Gonzaga University. “The Original Cinderella”. It’s the mysteriously plucky basketball program that everyone loves to discuss, even though few people really know all that much about them overall.
Sure, even casual college basketball fans know that Gonzaga is the program that really gave credence to the mid-major programs being forces to be reckoned with during the NCAA tournament. But ask those same college basketball fans to tell you the name of the head coach, who’s led the program for the better part of two decades, or even where the university is located in general, and they’ll probably draw blanks. Gonzaga is a small, private school that is located in Spokane, Washington.
In truth, Gonzaga spent the vast majority of the 20th century in basketball obscurity. The Zags introduced a basketball program during the 1907–08 basketball season, but actually played their first season without a head coach. Over the next five years, they cycled through five head coaches, who were one-and-done after each season. Until head coach Hank Anderson — who previously held the record for most wins in the history of the program — became head coach in 1951, Gonzaga went through 20 head coaches in 33 years.
Anderson coached the program from 1951 to 1972, and brought the school its first two Big Sky Conference (which Gonzaga used to be a member of) regular season titles after the 1965 and 1966 seasons — almost 60 years after the program was established. Anderson was also named the conference’s coach of the year in 1966. When Anderson abruptly stepped down as the team’s head coach in 1972, his 290 wins were easily the most in program history, although his .513 winning percentage didn’t exactly qualify him to be mentioned alongside some of the great coaches in college basketball history.
The program went through a bit more of the same coaching carousel after Anderson’s departure, with three more head coaching changes over the next 13 years, before Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga’s current athletic director, stepped in to become the head coach of the program (for the second time) after GU alumnus Jay Hillock resigned as head coach in 1985.
It was under Fitzgerald’s tenure that Gonzaga began its ascent into the nationally renowned basketball program that it is today. The Bulldogs won their first conference title since the Anderson regime after the 1993 season, and qualified for its first postseason appearance that year, in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). A year later, Fitzgerald led the team to the school’s first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps just as importantly, Fitzgerald was the man responsible for hiring Dan Monson and Mark Few, the two coaches who built on Fitzgerald’s progress when the latter stepped down in 1997 to focus on his duties at athletic director.
After Monson took over for Fitzgerald, in only his second year as head coach, he was responsible for the run that put Gonzaga atop the national headlines. After finishing with a 28–7 record and the conference tournament championship, Gonzaga entered the NCAA tournament as a 10-seed. From there, they upset seventh-seeded Minnesota, followed that up with an upset over the second-seeded Stanford Cardinal, and then shocked the world by beating Billy Donovan’s University of Florida team in the Sweet Sixteen round, advancing to the Elite Eight. From there, they fell just short of pulling off yet another miracle, trailing the University of Connecticut — who went on the win the national championship that year — by only one point with one minute remaining in the game. They ended up losing 67-62, but the game was widely considered the “coming out party” for Gonzaga on the national scene, and was largely responsible for shining a brighter spotlight on teams coming out of the non-“power conferences.”
Monson parlayed that run into a head coaching job with the University of Minnesota, and Mark Few, an assistant to Monson, assumed the position of the Bulldogs’ head coach. Under Few, the Bulldogs have made the NCAA Tournament every single year since that exhilarating run in 1999.
THE FEW ERA
Few continued to build upon the momentum that Fitzgerald and Monson started, leading the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen in both of his first two years as head coach; he’s the only head coach to accomplish this since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. In Few’s first three seasons as head coach, he compiled 81 wins, which was an all-time record that stood until 2010. Having just turned 54 years-old this past December, Few still has a long coaching career ahead of him, but he will still go down as the most decorated coach in the history of the West Coast Conference. He’s won the conference’s Coach of the Year award 10 times, including a run of six consecutive awards between 2001 and 2006.
Under Few, the Bulldogs have won the conference championship 15 times in his 17 year tenure, and look very well positioned to make it 18 this spring. They’ve won at least 25 games in 17 of the past 18 years (including this season), and never lost more than three games within their own conference. And not only have they made the tournament every single year during Few’s tenure, but they’ve also won their opening round game in the tournament in every one of those appearances.
Of course, the proverbial “asterisk” or “elephant in the room” when it comes to Few and the “Zags,” it’s the fact that for all their sustained success this century, they’ve never actually made it past the Elite Eight. They’ve been a 4th-seed or higher in six of those 17 Tournament appearances, yet they’ve always found their tournament runs ending a bit sooner than they would’ve originally believed.
IS THIS FINALLY THE YEAR?
That’s why, despite the fact that the Bulldogs are the #1 team in the nation, sporting a 27-0 undefeated record to date this season, many people are skeptical as to whether this team really is the best team in the nation. When the NCAA released their first pre-tournament seeding projections in mid-February, Gonzaga was projected to be a 1-seed in the tournament, but was slotted as the lowest-ranked 1-seed among the four.
Fairly or unfairly, the Bulldogs are being overlooked despite the fact that they have 24 of their 27 wins by double-digits, and they’ve defeated teams like Arizona (first place in the Pac-12 standings), Florida (first place in the SEC standings), Akron (atop the MAC standings), Iowa State (who’s beaten Kansas), Tennessee (who’s beaten Kentucky), and St. Mary’s — their top rival in the West Coast Conference — twice this year. Even with seven top-50 RPI wins this year, critics — and fans — continue to wonder whether Gonzaga’s strength of schedule, and lack of true “tests” within their in-conference schedule, makes them a true title contender.
Few’s current squad is perhaps his deepest group, and probably his best defensive team. Even if they maintain their sterling record through their conference tournament, they’re still not going to have the national spotlight shine as brightly on them, as perhaps a more established program would if they had the same record.
For all the success that Gonzaga basketball has had in the last two decades, all that’s left is for Few and the Bulldogs to bring home the only thing this program has been missing for the past century-plus: a National Championship. Maybe, for “The Original Cinderella”, the slipper will fit.
Article was previously published 2-23-17.
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