How David is slaying Goliath in college basketball

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The prevailing trend in college sports is for the rich to get richer – more money and more trophies for the five major conferences, a Darwinian consolidation of power in the hands of 65 schools that have all the advantages.

But if Gonzaga wins the college basketball national title Monday night, you can consider it a noteworthy counter-trend. It would mark two straight years in which schools that don’t feed at the big-time football revenue trough win it all. Last time that happened was 1984-85 – well before football became the 800-pound gorilla it is now.

Villanova, which won it last year, plays football at the FCS level. Gonzaga hasn’t played football since World War II.

“Undefeated since 1941,” chirped Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth Friday, while his basketball team went through its Final Four open practice at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“The football conferences do have a lot of resources,” Roth said. “But we can compete, and we can compete on a national level on an annual basis. The Final Four helped validate what we always believed.”

If you’re at all averse to corporate gigantism in college sports, a Villanova-Gonzaga double would be a welcome development. The idea that a mid-sized Catholic school in Philadelphia (enrollment 10,800) and a smaller Catholic school in Spokane, Wash., (enrollment 7,400) can win at the highest level without the athletic departments being enriched by hundreds of millions of football dollars is a refreshing one. It breathes life into the notion that not all championships can be bought.

Mark Few hasn't had a losing season a Gonzaga since becoming the head coach in 1999. (AP)
Mark Few hasn’t had a losing season a Gonzaga since becoming the head coach in 1999. (AP)

There was a time when Catholic schools were a powerful force in college basketball. From 1947-85, more than one in every five NCAA titles were won by Catholic universities without significant football programs: Holy Cross, La Salle, San Francisco, Loyola (Chicago), Marquette, Georgetown and Villanova. Then there was a 31-year gap until Villanova won it again last year.

Gonzaga’s Final Four breakthrough, on the heels of Villanova’s most recent title, should give hope to the 286 schools living outside the Power Five gated community. It can be done.

“When the Gonzagas make it and the Villanovas make it [to the Final Four], it sends a message,” said Creighton athletic director Bruce Rasmussen, who also oversees a basketball power thriving without football. “If you’re intensely focused on basketball, you can compete.”

That could be the big takeaway here: we might be entering an era of boutique basketball programs. This could be a boom time for smaller athletic departments that fund hoops the way teams from the power conferences do.

If you build quality facilities, pay coaches adequately, add sufficient support staff, recruit ambitiously and travel well – hey, your non-football power may become Gonzaga, too. That school opened a 6,000-seat arena in 2006, and a practice facility is being built right now.

In addition to the Big East schools and Gonzaga, there are a few others who could be considered in the boutique basketball club: Wichita State, which might be headed to the American Athletic Conference any day now, springs to mind. VCU and Dayton have had great runs of late, the Rams going to seven straight NCAA tourneys and the Flyers to four, but now both must replace their coaches.

The phenomenon can be found in other college sports as well. In baseball, the most recent College Word Series champion is Coastal Carolina. The last four NCAA men’s hockey champions are North Dakota, Providence, Union and Yale, and this year’s Frozen Four features three teams from schools without big-time football: Minnesota-Duluth, Denver and Harvard.

From a basketball standpoint, the key for boutique programs beyond financial commitment and fan backing is coaching continuity. Jay Wright at Villanova, Gregg Marshall at Wichita State and Mark Few at Gonzaga have stayed put and built power programs that dominate their leagues.

Few and Gonzaga have proven to be a perfect marriage. This is not a guy who needs coddling.

He’s well compensated ($1.7 million a year), yet still underpaid compared to some of his colleagues – but it doesn’t bother him. For Few, you cannot put a price tag on the serenity he finds with a fly-fishing rod in his hands.

Before this season, Few decided to use the outdoors as a bonding element for his team. He took the Zags on a two-day camping excursion to Idaho, with comical results.

Putting up tents, starting fires, night walks with headlamps – these were new and somewhat traumatic experiences for many of the Gonzaga players.

“I did not like that one bit,” said forward Johnathan Williams, a city slicker from Memphis. “Me and camping did not get along. It was an awesome time, but I’ll never go camping again.”

Few joked that he learned “how soft [the players] were. And it concerned me greatly at the time. … Just amazing that they would be so frightful of being out in God’s country, in the dark where there’s absolutely nothing that could do anything to them, but yet they have no issues wandering the streets of South Chicago or Los Angeles at night.”

The trip did produce the desired effect – a team of transfers, international players and holdovers became more tightly stitched together.

“It truly was big, because it set us on the path we needed to go on,” Few said.

A path that led to the Final Four.

And if Gonzaga follows Villanova and wins it all here, it’s a path more schools that aren’t flush with football cash should aspire to follow. The renaissance of the boutique basketball program could be upon us.

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