Why coach who launched Gonzaga's dynasty has no regrets about leaving it behind

LONG BEACH, Calif. — In the bathroom of a Minneapolis hotel room, one of college basketball’s most promising young coaches splashed cold water on his face and talked to his reflection in the mirror.

It was July 1999, and Dan Monson was a wreck. He had only a few hours to make a career-altering choice between one job that made him happy and another that provided greater financial security.

Monson had every intention of remaining the coach at Gonzaga for many years when he returned home from three weeks in Spain and found a voicemail from Minnesota athletic director Mark Dienhart on his answering machine. Dienhart had fired disgraced coach Clem Haskins amid an academic fraud scandal the previous month and wanted to interview Monson as a potential replacement.

“As a courtesy, I returned the call to let him know I hadn’t been big-timing him or anything,” Monson said. “When I called, I said, ‘How are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m doing a lot better now that I’ve gotten a hold of you.'”

Hearing back from Monson was a relief to Dienhart because his efforts to fill the job had so far been a bust. Rick Majerus and Virginia athletic director Terry Holland were among those to turn it down, citing concerns over potential looming NCAA sanctions.

Dienhart’s gusto in pursuing Monson led the Gonzaga coach to explore the job further. Monson agreed to board a flight to Minneapolis to chat in person, though he remained convinced the timing was wrong for him to leave Gonzaga.

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Having led the Zags on an improbable run to the Elite Eight only four months earlier, Monson was a beloved figure in his hometown of Spokane. Many key players from the previous season were due back, his assistant coaches were some of his best friends and he was about to marry his fiancee in only two weeks.

Minnesota made Monson an offer that dwarfed his $100,000 salary at Gonzaga. Monson turned it down.

Minnesota came back with a couple hundred thousand more. Monson turned it down again, citing the distance from his loved ones in Spokane.

Minnesota countered with a friends and family travel budget that would cover flights to and from Minneapolis. Only then did Monson retreat to the solitude of his hotel room bathroom and weigh the pros and cons of leaving the comfort of Gonzaga to take a Big Ten job with more resources, greater risk and higher upside.

“It was going to take me 15 years to make the same amount of money at Gonzaga that I would make in two at Minnesota,” Monson said. “I asked myself in the mirror, ‘Does it really make sense to turn down the chance to set your family up for life just because you’re comfortable where you are?'”

To this day, it’s still a question with which Monson wrestles.

Gonzaga coach Dan Monson provides direction to his players during the Sweet 16 against Florida (AP)
Gonzaga coach Dan Monson provides direction to his players during the Sweet 16 against Florida (AP)

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Declaring Gonzaga a better job than Minnesota may seem obvious now with the Zags competing in their 19th consecutive NCAA tournament, but that’s only with the benefit of hindsight. In 1999, there were few signs Gonzaga’s out-of-nowhere Elite Eight run would be anything more than a one-hit wonder or that Monson would become known for launching a dynasty but leaving it all behind.

At that time, Gonzaga wasn’t yet Gonzaga. It had only reached the NCAA tournament twice in program history. It didn’t have charter flights, state-of-the-art facilities or a budget most power-conference programs can’t match. Heck, back then scrounging up enough money to pay for basic necessities was often a struggle.

When Monson became head coach in 1997, he recalls pleading with a wealthy donor for $10,000 to cover installing carpet and a TV in the locker room. There was no weight room for athletes, so Gonzaga players used the same aging equipment their fellow students did. There also weren’t meals provided after practice, so Gonzaga players sprinted to the cafeteria before it closed.

Whereas Nike now designs fresh jerseys specially for Gonzaga each year and sends boxfuls of new shoes and gear every couple weeks, the Zags players of 20 years ago didn’t have such luxuries. They would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of the school year and turn them back in nine months later.

“I remember my sweatshirt said No. 2,” former Gonzaga guard Matt Santangelo said with a chuckle. “Well, I was No. 13. I’m surprised they spelled the name of the university correctly.”

Sneakers were the only gear Gonzaga players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required some negotiation.

“We used to have to show that our shoes had a hole in them before we could get more,” former Gonzaga forward Casey Calvary said.

Gonzaga may have looked like a ragtag bunch under Monson, but the players wearing the hand-me-down jerseys were of a higher caliber than the program had previously attracted.

