In 1999, Gonzaga men’s basketball went on one of the most famous Cinderella runs in only its second-ever tournament appearance. The tenth-seeded Bulldogs defeated No. 7 seed Minnesota first, the program’s first March Madness win, then shocked the field with a 82-74 upset of No. 2 seed Stanford. In the Sweet 16, a thrilling finish with No. 6 seed Florida cemented the 1999 Zags into college basketball lore.
Now 20 years on, it’s impossible to fathom Gonzaga as anything but one of the top programs in the country. It hasn’t missed an NCAA Tournament since, and one Final Four, two more Elite Eights, eight more Sweet 16s, 17 WCC championships and one of the best winning percentages in the country later, the 2018-19 version might be the best one yet.
After the Elite Eight run, the usual happened. Dan Monson left for the Minnesota job after two seasons in Spokane. College basketball has seen plenty of Marchs like Gonzaga’s 1999, which is to be expected in a ridiculously volatile and chaotic single-elimination tournament played by amateurs. Normally, that school comes back down to earth and doesn’t reach those same heights for a while, if ever. Its 15 minutes are up, and the sport gets back to the usual suspects and the newest small-conference darling.
But Gonzaga hired Mark Few, who had been an assistant on the staff since 1992 and with the program since 1990. When he was elevated to the position July 26, 1999, it was the first head coaching job of his life. Before coming to Gonzaga, Few had spent a couple years as an assistant as his high school alma mater, Creswell High School (Ore.), before taking the same role at Sheldon High School (Ore.).
Gonzaga took a chance on Few, and to say it paid off would be one of the college basketball understatement of the new millennium.
He kept the momentum going with back-to-back Sweet 16s and WCC Tournament titles in 2000 and 2001 and had the Bulldogs ranked sixth in the final AP Poll in 2002. The pace has barely slowed down in his nearly 20 years at the helm, and the team’s run to the National Championship Game in 2017 made sure the entire basketball world knew it.
Few’s work has obviously been miraculous for Gonzaga’s men’s basketball program and the university as a whole. The exposure from playing regularly in nationally televised games, being a topic of nationwide discussion and solidifying its name as one of the premier programs in modern college basketball has massively changed the school. According to the university, between 1999 and 2017, total enrollment went up 86.4 percent from 4,061 to 7,572, undergraduate applications grew by 300 percent and the annual budget increased 289.2 percent. It’s not a coincidence these developments came at the same time as prolonged hardwood success.
But Gonzaga’s rise under Few hasn’t just been good for the university, it’s been good for the sport as a whole. A tiny Catholic school in Spokane, Washington, far from any basketball hotbeds and without a decorated rafters, has been a serious player in the sport for 20 years. It rose from nothing, utilizing overlooked talent and coaching acumen to take a stranglehold on its conference and regularly compete with the biggest names in the sport.
It feels normal now. When Gonzaga defeated Duke in the Maui Invitational Championship in November, it felt like two titans of the game trading blows. It was an even battle, a war of attrition between two of the best teams in the country. Nothing unusual about it.
But everything was unusual about it. Two decades ago, the thought of Gonzaga playing in the Maui Invitational, let alone competing for a title, would have been outlandish. Even more ridiculous, the assertion it would face off against one of the bluest of bloods versus some of the most highly-touted talent in the country and perhaps the greatest college coach of all time, and win the game.
Let’s not forget what Gonzaga is. Let’s not forget where its program came from. The job Few has done in Spokane is too remarkable to be described, and with a realistic shot at a national championship in 2019, it could get even more unbelievable. He will go down as one of the greatest basketball coaches ever, and his name is one that will be remembered well after he leaves the sideline. He’s a living legend, and watching him coach is a privilege.
He didn’t have to stay at Gonzaga, though. Like Monson and many others who have been in similar situations, he could have jumped ship long ago. With the level of success he’s seen at Gonzaga, there’s very few programs in the country that wouldn’t salivate over him running the show. Those in Spokane wouldn’t have liked it, but the rest of the country would have understood. After having success at a mid-major, you move to a power program. It’s the done thing.
About 10 years ago, Oregon, his alma mater, and Arizona were rumored to have inquired about Few. It’s safe to assume that in the nearly two decades he’s been in charge in Spokane, more athletic directors than two have come calling. But Few has remained, a pillar of loyalty and a resistance to ego that so many other coaches have fallen victim to.
Gonzaga has collected plenty of criticism over the years, a long time for never making the Final Four, and still for playing in the WCC. But these critiques come from people who don’t understand that the Zags are not operating within the same realm as Duke, Kansas, North Carolina or almost any other power-conference team, blue blood or otherwise. This is a program from scratch; a program from nothing but loyalty, basketball prowess and sweat equity that has had nothing to point to the rafters as evidence for potential future success.
This is what college basketball needs. It’s what any sport needs. Few at Gonzaga is infinitely more valuable to college basketball, and basketball as a whole, than at any power school that he could have joined. Reviving Goliath is nothing compared to transforming David into Goliath.
The Bulldogs are the underdog story of the new millennium, and if you don’t like that, college basketball isn’t for you (Moraga, California, notwithstanding).