Here’s what the Stony Brooks and Lipscombs and High Points and Quinnipiacs and Fairleigh Dickinsons and Woffords and Abilene Christians and Bethune-Cookmans and Coppin States are thinking today after Gonzaga beat South Carolina 77-73 to reach the NCAA championship game Monday night:
Hey, we can do that.
Here’s the harsh, biting reality:
No, you can’t.
For the nearly 300 schools in Division I that don’t belong to a power conference or the Big East, the quaint Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash., has become the glittering example of all that is possible in an increasingly segregated college sports world of haves and have-nots, of 1-percenters and everyone else. When Mark Few took a job there as a graduate assistant in 1989, he made $1,500 per month and shared an apartment with two other coaches; the Zags would win four Div. I games.
Monday, he coaches them against five-time champion North Carolina for a national title.
So, yes, it is possible, simply by virtue of the team in red and blue that will run onto the floor before 77,000 at University of Phoenix Stadium. But understanding how, and how times have changed, dims the chances of the meteor striking Earth again.
Not for lack of trying, of course. The West Coast Conference has been chasing the Gonzaga Grail for more than a decade, blowing out coaches, increasing budgets, re-prioritizing the importance of winning in educational missions.
USD tried. It fired Brad Holland in 2007 after 13 successful seasons in which he graduated all but one senior and hired Bill Grier, a Gonzaga assistant for 16 years and one of the coaches who shared that first apartment with Few. The intent was obvious: Gonzaga South.
USD has had two winning seasons since.
Even Grier offered cautionary words at his introductory news conference, saying: “We didn’t just sprinkle magic Zag dust up there and it happened overnight.”
“It’s 500 percent different,” Few said earlier this week, “from the school, how we travel, how we’re treated. We have a new arena. I mean, everything is (different). We have expectations … Back in those days, we were innocent and footloose and fancy free.”
What happened next is a test-tube experiment gone perfect, the right elements mixed in the right quantities at the right time to create a spectacular chemical reaction.
The Zags caught fire in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, beating three better seeds in Minnesota, Stanford and Florida (on a last-second tip-in) to reach the Elite Eight. Coach Don Monson left for big money at Minnesota, and the 36-year-old Few was promoted to replace him.
And then Monson struggled and resigned, a lesson for Few in the dangers of gazing at the color of grass on the other side of the fence. Few would have chances to leave Spokane for even more money. Eighteen years later, he’s still there.
That’s one reason. Another is fly fishing, a pastime that has increasingly captivated him and isn’t readily available in say, Los Angeles. He’ll schedule a morning practice and head to one of his secret spots in northeast Washington, or across the border in Idaho, or even just north in Canada, out of cell phone range, standing in the river, listening to the therapeutic gurgling of the water, flicking his wrist, casting, waiting, decompressing.
It’s an apt metaphor for his program. The art of fly fishing requires multiple casts, and patience.
Which is what the Zags have done and which gets forgotten when they step on the raised slab of hardwood inside University of Phoenix Stadium. This is their 19th straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. This is their first Final Four.
“It’s crazy hard,” athletic director Mike Roth was saying outside a jubilant locker room Saturday, after a little-sued freshman from Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, clinched the win with a pair of nervy free throws with 2.2 seconds left. “I hope people realize how hard these last 19 years have been, and how hard it is even this year with a great team to excel to where we’re not in the national game. It’s sooooo hard to do.”
The great irony of their Final Four run is that they’ve done it not with their past formula of cultivating a roster over years, with seniors and fourth-year redshirts and kids who have been through hundreds of Few’s practices, who know the system, who have lived the system.
On Saturday, Few started Nigel Williams-Goss (23 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals), Jordan Mathews and Johnathan Williams. Transfer, transfer and transfer.
Williams-Goss came from Washington, Mathews from Cal, Williams from Missouri. Three starters from Power 5 programs to a Jesuit school in Spokane that plays in the West Coast Conference with USD, Portland and Pepperdine. Mathews took 18 units in summer school so he could graduate and be eligible immediately.
As the three subbed out and walked to the bench in the win against Xavier last weekend that put them into the Final Four, Few gave them tearful hugs and whispered something in their ears. He was thanking them. “They all took a leap of faith,” Few said. “That’s what it is. It’s a leap of faith. They all had great options and they believed in the culture.”
They did, because Gonzaga is a national brand now, tirelessly constructed over more than two decades. They did, because Gonzaga has reached a level of national acceptance such that earlier this week Kobe Bryant burst into a team meeting to give a pep talk here on behalf of Nike.
The bad news for the Elons and Duquesnes and Kennesaw States and IUPUIs is building that national brand, bursting that glass ceiling, is not the same as it was when Gonzaga started pouring cement, and it was hard then.
“It may be harder now than it was when we started this 19 years ago,” said Roth, who has been at Gonzaga for 30 years, the last 18 at athletic director. “The financial resources the Power 5 conferences have now didn’t exist at that level. They always had more resources because of football, but now because of the explosion of these TV contracts and all these other things, it’s crazy the amount of resources they have.”
You need a coach who likes to fly fish and doesn’t bolt for the first seven-figure contract. You need players who don’t “up-transfer” to Power 5s. You need university enrollment that, like it did at Gonzaga, more than doubles because of the national attention from your basketball team, which leads to the administration funneling more resources to athletics and a spike in alumni donations.