One of the most noteworthy accomplishments of Gonzaga University coach Mark Few in his team’s inexorable march toward the NCAA National Championship game, despite falling short in the finale, may have been the destruction of the oft-quoted axiom that “nice guys finish last.”
That “nice guys” comment obviously isn’t a reference to the angry Bulldog mascot, Spike. But it is the agreed-on description of Few, who grew up in a small Oregon town, the son of a Presbyterian minister, and who didn’t leave behind the lessons of his youth.
Despite the fierce competitiveness of his players that has been on display for the nation to see in recent weeks, they are described by a GU trustee who has spent an extensive amount of time with them as “selfless, disciplined, family.”
Gonzaga and Few fell short of their quest for college basketball’s pinnacle in their loss to North Carolina in the NCAA championship game, and the pain will burn for a time for the coach, his players, and fans.
But his nice-guy trait was on display, despite the pain of the loss, in the post-game nationally televised interview when Few declined the opportunity to blame the referees for the loss with a couple of calls generally viewed as in error, saying instead, “The referees were excellent.”
And as Jack McCann, a longtime GU trustee who offered me the above characteristics of the team, said to me in a phone conversation before the final game, “Nothing should diminish the joy of the journey that this season represented.” He meant not just for Few and his team but also for the family of supporters, fans, and boosters.
Indeed McCann, a GU trustee since 1997 and founder of the prominent South King County land-development firm, the Jack McCann Co., and other trustees and close supporters have proven themselves part of the GU family over the years.
That includes hosting the coaches and players at their vacation homes, including getaways to Cabo to McCann’s beach home and the neighboring Cabo home of Mike Patterson, prominent Seattle attorney and also a trustee. But Few doesn’t use Cabo trips as a recruiting tool.
And McCann was quick to sign off in the early 2000s on the idea the players should travel on charter rather than commercial flights before that idea was on the radar screen of most schools.
As John Stone, a successful Spokane developer who came up with the idea of offering his private plane and convinced two others to offer theirs on away-game trips, explained to me in our phone conversation, “It became a way to make sure the players were back home in their beds that night and in their classrooms the next day. They are student athletes of course, not just athletes.”
McCann was among the trustees and friends who over the years that followed that first private-plane travel year put up the $100,000 apiece to both pay for the flights and allow the supporters to travel on the plane with the team and have seats near the bench for those away games. By the mid-2000s, that was the routine for travel.
And it was Stone who pointed out the importance of the “family” role played by the Greater Spokane community in chipping in $6 million of the $26 million it took to build McCarthey Athletic Center, the 6,000-seat facility on the campus, completed in 2004, that opposing teams dread visiting.
The community involvement was in the form of a “seat license” plan where members of the Spokane community committed to $4,000 to $5,000 a year to license certain seats in “the Kennel” where the seats come right down to the floor.
Few’s Oregon upbringing in Creswell, a stone’s throw from Eugene, and the fact he graduated from the University of Oregon created one of the untold human-interest stories that media usually thrive on but someone missed this time.
With Gonzaga and Oregon in the Final Four, I was surprised there wasn’t a lot of focus, at least some focus, on the possibility that if the Bulldogs and Ducks each won the first game, Few would have been trying to beat his alma mater.
In fact, another story is the possibility that Few might have been coaching Oregon rather than Gonzaga in this Final Four, but that story is known only in a close circle.
The conversation in basketball circles, and among Gonzaga supporters, over the years of NCAA tournament appearances, has been when would Few be attracted to a bigger opportunity.
After all, having been at Gonzaga since joining the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 1989, becoming full-time assistant a year later and becoming head coach after the school’s Cinderella 1999 drive to the Elite Eight, Few’s tenure has been an unprecedented loyalty to what has been viewed as a mid-level program.
The fact is that McCann, sharing the story with surprising candor, was personally aware of a full-court press Oregon’s athletic director and famous alum Phil Knight put on Few several years ago to return to his alma mater. But the effort was unsuccessful in attracting him away from Gonzaga.
Supporters are aware the time may come when Few is attracted to a new challenge at another university, but everyone now knows it won’t be the lure of a more respected basketball program.
Only nine schools have matched Gonzaga’s 2017 record of 37 victories in a season. And Few is one of a handful of coaches to achieve 500 victories, all at the once lightly regarded Spokane school.
Few and his wife, Marcy, have three boys and a girl and in perhaps the most significant example of the importance of family to him is the story of when Few was once asked by a sports writer if the start and end of each basketball season represented the most exciting and most downer times each year.
He replied that the most exciting time each year was when his kids got out of school and he had a whole summer to spend with them, and the most disappointing time was when they returned to school in the fall. So much for the appeal of fame and glory.
Gonzaga’s desire for sports recognition actually dates back almost a century to 1920 when the Spokane school, with fewer than 200 students, embarked on a quixotic quest for football fame by hiring a big-time coach, Gus Dorais, who had teamed with Knute Rockne at Notre Dame to perfect the forward pass.
It was a quest, I once referred to it in a column I wrote some years ago, as an “Ozymandian delusion,” that brought Gonzaga an improbable post-season appearance two years later against West Virginia in a 21-13 Christmas Day 1922 loss that earned Gonzaga top visibility in the next day’s New York Times sports section.
That was the only moment of national football glory for Gonzaga, though the program continued until the outbreak of World War II in 1941 when it was discontinued and never brought back. During its 20-year run, Gonzaga football produced some players who became nationally prominent, and one, Ray Flaherty, went on to become, for a time, the most successful coach in the National Football League in the late 30s with the Washington Redskins.
Gonzaga basketball, however, is secure now as a program nationally respected. And the “Nice Guy” and “family” characteristics engendered by Few, the school and the supporters may well become the most envied part of what Gonzaga has brought to college basketball.
McCann refers to it as “a magic carpet ride” for all the segments of the “family.”
Mike Flynn is the retired publisher of the Puget Sound Business Journal and writes a regular column called Flynn’s Harp.
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