For years, longtime Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald instructed his staff never to recruit a player with a Pac-10 scholarship offer because it was typically a waste of time and money. What player would turn down Stanford, Oregon or Washington to come to a small-conference program in frigid Spokane with outdated facilities and hardly any history of success?

The three brash, young assistants Fitzgerald hired midway through his tenure bristled at his recruiting philosophy. Monson, Bill Grier and especially Mark Few argued that the key to elevating the Gonzaga program was to only pursue players that Pac-10 programs were recruiting.

It was Few’s confidence and persistence that got Gonzaga into the living room of Santangelo, a hotshot point guard from Portland who held scholarship offers from Stanford, Oregon, Northwestern and Rice among others. When Stanford pulled its offer after another point guard committed, Santangelo became the centerpiece of Gonzaga’s 1995 recruiting class.

Sharp evaluations helped Monson and his assistants continue to increase the program’s talent level, whether by plucking Quentin Hall from the Bahamas, outdueling rival Portland for sharpshooter Richie Frahm or winning a battle with Colorado State for Calvary. Monson also upgraded Gonzaga’s non-league schedule when he succeeded Fitzgerald in 1997, going from facing mostly Big Sky and Big West schools one year to beating Clemson, Mississippi State and Tulsa to win the Top of the World Classic the next.

Gonzaga won a then-school-record 24 games in Monson’s debut season, but the Zags did not secure the victory that mattered most. They fell 80-67 to San Francisco in the 1998 WCC title game, a loss that cost them what would have been only the program’s second-ever NCAA tournament bid but also strengthened their resolve not to let the same thing happen the following year.

“We felt like we had done enough that year to get an at-large bid, but we didn’t get it,” Santangelo said. “The next year, our goal from the start of the season was to take it out of the committee’s hands. That was our motivation We worked for that all year long.”

Gonzaga’s Richie Frahm is held aloft by teammate Axel Dench after the Zags’ Sweet 16 win over Florida. (AP)
Gonzaga’s Richie Frahm is held aloft by teammate Axel Dench after the Zags’ Sweet 16 win over Florida. (AP)

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When Santangelo sank eight 3-pointers in a 91-66 rout of host Santa Clara in the 1999 WCC title game, it was the most satisfying victory any of the Zags had experienced before. Little did they know some higher-profile wins on a bigger stage were soon to come.

The NCAA tournament run that first propelled Gonzaga basketball into the national spotlight began in Seattle against a seventh-seeded Minnesota team that lost four players to suspension the day before the game. Wary that his players might become overconfident with the Gophers shorthanded, Monson delivered a pregame speech urging the Zags not to fall into that trap.

“They’re still going to put five guys out there who were recruited to play in the Big Ten,” Monson said. “How many of you guys got Big Ten scholarships? How many of those schools offered you?”

Employing a box-and-1 defense with the irrepressible Hall chasing Minnesota’s leading scorer Quincy Lewis all over the floor, Gonzaga bolted to a 21-point lead and held on for a 75-63 victory. The 5-foot-8 Hall harassed the 6-foot-7 Lewis into 3-for-19 shooting, all the while yammering at him that he wasn’t CBA material, let alone NBA-caliber.

Two days later, Gonzaga toppled second-seeded Stanford, a team that made the Final Four the previous year and spent the entire 1998-99 season in the AP top 10. The following week in Phoenix, Gonzaga edged sixth-seeded Florida on a late go-ahead tip-in from Calvary, leaving the Zags just one victory away from the Final Four.

In the exultant Gonzaga locker room minutes after the Florida win, Monson tried in vain to find the appropriate words to refocus his team.

“He goes, ‘We gotta … We gotta … We gotta … I don’t know what we gotta do. We’ll figure it out,'” Santangelo said with a laugh. “We were 40 minutes from the Final Four. There were no words for that. I love that moment because it was so genuine.”

Monson found his voice by the next night.

Driving back to their hotel after dinner on the eve of their Elite Eight matchup with top-seeded UConn, Monson and his assistants turned the car radio to a sports talk station. They were surprised to hear the host disparaging Gonzaga.

“The guy starts spouting off about how Gonzaga doesn’t have a chance against UConn and this and that,” Few said. “Dan pulls the car over, calls the radio show and starts talking to the guy who was talking smack on us. That’s how young and naive we all were. Who does that?”

Though Gonzaga did lose to the eventual national champions, the Zags put up a fight. They fell by only five despite their vaunted outside shooting deserting them. Frahm went 2-for-11 from the field and Santangelo shot 1-for-9.

