Who's the 'next Gonzaga?' There may never be another one

Jeff Eisenberg
·12 min read

Mike Roth’s phone buzzes every spring.

Administrators from small-conference schools often call Gonzaga’s longtime athletic director to pepper him with questions or arrange a meeting in person. They all want to understand how a tiny Jesuit school from Eastern Washington built a basketball program that rocketed to national prominence two decades ago and sustained that success ever since.

“It’s been going on since the early part of our run,” Roth told Yahoo Sports. “Every year, athletic directors and university presidents fly to Spokane and meet with me to try to get a better sense of the secret sauce. What is it that they can do to replicate what we’re doing?”

The parade of imitators that Gonzaga has spawned seldom come close to the standard that the Zags have set. There’s ample evidence that becoming “the next Gonzaga” is an unattainable goal typically spouted by people who don’t seem to grasp what it would take to mimic what the Zags have accomplished.

In April 2013, after hiring Reggie Theus as his new basketball coach, Cal State Northridge athletic director Brandon Martin audaciously told reporters, “We want to be the next Gonzaga.” Theus went 53-105 in five scandal-tainted seasons before he and Martin were fired.

Early in his tenure at Grand Canyon, Dan Majerle boldly set a goal of building the Gonzaga of the Southwest. Grand Canyon fired Majerle at the outset of the pandemic last year after seven seasons without a league title or an NCAA tournament bid.

The athletic director at UT-Arlington reportedly fired his coach after three consecutive 20-win seasons because he wanted someone who could turn the Mavericks into the “next Gonzaga.” Chris Ogden went 44-47 during his three-year tenure before leaving this week to become an assistant coach at Texas.

Those stories are a reminder of what Roth warns other schools who come to Spokane in search of the Gonzaga blueprint. Never before has a one-time small-conference afterthought reached 22 consecutive NCAA tournaments or six straight Sweet 16s, let alone entered a Final Four two wins away from becoming college basketball’s first unbeaten national champion in 45 years.

“If it was easy,” says Roth, “then everyone would do it.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 30: Drew Timme #2 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs reacts during the second half against the USC Trojans in the Elite Eight round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 30: Drew Timme #2 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs reacts during the second half against the USC Trojans in the Elite Eight round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Gonzaga's humble origins

Before Gonzaga began its evolution from charming underdog story to perennial powerhouse, the idea that the Zags could contend for a national title was beyond unfathomable. This was a seldom-relevant West Coast Conference program saddled with a remote location, frigid weather, antiquated facilities and a name that was tough to pronounce.

There was no weight room or strength coach. Gonzaga basketball players used the same aging equipment their fellow students did.

There were no charter flights to road games. The Zags perfected the art of looking menacing or unapproachable so strangers wouldn't sit next to them on commercial flights.

There was no endless supply of fresh Nike gear. Players would sign out sweats and warmup jackets at the beginning of the school year and turn them back in nine months later.

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

For years, longtime Gonzaga coach Dan Fitzgerald instructed his staff not to waste precious time or money pursuing recruits with Pac-10 scholarship offers. Fitzgerald insisted that players wouldn’t turn down the likes of Oregon or Washington to play for a lesser-known school that didn’t reach the NCAA tournament for the first time until 1995.

That policy only changed because of pushback from three brash, young assistants Fitzgerald hired during his tenure. Dan Monson, Bill Grier and especially Mark Few argued that the best way to elevate Gonzaga was by chasing only players that Pac-10 teams also were recruiting.

“After Fitz said that, Mark would not recruit anyone else,” Monson told Yahoo Sports. “That’s all he recruited was guys the Pac-10 was recruiting.”

Some of Few’s first believers came to Gonzaga around the same time as the school’s athletic department underwent a change in leadership. In 1997, Monson succeeded Fitzgerald as head basketball coach and Roth replaced him as athletic director.

What followed was a change in mindset, spurred in part by the financial crisis that had engulfed the university at the time. A trend of shrinking enrollment forced Gonzaga to eliminate positions and lay off employees in order to reduce a budget deficit of over $1 million. There were even a few university officials and faculty members who questioned if remaining a Division I athletics program was worth the expense.

“Our controller of the university at the time asked on a regular basis, ‘Why should we spend this money on athletics? What are we really getting out of this?’” Roth said. “I would tell him, the difference between being successful in Division I and Division III is mind boggling. Most people don’t know who the powerhouses in Division III are, but they can tell you the best Division I football and basketball teams in the country.”

Amidst that mess, Roth’s solution was to spend more money on men’s basketball, the sport with the best chance to provide newfound revenue and visibility. Roth gave the program a facelift by updating Gonzaga’s antiquated logo and color scheme. He also endorsed paying a regional sports network to televise Gonzaga basketball games, allowing his coaches to tell parents of recruits that they could see their sons play.

The coaches did their part too. Monson and his staff sought more non-league games against marquee opponents and continued to target higher-level recruits. Few once even used his own money to rent a Cadillac to drive to the home of a recruit.

“He wanted the recruit to think that we had money and we were a big-time program,” Monson said. “We were faking it until we made it. We felt like we had to act big-time if we were ever going to get to be big-time.”

8 Dec 1999:  Matt Santangelo of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in action during the Bulldogs 64-48 loss to the Temple Owls in the Great 8 at the United Center in Chicago, IL  (Photo by John Biever/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
8 Dec 1999: Matt Santangelo of the Gonzaga Bulldogs in action against the Temple Owls (Photo by John Biever/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The run that launched Gonzaga

The NCAA tournament run that first propelled Gonzaga into the national spotlight came at the end of Monson’s second season as head coach.

