Few’s fortitude fuels No. 3 Gonzaga’s rise in college hoops

Mark FewMark Few arrived at Gonzaga as an unpaid graduate assistant for a nondescript basketball program at a small Catholic university barely known outside the Pacific Northwest.

In the 26 years since, Few has transformed Gonzaga into a national power, brought unprecedented recognition — not to mention resources — to the university and turned the Bulldogs into the envy of even the most tradition-rich programs.

“They’re one of the great programs in college basketball,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “What Mark Few has done there with his staff, it represents what we want to be at Arizona.”

Few joined Dan Fitzgerald’s staff at Gonzaga in 1989, teaching tennis, flag football and basketball on the side to earn credit while working on his master’s degree.

The Bulldogs would scrape together a few winning seasons here and there, but were best known as the answer to a trivia question: Where did NBA great John Stockton play in college? Interest in the basketball team was lukewarm and the resources were minuscule — the coaches staying on friends’ couches during recruiting trips, the team traveling in vans, not buses.

“We were a Division I program in name only,” Few said.

Dan Monson, Fitzgerald’s replacement, kick-started the program by leading it to the NCAA tournament’s regional final in 1999 before leaving for Minnesota.

Few took over and gradually built it from there: Cinderella to mid-major monster to one of the nation’s best and most consistent programs.

Gonzaga has made 16 straight trips to the NCAA tournament, including four Sweet 16 appearances, and is line for a No. 1 seed for the second time in three years.

The Zags have won the West Coast Conference regular-season title in 14 of Few’s 15 seasons in charge and completed a sweep with the conference tournament title 11 times.

Few’s winning percentage of .809 is fourth-highest all-time and best among active coaches.

This year’s Gonzaga team may be the best of the bunch, too.

The third-ranked Bulldogs (27-1) are deep and talented — and their only loss was in overtime to Arizona at McKale Center, one of college basketball’s toughest road environments.

“Mark has taken a seed and grown an entire orchard with it,” said Mike Roth, Gonzaga’s athletic director since 1997. “If you sit back and really look at what he’s accomplished in 16 years as a coach, it’s really mindboggling.”

The watershed moment came during the 1999 run. The Bulldogs, who made one prior NCAA appearance (in 1995), had college basketball fans across the country digging out their maps to find out where Spokane was after a bunch of no-name players reached the West final.

But the dividends weren’t immediate.

The regional final run was viewed more as a sidelight, not a green light for top-name recruits or adding big-name programs to the schedule.

The Bulldogs and Few had to prove themselves to be consistent winners instead of one-hit wonders, so the coach and his staff sought out high-character players who fit their system.

It worked.

Behind Few’s find-a-diamond-in-the-rough recruiting prowess, Gonzaga began to win regularly, becoming more than just a recognizable mid-major. The Bulldogs reached the Sweet 16 in 2000 and 2001, then earned their first No. 1 ranking in 2013, when they also were a top seed in the NCAA tournament.

That March would end in disappointment with a second-round loss to Wichita State. There were also first-round NCAA exits against Davidson in 2008 and Wyoming in 2002.

Still, consistent success bred recognition. With that came the blue-chip players, top programs willing to play the Bulldogs, fans filling the McCarthey Athletic Center.

The upward momentum kept building.

“Recruiting, scheduling, everything got better,” Few said. “Once people saw that it could be sustained, kind of everything followed after that.”

And it wasn’t just the basketball program.

Enrollment rose from fewer than 3,200 students to about 7,500. New facilities and academic programs were created. Fundraising for the university went up exponentially, which led to massive upgrades for the entire athletics department and the rest of the campus.

“You look at things beyond athletics and it’s had a tremendous impact on the overall university,” Roth said.

Few’s accomplishments have made him as synonymous with Gonzaga as Mike Krzyzewski and Duke, Jim Boeheim and Syracuse, Tom Izzo and Michigan State.

That’s part of the reason he hasn’t left Spokane, despite overtures from larger programs.

But it’s also hard for Few to imagine going someplace else when he has everything he could want.

The facilities are up there with the best in the country. The Bulldogs travel in style, not vans. The university has compensated Few handsomely and allowed him to keep continuity in his staff. He loves living in the Pacific Northwest, particularly after the winter thaw.

And the Bulldogs consistently win, doing it at a clip few programs can match.

“At the end of the day, the level of winning we’re doing here year in, year out is tough to match,” Few said. “For the second time in three years, we’re at least in the discussion for a No. 1 seed, so what job is better than that?”

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