Dave Boling

Dave Boling: Gonzaga rose because Mark Few stayed to keep the flame stoked

Gonzaga head coach Mark Few holds up the net after defeating Xavier, 83-59, in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region final on Saturday. That win earned the university its first trip to the Final Four.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few holds up the net after defeating Xavier, 83-59, in the NCAA Tournament’s West Region final on Saturday. That win earned the university its first trip to the Final Four. TNS

Through the years, Mark Few annually trekked to Final Four sites because that’s where and when the coaches have their annual convention.

And just about every year, athletic directors with high-profile coaching vacancies would corner him and offer wealth and competitive opportunities and prestige far greater than anything he’d ever be able to achieve at Gonzaga.

They didn’t know him very well.

That’s never been what Mark Few has been about.

So, it is very largely the result of Few turning the cold shoulder to every lucrative offer for nearly 20 years that Gonzaga has now reached the Final Four as a team.

How many take that path? Who has that awareness? That understanding of the deepest self and those things that constitute both success and happiness at the same time and place?

Without the coaching stability and the school’s commitment to growing along with the program, this all could have stalled a long time ago at that “mid-major” level, a designation so many have insulted Gonzaga with over recent seasons.

Remember, this all didn’t exactly start with Few. But it very likely could have faded quickly if he’d cared more about personal enrichment than the very earnest pursuit of improving his team on a daily basis.

I got an up-close look at the early roots of the Zags’ transformation in the early to mid-’90s, when I had the beat for the Spokane paper.

At that point, coach Dan Fitzgerald was on one end of the bench and the Rev. Tony Lehmann on the other end. Fitz recruited regionally for kids whose hyper-competitiveness might elevate their relatively marginal talents.

Fitz coached them to be tough and Father Tony, whom Fitz labeled “a lightning rod for goodness,” was there to console and inspire them after Fitz chewed them out.

It worked to a degree, but Fitz’s long-lasting genius was bringing on Dan Monson as an assistant, who then added Few as a grad assistant in 1989.

Monson and Few had a vision of a different Gonzaga. Same foundation of toughness perhaps, but with a higher ceiling of talent. When they aimed higher, they ended up getting Matt Santangelo and Casey Calvary — the building blocks for new expectations.

From the early days I always got the sense that Few was focused, to an almost obsessive level, on every step they could take on that specific day to get them closer to winning.

Maybe he didn’t actually have the Final Four as a target in his mind at that point, but he certainly was driven to do what he felt could lead them in that direction.

He told me in 2004 that he wasn’t one of those coaches with the “big master plans.” Being able to work with friends and the game of basketball was where he took joy.

“Just spend one day at the Final Four and you see how many coaches who are out there trying to get jobs,” he said. “Maybe 10 percent are content and enjoy what they’re doing.”

Even at GU, he reached a point where the trajectory seemed to stall. Yes, they were dominating the conference, but flaming out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

That might have convinced Few it was time to find another job. But it clearly convinced him to find other ways to adapt and improve. They got better and more effective with their international recruiting, and then they got even better at landing transfers from big-time programs.

Even when you get that level of player, it takes remarkably effective coaching to mesh so many different talents.

And the way this team plays, it’s obvious some of the same attributes are expected of the current gifted Zag players as were of their predecessors.

The way they played against the savage defense of West Virginia in this tournament, as if forged of tempered steel, was worthy of the brand of toughness shown by Zag predecessors like the brothers McPhee and Spink, and Calvary and Quentin Hall, and David Pendergraft and Mike Nilson.

It leads me to believe that there’s still a very strong thread of the personalities of Dan Fitzgerald and Father Tony still running through this program — one’s toughness and the other’s goodness.

Few brought all that with him through the years.

But it was his singular tenacity and belief that it could get done at Gonzaga that made it ultimately become a reality.