It zagged: Gonzaga took unique path to sustained success

No. 7 Gonzaga celebrates Tuesday after beating BYU for its third straight WCC tourney title.

John Locher/AP

SPOKANE, Wash. — On the other side of the tunnel, the noise is deafening. More than 6,000 people are packed into the McCarthey Athletic Center, the state-of-the-art arena better known as The Kennel, on a recent Saturday night.

It’s the last game of the regular season for then-third-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs, but more important it’s Senior Night, a time to honor one more group of basketball players who’ve spent their college career at this unique place, adding their own chapter to perhaps the most impressive and unlikely story in the past generation of college basketball.

Here in the bowels of the arena — away from the party on the other side of the tunnel, away from the student section where the risers are swaying and shaking, away from the man dressed as Spiderman who is dancing to the school band’s rendition of “Uptown Funk” — stands Mike Roth. It’s not exactly quiet back here, but it’s quiet enough to begin to explain how this basketball miracle has happened in an isolated, idyllic part of the country few would associate with hoops.

Roth has been the athletic director at Gonzaga since 1997, back when Gonzaga had exactly one NCAA tournament appearance to its name. He is the man who, along with head coach Mark Few, is most responsible for Gonzaga’s meteoric transformation from the far-flung school with the funny name into one of the nation’s top basketball powers, a top-10 program nationally that this month will play in its 17th NCAA tournament in a row, the fourth-longest active streak in college hoops.

In college basketball, so much can seem random. How did Florida Gulf Coast become the first-ever 15-seed to make a Sweet 16? How did UConn catch fire at the exact right time and make that run to the national title? How did Ali Farokhmanesh swish his ill-advised three-pointer to lead Northern Iowa to an upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas?

These moments seem random and magical, but behind every unexpected story in college basketball are years of smart planning, of hiring the right coaches, of recruiting the right players, of scheduling the right games. And when that magic lasts for two decades — when the unexpected becomes expected, as it has in Spokane — you better believe there’s a detailed plan that went into creating it.

Roth can remember the exact moment this school began to create that Gonzaga Model, a model that every mid-major school says it wants to follow when trying to shift its fortunes from mid-major afterthought into nationally relevant power.

PLAY FOX BRACKET CHALLENGE

It was the summer of 1998, when Gonzaga was a no-name school that had only made one NCAA tournament appearance in its history. Roth had just started as athletic director. Few was an up-and-coming assistant under then-head coach Dan Monson, so well-regarded in basketball circles that Gonzaga had written into Few’s contract that he was the coach-in-waiting who would be named head coach if Monson left. The school didn’t want Few to leave.

That summer, Gonzaga formed a plan. With Few and other school power brokers, Roth decided to change the team’s logo into a fierce bulldog that kids liked to wear on their gear. They changed the school colors from light blue to a darker, more menacing blue. They decided to schedule more difficult schools, knowing the risk of losing was outweighed by the opportunity to beat more well-regarded programs. They aimed to recruit higher-level players who fit into the scrappy-but-talented Gonzaga system.

And crucially, they purchased more exposure on television. At that time, Gonzaga had never had a regular-season game broadcast on ESPN. So the Bulldogs decided to pay a regional sports network to broadcast their games. It was a costly decision, at more than $20,000 a game.

“Oh my God, it was a ton of money,” Roth said in the arena hallway, as the minutes counted down to tipoff. “In those days, with our budget, with what we had going? It was a ton of money. But it was a conscious decision that this is what we need to do. We need to be able to go into certain recruits’ homes and tell them their parents will be able to see them play.”

The Gonzaga Model worked.

And yet today, nearly two decades later, as Gonzaga heads for its 17th straight NCAA appearance and tries again to make it past that final hurdle of making a Final Four, that same Gonzaga Model no longer would work for a school trying to copy what Mike Roth, Mark Few and this Jesuit university of fewer than 8,000 students have managed to pull off. Because it was a model specially fit for that place and for that moment in time.

It can be easy to forget these days — when Gonzaga is a mainstay every March, and this March is a likely two-seed in the NCAA tournament and a legit Final Four contender — exactly where this program stood two decades ago. Today it’s more blueblood than Cinderella, a high-major program playing in a mid-major conference.

In the early 1990s, Gonzaga was better known for being the school NBA star John Stockton attended than for anything happening on the basketball court at the time.

But when Gonzaga made its run to the Elite Eight in 1999, the school was the ultimate Cinderella. That Elite Eight year marked only the second NCAA tournament appearance in the history of the school. Nationally, if it was known as anything, Gonzaga was known as the funny-sounding school whose name popped up whenever John Stockton, who grew up a few blocks from campus and starred at Gonzaga before heading to the Utah Jazz, made headlines playing in the NBA.

Matt Santangelo was the star guard on that Elite Eight team and the high-level type of player whose recruitment and signing, by then-assistant coach Mark Few, signaled one tipping point in a series of them for Gonzaga basketball.

“I remember Mark’s recruiting pitch,” Santangelo said. “He said, ‘No one’s bigger than the program. No one. But if I had a ball, I would hand it to you, and I would say, We’re going to go where you’re going to take us.’ And hook, line and sinker, I was in. I always wanted to be about team, but I always wanted to have some control over where that team went.”

Santangelo was from Oregon, and he knew of Gonzaga’s regional reputation as a blue-collar, hard-nosed basketball school in the nurturing environment of Spokane. He had no idea, of course, that that reputation was soon to go national — and even, if you look at the four foreign players on this season’s team, international.

