unlike any other in college sports. It was an afterthought forever, and then it became a dynasty. The Bulldogs have advanced out of the West Coast Conference to the NCAA tournament 19 consecutive seasons, the last 18 under coach Mark Few, who on Thursday was named the Associated Press coach of the year. They have appeared in the AP top 10 in eight different seasons and twice captured the No. 1 rankings. Two decades ago, they were not even a blip.
“In no way, shape or form could you ever envision from that to right now,” Few said. “It has changed — I don’t know. It’s 500 percent different.”
Few arrived as an assistant coach in 1990, when the Bulldogs had never made an NCAA tournament. He made $28,000 a year and lived in an apartment with two assistant coaches, one of whom was Dan Monson. One year, they all headed to the annual coaches’ convention at the Final Four. They thought they were cool, and Monson left an answering machine message bragging about the trip. It turned out to be an unwanted advertisement: When they returned, everything in the apartment had been stolen.
In 1997, Monson replaced Dan Fitzgerald as head coach. He helped convince the athletic administration to change the logos and colors to a darker shade of blue, accented by more red.
“We made conscious decisions to change who we were very visually, so people would see we’re not the same school that we used to be — satisfied with being .500 or finishing in the middle of the league,” Roth said.
In his first season, Gonzaga won the WCC regular season title. It seemed a rare opportunity to make the NCAA tournament, which it had done only once, in 1995. The Bulldogs faced San Francisco and lost in an upset. It felt, to Roth, like Gonzaga may have missed its chance to make the tournament.
The Bulldogs have made it in all 20 years since. How long is that, exactly? A man named Phil Matthews coached San Francisco. His son, Jordan Mathews, is now a senior point guard for Gonzaga.
“I remember pictures,” Jordan Mathews said. “But I don’t remember it at all.”
Few recalled the loss fueling Gonzaga the next season, when the Bulldogs won the WCC tournament and put their school on the map. As a 10 seed, they stunned Minnesota, Stanford and Florida and scared eventual champion Connecticut before succumbing. (Former Bellarmine Prep star Casey Calvary’s game-winner against Florida spawned announcer Gus Johnson’s classic call: “The slipper still fits!”)
Monson resisted an offer from a major program soon after the tournament ended. In the summer, Minnesota’s head coaching job suddenly opened in the wake of an academic scandal. “When they flew the private plane out to pick him up, I said, ‘Oh, boy. He might not come back,’ ” Roth said.
Minnesota offered an enormous contract, “light-years” more than Gonzaga could, Roth said. Monson had just been married and started a family. When Monson called to inform Roth he would take the job, both men cried.
“He made the right decision for himself at that time in his life,” Roth said. “I said then, and I say it today: We supported that decision. You can say, ‘That’s easy for you to say now, Mike, because Fewey’s turned out to be pretty darned good.’ ”
Both Few and Roth shared a vision to make Gonzaga into something never seen: a small, private school from west with a national profile.
“I just had a belief,” Few said.
As the tournament victories piled up, Roth had to resist suitors for Few. He took a proactive approach. Rather than waiting for larger programs to woo him, Roth would sit with Few, sometimes before the season ended, and tell him, “Here’s the things we’re going to do to make your job better.”
Soon after Few took over, Gonzaga built a new arena. In the mid-2000s, Gonzaga became the first western team to charter every flight for road games, even before Pac-10 schools did so. Roth scheduled more games on national television. Money poured in, and Few and his assistants received raises. In the fall, a new practice facility will be built.
Gonzaga gave Few reasons to stay, in a business when most would have bolted. It also got lucky in the man who happened to lead their ascension.
“You probably don’t want to admit it,” Few said, “but at least in my case, you end up being more like your parents than you even think.” Few’s father served as a pastor at the same Presbyterian church in Creswell, Oregon, for 54 years.
“That’s probably instilled in my brain and soul and something I didn’t even realize it at the time,” Few said. “Why mess with happy?”
Few also considered the track Monson’s career took. He lasted seven seasons at Minnesota and experienced more stress than success, never reaching the NCAA tournament. Long Beach State hired him in 2007, and Monson has remained there ever since, advancing once to the tournament.
“He left a situation and didn’t turn out,” Few said, “And then Gonzaga continued to grow and grow and grow.”
Few helms a program with every trapping of a powerhouse. Players gathered Wednesday night for what was ostensibly a film session, with a Nike representative as a guest speaker. The Nike official said a few words, and then informed the Bulldogs somebody else had come and wished to say a few words. Into the room walked Kobe Bryant.
“It was probably the best time I ever had in my life,” junior guard Silas Melson said.
Former Gonzaga players and coaches starting pouring into Greater Phoenix later in the evening. Roth schmoozed with them. When he saw Monson, he told him, “Dan, thanks for helping us get this started.”
Nobody could have envisioned what Gonzaga has become, back when the players flew commercial and the bulldog wore a funny hat.
“For some people, that was a really long time ago,” Roth said. “For some others of us, it seems just like yesterday.”