The disappointment of falling just short of the Final Four lingered with Gonzaga, but the pain dissipated a bit once the Zags discovered the impact of their run in Spokane. So many people came to greet them when they returned from Phoenix that it took the team bus about 15 minutes just to park. Driving home from campus that night, Monson encountered house after house with a “Go Zags” sign hanging from its front window.

“Literally nine out of every 10 houses,” Monson said. “I hardly remember seeing a house that didn’t have one.”

A sea of Gonzaga basketball fans cheer on the Bulldogs during the 1999 NCAA Tournament (AP).
A sea of Gonzaga basketball fans cheer on the Bulldogs during the 1999 NCAA Tournament (AP).

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A handful of programs with coaching vacancies reached out to Monson after the Elite Eight run, but none tempted him to leave. Only after Dienhart left his fateful voicemail for Monson a few months later did he first consider departing Gonzaga.

When Monson finally made an agonizing decision in that Minneapolis hotel bathroom, his rationale appeared sound.

He thought Minnesota’s impending sanctions could benefit him if they guaranteed him more patience from administrators. He feared Gonzaga’s run of success could be short-lived the same way Santa Clara fell off after Steve Nash and Pepperdine dipped after Doug Christie. And he couldn’t resist the life-altering sum of money Minnesota was offering, enough to make sure his soon-to-be wife and future kids could afford everything they wanted.

“One hundred people out of 100 would have made that decision,” Few said. “He went from where he was making $100,000 to $800,000. He also went from having to win the league tournament here to knowing he could finish fifth, sixth, seventh and make the NCAA tournament there.'”

The challenge of overcoming Minnesota’s NCAA sanctions proved tougher than expected for Monson, especially after the athletic director and president who hired him were forced to resign a year later. Monson made one NCAA tournament in seven full seasons and accepted a buyout amid dwindling attendance early in his eighth.

The great irony of Monson’s departure for Minnesota is that it turned out better for Gonzaga than it did for him.

Having witnessed an unprecedented surge in applications and donations coinciding with the basketball team’s success, Gonzaga administrators became determined to do anything possible to help the program remain a consistent national presence. When Monson left for a more lucrative job, they recognized success on a shoestring budget would always be fleeting and began pumping money into the basketball program at a rate previously unfathomable in the WCC.

They opened the $25 million, 6,000-seat McCarthey Center in 2004 to replace their outdated high school-sized gymnasium. They began chartering direct flights for road games and recruiting trips by 2007. They broke ground this year on a state-of-the-art practice facility that will include a basketball-only strength-and-conditioning area and sections devoted to nutrition, academic support services and a hall of fame.

Those resources make it easier for Few to justify staying somewhere he’s happy despite frequent overtures from power-conference programs. It also doesn’t hurt that Monson’s difficult Minnesota tenure serves as a firsthand reminder that a bigger conference often doesn’t mean a better job.

“He saw me struggle and I absolutely think that’s a huge part of him staying at Gonzaga,” Monson said. “He was the brunt of so many phone calls when I was at Minnesota. I’d tell him, ‘This is hard. Don’t take for granted the community. Don’t focus on what you don’t have. Focus on what you do have.'”

As Few prepares for top-seeded Gonzaga’s opening-round NCAA tournament matchup against South Dakota State on Thursday afternoon, Monson isn’t regretful about leaving the program he helped build or resentful of all the success his former assistant has achieved without him. He swears he’s content at off-the-radar Long Beach State, where he has just completed his 10th season as coach.

A huge reason Monson has no lingering bitterness is because Few makes him feel included in Gonzaga’s greatest achievements. When the two close friends talk about Gonzaga making a run at an undefeated regular season or taking aim at an elusive Final Four, Monson always refers to the Zags as we, as though he’s still on the bench shouting out instructions alongside Few.

“He’ll say, ‘If we would have made that shot at the end …’ and he’ll be talking about my game,” Few said. “That’s pretty cool. He is the guy who got me into this profession. He has his hands on the foundation of this whole thing. So we want him to think like that because he’s a big part of this.”

Gonzaga’s Mike Leasure, left, and assistant coach Mark Few celebrate after they beat Stanford 82-74. (AP)
Gonzaga’s Mike Leasure, left, and assistant coach Mark Few celebrate after they beat Stanford 82-74. (AP)

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

 

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