SAN JOSE, Calif. — For a coach who has reached 19 NCAA tournaments in a row, won nine straight first-round games and made the Elite Eight twice in the past three years, Gonzaga’s Mark Few still spends a startling amount of time talking about the one thing he hasn’t yet accomplished.
Seldom has a day gone by this season without someone asking Few if this is the year he’ll lead the Zags to their first Final Four.
It’s easy to assume never reaching the Final Four gnaws at Few the same way it famously haunts ultra-intense Arizona coach Sean Miller. The truth is Few isn’t consumed by past near misses because he refuses to accept making the Final Four as the dividing line between success and failure.
“To me, my legacy is built on a lot of other things,” Few said. “I mean, it’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel they were treated, coached and developed and all that.
“I’m schlepping along right now vastly far behind my father, who for 54 years was a Presbyterian minister. He saved thousands of souls. He helped hundreds of thousands of people through all their tough times That’s the kind of legacy I’m looking at. And I’ve got a long ways to go to get to first base living up to that guy’s standard.”
If top-seeded Gonzaga defeats 11th-seeded Xavier in Saturday’s West Regional Final, the last thing on Few’s mind will be shedding the bittersweet label of college basketball’s best coach never to make the Final Four. The 54-year-old coach instead will be elated that his players get to chase a national title, that the Spokane community gets to celebrate a long-awaited Final Four appearance and that the university gets rewarded for years of unwavering support.
It’s those close to Few who care more about what a victory on Saturday would do to boost his legacy. They’re adamant Few should already be regarded as one of college basketball’s premier coaches for elevating Gonzaga from irrelevance to excellence, yet they fear he’ll never get the credit he deserves without a Final Four appearance as validation.
Former San Diego coach Bill Grier, a close friend of Few, is now a decade removed from a 16-year stint as an assistant at Gonzaga. He said he has never been more nervous watching a game than he was Thursday night when the Zags rallied past West Virginia in the final minute to advance within a game of the Final Four for the third time in program history.
“I want so bad for him to get to the Final Four,” Grier said. “To me, he shouldn’t have to do it to justify what an unbelievable career he’s had, yet I’d love more than anything to see him put that behind him and the program. I think it just puts the naysayers to rest.”
It’s hard to believe naysayers exist considering how far Gonzaga has risen under Few’s leadership.
When former Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald hired Few as an assistant in 1990, the program was widely considered to be the WCC’s worst job because of its remote location, outdated facilities and lack of a winning track record. The Zags didn’t reach the NCAA tournament for the first time until 1995 and didn’t ascend to the top of the league for another four years after that.
Forget the charter flights, sparkling facilities and freshly designed Nike jerseys of today. Gonzaga players in the 1990 had no weight room, no strength coach and only a few basic necessities.
Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later. Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.
Convinced that Gonzaga couldn’t out-recruit higher-profile programs given its modest track record and financial limitations, Fitzgerald annually ordered his staff never to waste time or money recruiting a prospect with a Pac-10 scholarship offer. Few butted heads with his head coach for years over that policy before Fitzgerald finally relented.
“When Mark got there, his whole thing was I’m not going to recruit anyone that isn’t being recruited by a Pac-10 school,” said Dan Monson, who replaced Fitzgerald as Gonzaga’s coach in 1997 after a nine-year stint as an assistant. “He had a self-assuredness about him. He was able to get those kids to believe in Gonzaga before the winning.”
When Few succeeded Monson as Gonzaga’s head coach in 1999, the program was still basking in the afterglow of waylaying three power-conference programs during an unfathomable Elite Eight run. Few’s chief goal was to try to prevent the Zags from becoming one-hit wonders the way Steve Nash-led Santa Clara and Doug Christie-led Pepperdine had recently been.
What aided Few’s cause was an unprecedented surge in applications and donations coinciding with the basketball team’s success.
Gonzaga administrators recognized the value in helping the program remain a consistent national presence and began investing in basketball at a rate previously unheard of in the WCC.
The school opened the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthey Center in 2004 to replace its previous high school-sized gymnasium. Three years later, Gonzaga began chartering direct flights for road games and recruiting trips. Soon, a state-of-the-art practice facility will open that includes a basketball-only strength-and-conditioning area and sections devoted to nutrition, academic support services and a hall of fame.
Consistent administrative support has made it easier for Few to justify staying somewhere he’s happy despite frequent overtures from power-conference programs. He has rebuffed interest from the likes of Oregon, Washington, UCLA and Indiana over the years, content to instead keep building Gonzaga bigger and better.
“We know how to do it here, we love it here, it’s comfortable and it’s just a great life,” Few said. “It’s kind of like don’t screw with happy. Lost in this is Gonzaga has always been willing to grow. They’ve always understood and valued that this program is the window for everyone to see into the university.”
The hallmark of Few’s tenure at Gonzaga is consistency. In an era when Arizona, UCLA, Indiana, North Carolina, UConn and Kentucky have each missed the NCAA tournament since 2010, the Zags have not only made it 19 straight times but also won at least one game in 16 of those seasons.
Never has there been a better example of Gonzaga’s consistency than this year’s 35-win season. The Zags graduated three starters from a Sweet 16 team, lost a fourth to the NBA draft and somehow managed to get better, beating Florida, Arizona and Iowa State in non-conference play and going all the way to late February without suffering a loss.
Eager to help his nine newcomers bond with his returning players in time for the start of the season, Few took the whole team to the Idaho wilderness in September for a weekend retreat. With no cell phone service, the Zags had no choice to get to know one another while setting up tents, hanging out at a lake or chatting around the campfire.
“When you’re the new freshman, you don’t know how everyone is going to receive you,” center Zach Collins said. “That retreat made me so much more comfortable to talk to people and to use my voice in the locker room. Then the off-court chemistry just translated on the court super easily.”
There’s a perception that for all its regular season success the past two decades, Gonzaga has failed to meet expectations during the NCAA tournament. In reality, that’s largely a myth.
Gonzaga has advanced as far or farther than its seed suggested it should in 13 of the past 18 NCAA tournaments. Even its most high-profile early flameout, a 2013 second-round loss as a No. 1 seed, came against a Wichita State team that sank 14 threes that day and went on to reach the Final Four.
What annoys Few most about the undue criticism he receives for not reaching a Final Four is the philosophy in which it’s rooted. To him, measuring success by how Gonzaga plays over the course of a five-month season makes more sense than looking only at the results of a three-week single-elimination crapshoot.
That attitude has trickled down to Gonzaga players, many of whom are eager to silence the skeptics on Saturday with a win over Xavier. They argue a Final Four shouldn’t be necessary to validate the program’s achievements, yet they understand that getting to Phoenix is the best way to ensure Few receives the credit they feel he deserves.
“People like to knock coach Few,” guard Silas Melson said. “They asked him about the monkey on his back [Thursday], and he’s been in 19 straight NCAA tournaments and two Elite Eights in three years. You can’t knock that résumé, but a Final Four would definitely solidify it.”
For Gonzaga’s players, a victory on Saturday would be for their coach. For Few, reaching the Final Four would be for everyone else besides him.
“I desperately want it for this group of guys,” Few said. “I desperately want it for everybody who has played at Gonzaga. It would be awesome for the school and for the Spokane community to be able to hang their hat on. But my legacy is going to be about other things, at least as far as I’m concerned.”
More March Madness coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• The perfect shot that saved Florida’s season
• Young reporter, South Carolina coach bond over post-game question
• Dayton’s Archie Miller accepts 7-year deal to become Indiana’s head coach
• Xavier’s J.P Macura hits amazing 80-foot shot that doesn’t count
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