Fueled by the backcourt of Richie Frahm, Matt Santangelo and Quentin Hall, the 10th-seeded Zags strung together upsets of Minnesota and Stanford before a climactic 72-71 Sweet 16 victory over Florida. Calvary’s go-ahead tip-in with 4.5 seconds left in that game prompted then-CBS play-by-play man Gus Johnson to enthusiastically declare, “The slipper still fits!”

The next day, Roth received a phone call from the Gonzaga controller who had questioned if the school should abandon Division I athletics. With Gonzaga basking in the afterglow of its iconic March moment, the controller told Roth, “Mike, I get it now. I get it.”

A handful of programs with coaching vacancies reached out to Monson after the Elite Eight run, but initially none tempted him. Only after Minnesota kept offering more and more money did Monson decide to leave a job where he was comfortable for an opportunity to set himself and his family up for life.

“One hundred people out of 100 would have made that decision,” Few previously told Yahoo Sports. “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.'”

As Monson went to Minneapolis, Few took control at Gonzaga with a goal of not allowing the Zags to go down in history as a “one-hit wonder.” Underseeded Gonzaga teams made back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances in 2000 and 2001, cementing the Zags as a national brand and generating more widespread publicity for the university than the most lavish ad campaign ever could.

Gonzaga’s basketball success led to rapid growth in applications, enrollment and donations. More than 3,000 students applied to be part of Gonzaga’s 2001-02 class, nearly double the 1997-98 number. The university was able to start with a 77 percent larger freshman class while only becoming more selective with its undergraduate admission standards.

“All of a sudden, we were getting students from every state in the country applying to come to Gonzaga,” Roth said. “All of a sudden, we had the largest freshman class in the history of the school, followed by the largest freshman class in the history of the school. Finally, everybody understood, ‘Wow, this is what athletics can do for a university.'”

What followed was a newfound commitment from Gonzaga administrators to further grow the basketball program. They pumped money into it at an unprecedented rate for a program in the low-budget West Coast Conference.

Gonzaga opened a $25 million arena in 2004 to replace its outdated high school-sized gymnasium. Three years later, the Zags began chartering direct flights for road games and recruiting trips. And in 2018, the university unveiled a state-of-the-art practice facility featuring a basketball-only strength-and-conditioning area and sections devoted to nutrition, academic support services and a hall of fame.

Those investments, coupled with salary increases and creative perks, helped Gonzaga fend off overtures from power-conference schools who wanted to hire Few away. Eventually, Few became convinced he could compete for Final Fours and national championships at Gonzaga while also enjoying the scenic views and balanced lifestyle he could not get elsewhere.

“We’ve always been proactive with Mark,” Roth said. “We’ve never waited for somebody to call. If you’re dating your gal and you want to show how much you care, you don’t wait until someone else starts to show interest in her.”

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 30: Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates with the net after defeating the USC Trojans 85-66 in the Elite Eight round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 30: Head coach Mark Few of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrates with the net after defeating the USC Trojans 85-66 in the Elite Eight round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 30, 2021 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Continuity and culture

The continuity that Gonzaga has enjoyed over the entirety of its run is the most difficult factor for another program to duplicate.

How many schools have the same athletic director for 24 years? Or the same basketball coach for 22 years? Or a pair of assistant coaches, Tommy Lloyd and Brian Michaelson, who have been at Gonzaga in some capacity for nearly as long?

Also unique to Gonzaga is a culture unlike any other. Few famously doesn’t hold staff meetings, nor does he pressure assistant coaches to grind through the night in the office scouring game film and preparing scouting reports. In fact, it’s common for Few to schedule practices around a fly fishing trip or one of his kids’ basketball games.

And yet don’t mistake the relaxed atmosphere at Gonzaga for a lack of ambition or competitive spirit. There is a mentality from the top down of never being satisfied with past achievements and of always striving to keep getting better.

“We’ve always believed there are no limitations to what we can do here at Gonzaga,” Roth said. “In my view, college athletics is no different than business. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. When people say, I’ve got this thing figured out. I don’t have to work at getting better anymore, turn around. That’s the direction you’re going.”

That growth mindset is most evident in the evolution of how Few and his staff recruit. While Gonzaga’s ascent began with under-the-radar recruits from the Pacific Northwest, Few recognized the need for other talent pipelines.

Lloyd’s overseas connections made Gonzaga a destination for international prospects like Ronny Turiaf and Przemek Karnowski. The program’s player development track record made it a magnet for elite transfers in need of a second chance like Kyle Wiltjer and Nigel Williams-Goss. And since Gonzaga reached the Final Four for the first time in 2017, it went from occasionally landing a top-50 prospect like Austin Daye or Matt Bouldin, to becoming a serious player for McDonald’s All-Americans and future one-and-dones.

“It has just been unbelievable how Mark has elevated the program year after year,” Monson said. “They don’t just get good players. They get good players who are also good students and good guys. That’s the most amazing thing. They haven’t compromised any part of their culture, who they are or what they stand far.”

This year’s Gonzaga team boasts three of the 15 best players in college basketball: Heralded guard Jalen Suggs, versatile wing Corey Kispert and skilled center Drew Timme. The Zags have won their first four NCAA tournament games by an average of 24 points apiece. Of their 30 wins this season, all but one has come by double figures.

While Gonzaga is favored to celebrate its first national championship on Monday night, the Zags should have more chances for years to come should they fall short. Next year’s recruiting class already includes one top-10 prospect, point guard Hunter Sallis. And Gonzaga is a leading contender to land the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2021 class, 7-footer Chet Holmgren.

The higher Gonzaga ascends, the more unrealistic the idea of a “next Gonzaga” becomes. 

“There are plenty of schools around the country that are trying to do what we do, but no one else has been able to do it all these years,” Roth said. “It’s not easy. It’s hard to be as consistent as we’ve been.”

More from Yahoo Sports: