SPOKANE, WA — Many Gonzaga fans finally got their wish. As of Thursday morning, Mark Few will no longer be the head coach of the Bulldogs' men's basketball program.
The long awaited dismissal takes place upon the heels of an NCAA tournament upset loss to Duke last March. According to sources in Spokane, Few's disappointing bronze medal performance as Team USA head coach in the 2015 Pan American games served as the final straw.
"Mark gave us some okay years," admitted Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth in a public statement. "Ones we hope to build upon. But at the end of the day, we're looking for someone to take us to the next level."
"It's about time we get GU back on the map," added Roth, who joined Gonzaga when the program had exactly one NCAA tournament appearance. According to Roth, Gonzaga's prominence has decayed as both an athletic and academic institution since Few took the reins. Undergraduate admissions have stagnated as well. "We hope to regain Gonzaga's status as a national brand, and we feel that this move represents another step in that direction."
Roth explained that the decision ultimately came down to Few's questionable in-game coaching strategy. Zag fans grew increasingly skeptical of the 11-time WCC Coach of the Year's decision-making over the years. His poor adjustments also garnered attention from his peers, as he recently dropped to fourth best offensive coach in the country, according to one 2015 NCAA coaches poll.
Whereas news of the firing may be met with shock across the nation, few in Spokane should be surprised. For the better part of two decades, college basketball fans grew accustomed to the national media heaping praise on Few and his sub-.900 winning percentage. Yet while the mainstream media was busy hoisting Few upon a national pedestal, Zag Nation hoisted him onto a hot seat.
"There was one home game against Pepperdine in 2006," remembers former Kennel Club Board Member Austin Charles, "where Few played [former Gonzaga forward David] Pendergraft too much." The Zags clung to a 29-point victory that night and somehow finished the year undefeated in WCC play, despite leaving Pendergraft on the floor for 16 minutes.
"Then there was the meltdown in Maui," added Charles, "where the guy refused to call a timeout during that 8-4 Wisconsin run." Few eventually called the timeout and saved a Bulldogs victory over Bo Ryan's squad by a narrow 13-point margin. Gonzaga claimed the EA Sports Maui Invitational Championship title that year.
Few's coaching inability particularly hurt the Zags in bigger games. Despite earning 12 of Gonzaga's 14 total WCC championships, he consistently failed to perform when it counted: the NCAA tournament. College hoops fans have watched the Bulldogs evolve into an annual "March Madness" staple, having participated a total of 18 times in program history. Yet once Few took over, the Zags were limited to 16 consecutive appearances, a streak stuck at fourth in the NCAA behind Kansas (26), Duke (20), and Michigan St. (18), and tied for the sixth longest such streak of all time. "Few just couldn't catch up," lamented Roth.
More importantly, although Few never missed an NCAA tournament appearance as head coach, he struggled once he got there. Although he boasts the highest career winning percentage of any coach in the nation (he drops to fourth once inactive coaches are factored in), Few was unable to hide from his consistently poor NCAA tournament performances. "We knew going into the Duke game that an upset would probably be his last," Roth remarked.
Few too often struggled to meet Spokane's expectations. Upon becoming head coach, he quickly discovered that for Gonzaga fans, an .810 winning percentage means absolutely nothing. Furthermore, losing a game in March is inexcusable. Because the NCAA tournament's format ensures that the better team should advance 100% of the time, Zags fans understandably possess little tolerance for defeat in March. In fact, the tournament's single elimination set-up, which leaves nothing to chance, is widely considered the best format in sports history for determining a true champion. Under Few, however, the Bulldogs uniquely and repeatedly fell to inferior opponents in March. And Gonzaga fans took note.
"It's like, no one gets upset in that tournament," stated current Gonzaga sophomore and Seton sister Whitney McFadden, "except us."
Additionally, in spite of prevailing outsider opinion, true Gonzaga fans have long understood that any credit for Few's nationally perceived "success" actually belongs to someone else. The former graduate assistant may have captured college basketball fans' hearts nationwide in his first three years by tallying an NCAA record 81 wins, but locals remember the story differently.
"He's been riding [former coach Dan] Monson's coattails for two decades," remarked Charles. "He rode Monson's success to the sweet sixteen those first two years; he rode it to twelve WCC Championships; and he rode it to the 2008 Wooden Coaching Achievement Award."
Monson, who ditched Gonzaga for a better job at Minnesota, now coaches at Long Beach State University, where in just eight seasons he has already earned two March Madness appearances and an NCAA tournament win.
Operating under Monson's shadow proved difficult for Few, whose case was hurt further by a recent trend of lesser mid-major programs accomplishing what he never could: a Final Four appearance. Butler University, for example, made two consecutive Final Fours before then-coach Brad Stevens snagged the first NBA job he was offered. Mid-Major VCU danced its way to the Final Four before then-coach Shaka Smart bolted to Texas. Even George Mason University battled its way through an NCAA regional and parlayed that success into two additional March Madness appearances.
Although none of the foregoing programs have ever climbed atop the national polls like Gonzaga, and although none have retained their head coach, each boasts an achievement that eluded the Bulldogs under Few. "In a heartbeat," Roth responded when asked if he would trade all of the Zags' regular season success for George Mason's 2006 Final Four run.
