It is unfair to attribute the success of the Gonzaga Bulldogs’ basketball program to just one person. It has been a nearly two decade long journey for the Zags to reach their first Final Four in school history, a dream that has seemed so close since 1999 but so far away at the same time.
But if we had to laud one specific person, that would be the one person who has stayed so constant through the entire time: Head Coach Mark Few. And what a year it has been for Coach Few. He won his 500th game this season after the 79-73 victory over Northwestern in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He became the third-fastest coach to reach that milestone, behind Adolph Rupp and Jerry Tarkanian.
Yet, prior to this year, there was always one thing missing: the Final Four appearance. If you asked Few, he sure didn’t care much about it, much to the indignation of the Gonzaga detractors in the world. After defeating West Virginia in the Sweet 16, Few brushed off a “monkey on the back” question by a reporter as quickly as he could.
“First of all, I don’t know that I have a monkey on my back. I don’t certainly wake up with one or walk around with one. So I don’t think these guys think I have one. I don’t think my wife thinks I have one or anybody in my family, close friends. Fishing buddies never talk about it. So those are the only people that really matter to me.”
It is hard to think that maybe it didn’t weigh on him a little bit, but then again, Mark Few is a coach cut from a different mold. It is evident by his tenure at Gonzaga, now going on his 18th season as head coach. In a day and age where coaches rotate schools as often as schools rotate conferences, Few spurned offer after offer for more money and a higher profile to remain in the quiet town of Spokane.
People would often wonder why, at first? The jokes about fly fishing would come quickly, but then he would answer how his family is settled in Spokane and about how he likes it in Spokane. For some reason, those seemingly innocuous answers about real life comforts just seemed weird in the realm of collegiate basketball coaching circles.
The goal has always been the national championship for Mark Few. After cutting down the nets in San Jose, he told the players in an almost passing tone, “Might as well win it all.”
It is bold words for a coach who has never been to the Final Four before, but it is the typical Few response. He has been the quiet and steady presence on a program that has grown from wearing slippers in 1999 to steel toed boots in 2017. Along the way, enrollment at the school grew, a new basketball arena was constructed, and expectations grew.
With it, Few and the coaching staff adapted to how the game was being played. He sent Tommy Lloyd out to Europe to recruit guys like Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Domantas Sabonis, and Przemek Karnowski. He didn’t look for the best recruits, he looked for the recruits that would best fit the community and culture of Gonzaga as a program, and as a university.
At times, the Zags were so close, but the ugly reality of why the tournament is known as March Madness would rear its head. After the win over Xavier, Few gave a shout out to the players from before who helped get the program to where it is today.
“It is hard to get to here, where we are. There were other teams that were every bit as good, as deserving, all that. They just didn’t catch a break.”
But the basketball world is unforgiven. The Gonzaga Bulldogs were given the moniker of chokers in March, and whether or not that was actually true was irrelevant to the average college basketball fan. For the fanbase as well, there were some losses that really shook the core, and let some people wondering if the Final Four was a ceiling made of reinforced steel, and not a glass one.
But once again, Few and the coaching staff never gave up. They turned to graduate transfers to help spell in the holes in the line-up. They went away from the days of Guard U and freewheeling three point shooting contests and started to focus on defense. In a few short years, the wheel at Gonzaga was reinvented, and with it, came the success.
“It has been a long, hard journey to get this program here,” said Few after the win over Xavier. “We’ve had a great ride all the way through it. I’m so happy for these guys here, all the guys in the locker room, and all the former Zags players who have put the jersey on. Just couldn’t be happier for all those guys.”
Likewise, from all of Gonzaga nation, we couldn’t be happier for Mark Few.