NCAA TOURNAMENT CENTRAL

People quickly took notice. Steve Hertz was Gonzaga’s baseball coach for nearly a quarter century. In the early 2000s, he remembers the same routine repeated before every baseball game. He’d be visiting with opposing baseball coaches as players took batting practice and went through their pregame routines. And always, without fail, the conversation would turn to something like this: “What the hell is going on with your basketball team?”

“And this was only five years into it!” Hertz exclaimed.

As he speaks, Hertz is sitting in Jack & Dan’s Tavern, a restaurant next to campus owned by John Stockton’s father. Hertz is now the school’s associate athletic director for major gifts and development, tasked with what he says is the easiest job in college basketball: selling Gonzaga basketball to local donors and alumni.

Why has this journey been unique to Gonzaga?, I ask. It’s a complicated answer. First is this place. Spokane is in an isolated part of the country, the Inland Northwest, and attracts a different type of recruit. It’s a down-to-earth, centered place. As Hertz sees it, it’s the type of place that attracts team-oriented people who take care of one another because four months out of the year, the winter weather reminds you that you’re never really in charge and that you must rely on others.

But the key to Gonzaga’s status as an elite program is the continuity at the top. Few has been here since 1989, when he started as a graduate assistant. The athletic director has been around even longer.

“You find your leadership, and you gotta lock ’em up,” Hertz said.

That continuity is so crucial to the Gonzaga Model that they’ve already set up a line of succession should Few – who has passed up endless opportunities to leave Gonzaga – take another job.

Tommy Lloyd is a Gonzaga assistant and its coach-in-waiting. He came here the year after the Elite Eight run, when Gonzaga’s only reputation was as a lightning-in-a-bottle Cinderella. Lloyd arrived as a volunteer coach, doing whatever the coaches needed done.

WANT MORE COLLEGE HOOPS?

“At the time, Gonzaga had nothing,” Lloyd said. “No secretary. Run on a shoestring budget. I worked for nothing, and my wife worked at Macy’s for $900 a month. It was great.”

Now Gonzaga’s reputation is so solidified — a place that values hard workers over elite talents, a program that follows Few’s model of humility — that people talk about “Gonzaga kids.” A few years ago, the Canadian junior national team coach called Lloyd. “I saw a kid who has Gonzaga written all over him,” the coach told Lloyd.

That player was Kevin Pangos, who came to Spokane hard-wired with the Gonzaga mentality and who is now the senior point guard and the engine of this team’s success.

Get this: So great is Gonzaga’s consistency that players Gonzaga is now recruiting have never been alive during a year where Gonzaga missed the NCAA tournament.

“We can all catch lightning in a bottle at some time,” said Roth, the athletic director. “We can all have a couple players, or sometimes one player, who get really hot. We can all get the right matchups, and everything just seems to fall in place. But to be able to do that the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and in our case the craziness that just continues, that’s really the mind-boggling part.”

Roth used to get frequent phone calls from other athletic directors, asking how he did it. How does Gonzaga keep winning? How does he keep Few from leaving? How does his school keep getting players? Early on the answer was to buy television time — to buy exposure. But that time has passed.

“Now, the answer is, ‘What worked then wouldn’t work today,’” Roth said. “Now it’s simply, ‘You gotta have the right people.’ And that’s not an easy thing.”

Coach Mark Few has been instrumental in building up the Gonzaga program, but don’t expect him to take credit for its success.

Senior Night is over, and for once, it didn’t go well. The nation’s longest home winning streak of 41 games ended at the hands of a feisty BYU team that needed to beat an elite school like Gonzaga to help its own NCAA tournament case.

The arena had cleared out. The noise had died down. Few stood in that same back hallway where Roth had stood earlier. He explained the team’s problem that night was the same problem he’d felt with this team over the past few weeks, that there was simply a lack of full effort. Perhaps the critics’ biggest issue with Gonzaga basketball — that the Zags are often able to skate through their West Coast Conference schedule — had caught up with them. This was the current task at hand for Few: to fix that problem before the NCAA tournament.

After reporters cleared out, Few stood to the side and, despite his mind churning about the loss, told me the story about how Gonzaga did it. How Gonzaga turned from afterthought to consistent national power over two decades. How the battle this season revolved around not just making the NCAA tournament but getting a top seed. How the accomplishments of this basketball program had spread throughout this community. How Gonzaga became something so special to this place that, as Santangelo had explained to me, “Gonzaga gives this city a sense of, ‘We can.’ A sense of pride.”

“When I came here, we’d never won,” Few said. “We’d never gone to the postseason. We’d never done anything. Never won a league championship, never did anything. We kind of had to start at rock bottom and then build it brick by brick.”

“It started with just that run with the guys in ’99,” Few continued. “That group made us believe. And we’ve just continued to find great players that fit this place and our culture. We’ve done it in a variety of ways, not just one way. And the school’s done a great job growing with us.”

“We’d never done anything up here, but after we started winning we were able to sell the winning culture, which is what kids want,” Few said. “And winning produces winning, and then more winning. And the school’s continued to grow with us, built the arena.”

Then I made a mistake. As I was gushing about the arena, I called it “The House That Few Built.” Few, who is the son of a preacher, blanched. That was not it at all. As jerseys of Gonzaga players who had gone on to the NBA hovered over his shoulder, the humility of this son of a Presbyterian pastor came out. It’s a sort of team-focused humility that’s infused in Gonzaga basketball, and it explains as well as anything how this basketball miracle happened in this place.

“It’s not about me,” Few said. “It’s never about me. It’s about everybody working together, everybody from the athletic director to the school presidents to the board of trustees to the players. And my guys carry that with them. They get it. It isn’t ever about them. It’s about us. It’s always about Gonzaga, never about me, never about the individual.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.