"Look, this is Gonzaga," explained current GU senior, social media marketing major, and Orange County native Bryson Callaway. "Any non-Final Four season is, like, not really chill." Callaway, whose class has waited for a Final Four since he enrolled in 2012, confirmed that his patience is finally wearing thin. "I've been waiting for three years now, and I can barely hit up the Kennel anymore, seeing those empty rafters where some dope banner should hang."
Aside from lousy in-game coaching, many point to poor recruiting as a basis for Few's failed tenure. Spokane, a city that lures elite recruits with its mild winters, cosmopolitan feel, and proximity to Idaho, has always served as the ideal destination for young athletes dying to attend a Catholic school.
Yet despite the Lilac City's inherent recruiting advantages, Few's program managed to attract just 11 NBA players, 10 All-Americans, and 1 National Player of the Year during his 16 year stint. The recruiting shortfalls forced the program to smuggle players into the country from places like Europe and Canada.
"It's a mystery," added Roth, "why we've resorted to international projects while guys like [University of Washington Head Coach Lorenzo] Romar land quality, home-grown talent. We're in the heart of it," he added. "It's not like we're tucked up in the corner of the country like Seattle is."
To make matters worse, Few struggled to develop players once he got them. His program often failed to get the most out of its talent, notably with regard to NBA prospects like Kyle Bankhead, Zach Gourde, and Mike Hart. When asked if he could recall a player who developed or improved under Few's regime, Roth responded matter-of-factly, "Not a single one."
In his statement, Roth also suggested that Few's dismissal should not come as a surprise to those with ties to the region, adding that the Creswell, Oregon native was "just never an Inland Northwest guy." Few, having been with the program since 1989, often seemed a bit too focused on fishing, mountain biking, and spending quality time with his family. According to Roth, that type of lifestyle just doesn't work in Spokane.
In fact, the athletic department eventually concluded that the only reason Few remained at Gonzaga—despite the poor fit—was because he was never offered a job anywhere else. "We're pretty sure he was applying," Roth speculated, "but kept getting rejected. So we resolved to take matters into our own hands."
The search for Gonzaga's new leader will begin immediately. Although no decisions have been made, Roth confirmed that the athletic department has narrowed its hunt to less than a handful of candidates: Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, 3-time NBA coach of the year Gregg Popovich, 9-time NBA champion Phil Jackson, and current University of San Francisco head coach Rex Walters.
Because the small, Jesuit university offers the best coaching job in basketball, Gonzaga will surely have its pick of the litter. But Roth has made it clear that Walters is probably their guy.
A proven recruiter, Walters also possesses what Roth terms "a gift" for in-game strategy. In 2013, for example, he led the WCC in most timeouts called, while ranking third in best in-game offensive adjustments. "He can also do a better handstand," Roth added with a chuckle.
Apparently, Gonzaga became fixated on Walters after other candidates seemed less enthused about the opportunity. "Izzo and Popovich laughed when they got the call," Roth stated, "and Jackson claimed to have never heard of us."
Walters, on the other hand, pledged fierce loyalty to the Zags in a media statement, moments before he was heard off-camera intimating that Gonzaga should provide a "great stepping stone" toward his dream of coaching in a power conference.
In fairness to Walters, Gonzaga's future looks bright no matter who Few's successor may be. A winning infrastructure has been established, based primarily upon revenues garnered from the university's lucrative WCC membership. In particular, the self-proclaimed "ACC of the West" recently signed a cable television broadcasting agreement, which increased Gonzaga's basketball revenue by a margin unparalleled by any other program. More importantly, the deal bolstered Gonzaga's national reputation, allowing East-coasters to tune in and watch the Zags tip-off against conference foes like LMU and Portland on ESPN 2 at 11:45PM, unless the prior televised game goes into overtime.
WCC cashflow notwithstanding, Gonzaga has always been destined for success, because it's Gonzaga. The reason lies deeper than its wide-reaching alumni base, massive endowment, elite conference status, and prime location. The Catholic university has been entitled to a transcendent basketball program since its 1887 founding, despite the fact that the sport was invented in 1891, simply because success is the only thing Gonzaga basketball has ever known.
Furthermore, with an X's and O's guru like Rex Walters at the helm, some college hoops analysts predict that Gonzaga will never get upset in the NCAA tournament ever again. Spokane media pundits forecast that, with Few out of the picture, a Final Four each year is not out of the question. Many current Gonzaga students have taken it a step further, predicting that Gonzaga may never lose another game.
"I mean, I don't see why not," stated McFadden, briefly glancing up from her iPhone.
A rare November sun peaked through the clouds and over the banks of the Spokane River Thursday morning, as if to signal the dawning of a new era in an already rich Gonzaga basketball history. An era defined by excellent in-game coaching, Final Fours, and getting the types of recruits that UW gets.
Without Few holding the program back, the nation will soon find out what Spokane has known for generations. That Gonzaga won in spite of Mark Few for 16 years, not because of him. That winning NCAA Championships is Gonzaga's birthright, its destiny.
That Spokane deserves better. That Gonzaga deserves better.
"The time is now," Roth concluded, "for Gonzaga to prove that there is always a place for success in college basketball for a small, private, Catholic, humanistic university from the Logan Neighborhood's south side."