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How College Basketball’s Cinderella Became a Blue Blood

Twenty years ago, 10-seed Gonzaga was the darling of the NCAA tournament during its Elite Eight run. The Bulldogs have since transformed into a perennial power and March Madness mainstay. Is this the year Mark Few’s team will break through and win its first national championship?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There were few surprises during the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. The Sweet 16 features 14 of the field’s top 16 seeds, including no. 1 seed Gonzaga, which advanced to the second weekend for the fifth consecutive year. The Bulldogs are at home in the company of traditional power programs like Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky, but that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, when the Jesuit university from Spokane, Washington, first captured the nation’s imagination during a surprise run to the Elite Eight. Since 1999, Gonzaga has become a March Madness mainstay, rising from a mid-major to a bona fide blue blood. During that span, the Bulldogs have reached 10 Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, and one Final Four and have as many first-team All-Americans as UCLA or Michigan State.

Gonzaga has been the inspiration for NCAA tournament Cinderellas in this century, but no team has come close to matching its longevity. This year’s team, led by projected NBA lottery picks Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, big man Killian Tillie, and guards Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins, might be the best that head coach Mark Few has had in his 20-year tenure. In 2017, Gonzaga lost in the national championship game to North Carolina; this year presents another opportunity for the Bulldogs to finally break college basketball’s glass ceiling and become the first non-power-conference team to win a title in almost 30 years.

“It’s awesome to make our fifth straight Sweet 16. We do not take that for granted at all,” Few told The Washington Post. “This team is so special.”

Few was an assistant on the 1999 team and became the Bulldogs’ head coach the following season. Since then, he’s resisted the attempts of high-profile programs from wealthier conferences to pry him away from Spokane. That continuity has been essential to Gonzaga’s sustained success, and its roots can be traced back to Few’s arrival in 1989, when then–head coach Dan Fitzgerald was assembling a coaching staff on a shoestring budget.

In 1988, Dan Monson was a graduate assistant at UAB when he accepted an offer to join Fitzgerald’s staff at Gonzaga. At the time, the Bulldogs were primarily known as John Stockton’s alma mater, but Monson was familiar with the program—he was born in Spokane, and his father had coached high school basketball in the area before head coaching stints at Idaho and Oregon. A year later, when Gonzaga had an open position for a graduate assistant, Fitzgerald asked Monson whether he knew of any candidates. The pay wasn’t much—$5,000, as Monson remembers it—so it needed to be a young, hungry coach eager for an opportunity to break into the college ranks. Monson immediately thought of Few, whom he’d met while coaching at one of his father’s basketball camps. Few was hesitant to take the job at first, but Monson was insistent. “I’ve got an extra bedroom in my apartment. You can live for free,” Monson remembers telling Few. “Can you do it for $5,000 if you don’t have any rent?”

Few accepted the offer and was promoted to assistant coach the following year. His graduate assistant position was filled by Bill Grier, who’d gone to the University of Oregon with Few and also worked at Monson’s father’s camps. By the time Grier joined the staff, Monson and Few had moved out of their shared apartment and into a house Monson had bought. Grier moved into the spare bedroom and lived, like Few before him, rent-free, though he contributed by cooking and cleaning. The three assistants lived together for more than eight years while working under Fitzgerald. Few’s father, a Presbyterian minister, officiated each of their weddings.

When Monson succeeded Fitzgerald as head coach before the 1997-98 season, he made Few and Grier his top assistants. A former football player at Idaho, Monson made Few offensive coordinator, while Grier was in charge of the defense. The Bulldogs, led by returning sophomores Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo and senior Bakari Hendrix, opened the season by winning the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, beating a Bill Self–led Tulsa team, Mississippi State, and fifth-ranked Clemson. They finished the regular season 21-8, with the best record in the West Coast Conference, but failed to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after falling to San Francisco in the conference championship game.

The Selection Sunday snub spurred athletic director Mike Roth to action. He knew he needed to increase Gonzaga’s profile and invest in much-needed upgrades if the program hoped to compete on a national stage. When Roth first arrived in Spokane as an assistant basketball coach in 1982, he said the athletic department resembled a Division III program—not all varsity teams had full-time coaches, and only the men’s basketball team had full-time assistants.

“Our head coaches in sports other than men’s basketball were also in charge of intramurals,” Roth said. “We played in a gym, not in an arena. We rarely sold out. If we sold out, it was because of the opponent we were playing.”

Roth began the program’s overhaul by scheduling more difficult nonconference opponents in an attempt to raise the team’s profile. That summer, the university struck a deal with Fox Sports Northwest (now Root Sports Northwest) to broadcast four Gonzaga basketball games during the 1998-99 season. Roth said the school paid the network about $25,000 per game in the hopes that the exposure would give the program a leg up on its regional opponents in recruiting.

“That was a big chunk of change in those days. We had to be really smart with how we were budgeting,” Roth said.

The investments paid off. Gonzaga rolled through the conference tournament and earned the WCC’s automatic bid, securing its second NCAA tournament appearance in school history. The Bulldogs earned a no. 10 seed and first-round matchup against Minnesota. The night before the game, reports emerged that an academic adviser had completed hundreds of pages of coursework on behalf of Minnesota athletes, which led to the suspension of four players. Gonzaga’s 75-63 win over an undermanned Gophers team was its first tournament victory in school history. They advanced to the Sweet 16 with an 82-74 defeat of no. 2 seed Stanford in the second round. Suddenly, Gonzaga was in the national spotlight, even if reporters were unsure how to pronounce the name of the school or its head coach.

“Every question was to the coach at Gonzahga, and it’s Mahnson,” Monson said. “There was just no real respect, but yet we didn’t care about that. We just wanted to play.”

