Bing Crosby will always be the most famous person associated with Gonzaga, and it doesn’t matter how many national championships the Zags go on to win in basketball. The Binger could croon.
When it comes to hoops, though, the Zags have jumped through plenty to get to where they are today, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a team that conceivably could reach its first Final Four.
As much run as Gonzaga has received for its incredible run of basketball success – that’s 15 NCAAs in a row if you’re counting – the Zags still haven’t been able to top that first appearance in the run, an Elite Eight as a 10-seed in 1999 that included wins over Minnesota (7 seed), Stanford (2) and Florida (6) before a loss to No. 1-seed Connecticut.
As coaches and athletic directors at schools with high basketball hopes but national anonymity have watched Gonzaga built a resume – one that no longer includes anonymity – they have whispered to themselves: “Why can’t we be like Gonzaga?’’
A few, like Butler, VCU and George Mason, have reached Final Fours in recent years. Butler and VCU have remained at a high level; George Mason has fallen off.
And what about Wichita State?
Could the Shockers, who with Gregg Marshall have been two consecutive NCAA Tournaments for only the third time in history, blossom into Gonzaga territory?
Marshall was intrigued by, yet unworthy of the question, he said. At least for now.
“It’s definitely possible for us,’’ Marshall continued. “But it would be hard to do and we’re certainly not there now. But with our resources, yeah, I think it’s certainly possible.’’
WSU has been to a Final Four, albeit 48 years ago. The Shockers have arguably been the best team in the Missouri Valley Conference over the past four seasons and with Creighton all but certain to depart for the new Big East Conference, WSU is poised to become the undeniable powerhouse in the league, much as Gonzaga has been in the West Coast Conference.
Marshall earns close to $1.5 million. Few’s reported salary is just over $1 million, although as a private school Gonzaga is not required to report his total earnings.
According to the website bbstate.com, Gonzaga spent $5,344,461 on men’s basketball in 2011, the 44th most of any school in the country. Duke as an example, was No. 1 with a budget of $13,819,529.
Wichita State ranked 80th in spending at $3,798,648.
One of the keys for the Zags has been holding on to Few, who was an assistant to Dan Monson when Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament streak started and took over when Monson, riding the wave of two outstanding seasons, was hired by Minnesota.
Few, 373-92 in 13 seasons, has convinced everyone he’s not interested in other jobs.
“The success for Gonzaga starts with stability,’’ said Dan Dickau, a Zags guard from 2000-02. “When Coach Few took over the reins after Dan Monson’s Elite Eight run, so many of the philosophies remained the same. Few has to be one of the great coaches in the country every single year. People can say what they want about the fact they’re in a small conference and that they should be beating these teams. It doesn’t take away from winning 80 percent of his games.’’
Gonzaga has won NCAA Tournament games in 11 of 14 previous appearances. The Zags have been to three Sweet 16s. They’ve been knocking on the door of a Final Four for so long that they’ve scraped their knuckles.
It hasn’t happened at Gonzaga, of course, without a lot of talented players, guys like All-Americans Dickau, Adam Morrison and Blake Stepp. There have been many other standouts, including Richie Frahm, Casey Calvary, Ronny Turiaf, Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, J.P. Batista, Josh Heytvelt, Robert Sacre and current standout Kelly Olynyk.
This season, Gonzaga achieved its first No. 1 ranking, a status it carries into the tournament. The Zags are the No. 1 seed in the West Regional and conceivably could meet Wichita State, a 9-seed which is matched against Pittsburgh on Thursday in Salt Lake City, in a third-round game.
“They’ve won consistently and they’ve won big,’’ Marshall said of Gonzaga. “And they were making runs in the NCAA Tournament when no other non-BCS schools had really been able to do that. They became a media darling, then they were able to get people to play them and then they got on television. Now they’ve got it going and they’ve been able to sustain it.’’
Gonzaga played non-conference games this season against Butler, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, among others. Last season the Zags played Notre Dame, Illinois, Michigan State, Arizona, Butler and Xavier.
In 2010-11, Gonzaga played San Diego State, Kansas State, Marquette, Illinois, Washington State, Notre Dame, Baylor and Xavier.
You get the idea. Gonzaga plays all-comers and has been able to get a lot of power teams to travel to Washington – mostly to Seattle, across the state from Gonzaga’s campus in Spokane – with the lure of a nice TV paycheck.
“So many schools – and a lot in the West Coast Conference – are looking for that Gonzaga effect,’’ said another former Zags guard from their early days of success, Matt Santangelo. “For a long time Gonzaga has had teams that went into March with high expectations. But now it feels Coach Few has as good a shot at winning a national championship as he would at most other schools.’’
Dickau and Santangelo, the current color analysts for the Zags’ radio broadcasts, left Spokane after their Gonzaga playing days, but have since returned.
Something drew them back, though each has a hard time explaining. It’s partially the city, which has 200,000 people and sits near the borders of Idaho and Canada. And it’s partially the Gonzaga basketball program, which still feels like family.
“I played for seven years in Europe,’’ said Santangelo, a Portland native. “I came back and lived summers in Portland, but then I took a job that brought me back to Spokane. I really didn’t like it here when I was in school – the campus isn’t in the best part of town. It’s fine, but there are some really nice parts of Spokane. And we love it. It’s a wonderful place to live and raise a family. And there are 80 lakes, I believe, within 40 miles.’’
It’s those lakes, and the outdoor life in general, that appeals so much to Few. In a world of workaholic coaches, he has never been coy about his desire to fish, ride his bicycle and flourish in nature.
He has four kids and has said he likes for them to be outdoors with him as much as possible.
Spokane is Few’s palace and as long as he continues to win basketball games, his kingdom will be content.
Dickau played with six teams in the NBA from 2002-08, but never found a place like Spokane.
“When I was playing I came back and ran a charity event for five or six years,’’ Dickau said. “This place has always been so good to me. A lot of former Zags gravitate toward moving back here because it’s such a good place for a family. And this city revolves around the Gonzaga basketball program. There has been a media spotlight on this program for a while, but to get to a No. 1 ranking and maybe even a Final Four is pretty historic.’’
Wichita is definitely a Shocker town and has been through thick and thin.
One of the reasons Marshall is so content after six seasons is because there are routinely sellout crowds at Koch Arena, part of a Shocker Nation that comes through loud and clear.
Wichita State, though, needs a breakthrough. The national media has noticed the Shockers’ success over the past four seasons, but hasn’t been blown away by that success.
When Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight in 1999, the Zags were an overnight sensation. Everybody with a press pass fell in love with that story and went digging for more stories to tell. The Zags have remained relevant since and now are on the level with Indiana, Louisville and Kansas, the other No. 1 seeds in this year’s tournament.
No wonder Few never leaves, though there have been many offers.
“I think everybody is past the point now of worrying that Mark Few is going to be swept away by a better offer,’’ Santangelo said. “I don’t know if there is another job in America that he would leave GU for.’’
Gonzaga is in a place similar schools that emphasize basketball dream of. Wichita State is one of those dreamers, buoyed by the Zags’ surge of success and trying like heck to catch the wave.