Gonzaga basketball’s two-decade run of success has served as an inspiration for many mid-major programs experiencing their first tastes of national relevance.
But while Gonzaga was once a true mid-major, the Bulldogs now hardly act like one. They perform not only light years ahead of every mid-major school, they even outperform the majority of power conference teams.
Going into this year, basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla even thinks the Bulldogs could be the best team in the country.
“To me, the two best teams in the country right now are Kansas and Gonzaga,” Fraschilla said in an interview. “Upperclassmen, older guys, quality players, NBA guys. Kansas is loaded with NBA guys, Gonzaga certainly has a few.”
Gonzaga has appeared in every NCAA Tournament since 1999. To put that into perspective, only five Division I schools have ever had a longer tournament streak.
So how exactly has this tiny school in far-off Spokane become a program that is not only a March fixture, but a team that has routinely made deep runs in the NCAA Tournament?
Here are four underlying reasons why Gonzaga has routinely exceeded expectations as a mid-major program:
A Loyal Coach
In a time when loyalty among college basketball coaches has become virtually extinct, that must make Gonzaga coaching legend Mark Few an endangered species.
Few started his soon-to-be 30-year Gonzaga coaching career (rumor has it) as a lowly paid assistant coach, who camped out on another assistant’s apartment floor to make ends meet, according to Evan Closky, a former Zag’s beat reporter.
At Gonzaga, Few has become the winningest active coach by percentage points in the nation. In 2017, he led the Zags to the title game with a school-record 37-2 mark, securing three straight seasons with an appearance in at least the Sweet 16. All told, under Few’s tutelage, the Zags have reached the Sweet 16 a remarkable eight times.
“Mark Few has turned down jobs at Oklahoma State, Arizona, Indiana, and Oregon,” said Closky. “T. Boone Pickens recruited him for Oklahoma State. Pickens even offered to build Few a man-made stream to fish in.”
“Oklahoma State wasn’t a good fit for him,” Closky added. “Few loves the Spokane community and is a private person. He does not want to leave and has everything he needs to win big at Gonzaga.”
A Visionary Athletic Director
Mike Roth, who has spent 21 years as the Gonzaga Athletic Director, has made an indelible mark on the Zag’s basketball program. While Few receives the lion’s share of accolades, behind the scenes it has been Roth who has given the team the necessary tools to maintain a winning program.
It was Roth who marshaled the resources to build state-of-the-art facilities like the iconic McCarthey Athletic Center. It is Roth who oversees the departments that ensure every player remains eligible and graduates. And it was Roth who had the foresight to elevate Few to head coach in 1999.
Perhaps Roth’s crowning achievement is simply keeping the rock star Few in Spokane. Roth assiduously has found the money to retain the coach when bigger programs came calling for him.
Roth’s long and wild ride at Gonzaga goes way back to a time (1998) when the school had only one NCAA Tournament appearance to its name.
After the Zags’ 1999 Elite 8 NCAA run, Roth refused to succumb to mediocrity. He effectively maintained the momentum generated from that one magical season by creating a 20-year road map that has shaken the NCAA caste system to its very core.
The scrappy, overachieving athletic director continues to blaze new trails that raise the bar for a team in position to claim their first national championship this upcoming season.
Just like Rome, the Gonzaga basketball empire was not built in one day. For the Zags, it took a decade just to escape Cinderella status, then another 10 years to propel the tiny school on the foothills of the Rocky Mountain’s to elite status.
Undeniably, it started in 1999 when Gonzaga took the nation by storm. This unknown commodity shocked the NCAA by reaching the Elite Eight after defeating Minnesota, Stanford, and Florida, before losing in a hard-fought battle against eventual champion UConn.
After the improbable run, Gonzaga somehow maintained that level of play, slowly becoming a household name and attracting the talent, fans, and money that have continued to elevate the program.
Finding the positives in a weak conference
No one is saying that Gonzaga would not be the thoroughbred program that it is if it played in a more competitive conference like the Pac-12. However, let’s face it, the West Coast Conference — no matter how you spin it — is a mid-major conference.
And Gonzaga has benefitted appreciably as a member of the WCC, having won the last six conference championships and earning an automatic NCAA berth.
Roth noted that Gonzaga’s emergence nationally has occurred as a WCC member. The Zags have won 31 NCAA Tournament games since 1999. They’ve won 11 consecutive first-round games and they’re the only program to reach at least the Sweet 16 level the last four seasons. As an encore, they’ve been a NCAA Tournament 1 seed twice in the last six years.
“Look at what we have achieved as members of the WCC,” Roth said. “We made it to the national championship game. We have goals that are still out there, and we’ll continue to chase those as members of the WCC.”
The WCC has, without a doubt, helped Gonzaga get back to March. But to get a favorable seed, Few has been aggressive in his non-conference scheduling. San Diego State, Florida, Arizona, and Tennessee were all on the schedule the year the Bulldogs reached the title game. This year, Gonzaga will play in the Maui Invitational, and will face Texas A&M, North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington, and Creighton.
When trying to pinpoint why Gonzaga has been so good for so long, it really depends on who you ask.
Some will give all the credit to Few.
Others will cite the work of the program’s architect and AD Roth as the difference maker.
And the more cynic minded will point to Gonzaga’s stellar body of work as a result of playing in a mid-major conference.
But maybe the correct answer is D: all of the above.