After Gonzaga edged out Florida in the Sweet 16, 73-72, Monson struggled to find his words when asked about his school’s trip to the Elite Eight.

“Tomorrow we just gotta … I can’t remember. I don’t know what we got to do,” Monson told reporters. Thankfully, Few jumped in.

”We’ll worry about it tomorrow,” Few said.

Their run ended in the Elite Eight in a 67-62 loss to eventual national champion Connecticut, led by future NBA All-Star Richard Hamilton. As difficult as the defeat was, Gonzaga’s future was bright: Several of the team’s top contributors, including Frahm and Santangelo, were returning and Monson was rewarded with a significant pay increase to ward off would-be suitors. That worked until July, when Minnesota interviewed Monson for its coaching vacancy.

“Mons calls me and says, ‘Minnesota’s coming out. They’re flying a plane out to pick me up, and they’re gonna be offering me the job,’” Roth remembers. “And I’m just like, ‘Oh, boy.’ I said to him, ‘Dan, you get on that plane, you’re probably not coming back.’”

He was right. After Monson called Roth to say he accepted the position, Roth promptly relayed the news to the university president, the Reverend Robert Spitzer.

“Father goes, ‘Oh, oh, Mike. Oh, Mike. What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’” Roth said. “I said, ‘Father, I told you this before. … It’s done. Mark Few’s going to be our next head coach. We’re announcing it this afternoon, right after Minnesota does. We’re not gonna wait.’”

In Few’s first season in charge, the Bulldogs earned their first AP poll ranking, repeated as WCC tournament champions, and returned to the NCAA tournament as a 10-seed, advancing to the Sweet 16. He recruited a higher caliber of player to Spokane, including Washington transfer Dan Dickau, a former AAU teammate of Frahm. The Bulldogs’ Elite Eight run in 1999 sealed Dickau’s decision to go to Gonzaga, and in 2002, he became the first player in school history to earn first-team All-America honors.

Another program-defining player under Few was Adam Morrison, a local prospect who played pickup with the Bulldogs while still in high school. In the 2005-06 season, Morrison’s junior year, he averaged 28.1 points per game and traded blows in the National Player of the Year race with Duke’s JJ Redick. The Bulldogs entered the NCAA tournament as a no. 3 seed that season and lost in heartbreaking fashion to UCLA in the Sweet 16. The lasting image of Morrison’s Gonzaga career would be of him, face down on the court, sobbing.

Another contributing factor in Gonzaga’s rise under Few was ESPN’s Bracket Busters, a series of games introduced in 2003 between teams from mid-major conferences. The network picked 18 teams, of which Gonzaga became the biggest draw.

“We were the only school that they said, ‘No, we want Gonzaga versus X, and we want it on this date and at this location,’” Roth said. “Which is the only reason we agreed to do it, to be quite honest.”

Eventually, the Bulldogs outgrew Bracket Busters, but the increased television exposure meant they didn’t have to worry about playing in front of a national audience, including members of the selection committee. Making the NCAA tournament every season, however, did not ensure success once they were there. From 2007 to 2014, Gonzaga reached the Sweet 16 just once, and a breakthrough to the Final Four didn’t come until 2017. That season, the Bulldogs won their first 29 games and entered the tournament as a no. 1 seed with a 32-1 record, led by Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss, Johnathan Williams, and the team’s first one-and-done prospect, Zach Collins. The Zags held a 65-63 lead over North Carolina with just under two minutes to play in the title game, but a handful of missed buckets and clutch shooting from the Tar Heels sealed their fate. And while the players lament the missed opportunity, those who played in the program’s first title game understand the significance of the achievement.

“Just being that first team to get past that was amazing,” Collins said. “A lot of people look at that Final Four, and just breaking that Elite Eight wall down that Gonzaga couldn’t really do before … that was huge for us at Gonzaga.”

Players from that 2017 team still keep in touch via group chat, including Collins, who is confident in the Zags’ chances of winning a title.

“I’m biased,” he said, “but they’re extremely talented on both ends of the floor.”

Few teams can follow Gonzaga’s example. Small schools who break through with a deep NCAA tournament run have trouble retaining their head coaches, and conference expansion has made it difficult for teams from smaller leagues to garner national exposure. Butler made consecutive national title game appearances under Brad Stevens in 2010 and 2011 as a member of the Horizon League. In 2013, Stevens became the head coach of the Boston Celtics and the Bulldogs joined the Big East. While they’ve made the tournament in four of the six years since Stevens’s departure, they’ve advanced beyond the first weekend only once. George Mason reached the Final Four under Jim Larrañaga in 2006, just as VCU did in 2011 under Shaka Smart, but neither team was able to maintain that success after their head coaches departed for Miami and Texas, respectively.

Teams have tried to poach Few: His alma mater, Oregon, tried to hire him in 2009, and Virginia inquired about his interest before hiring Tony Bennett. Grier said he and Few discussed the Cavaliers opening, but he never thought Few would actually leave Gonzaga.

“I just think he feels like he has everything to win a national championship and they were awfully dang close a couple years ago,” Grier said. “So why would he need to go anyplace else?”

Roth says stability has guided Gonzaga. As far as he knows, he and Few are the longest-tenured athletic-director-head-coach duo in the country. And when Few decides to step aside, whenever that time comes, his assistant Tommy Lloyd will succeed him.

Gonzaga represents the core tenet of March Madness: Any team, against any opponent, can be a winner. The Bulldogs used the momentum from their Elite Eight run 20 years ago to build a contender far away from college basketball’s traditional power centers. The final step in their transformation will come when they win a national championship. And on Thursday, they can take one step closer to that goal.