I have gone on at length to praise the players on the Gonzaga team over the past few blog posts. I’d like to take a bit of room here to praise the coaching staff that has done such an excellent job of fostering that love, warmth and family spirit. The current coaching staff, no doubt about it, are a bunch of precious gems. And as precious gems they’re often gazed upon longingly by other programs with thoughts, perhaps, to steal them away. Praise should especially go out to the man who has been loyal to steering the Gonzaga Men’s Basketball team for 20 years and has been a part of the program since way back in 1989. Mark Few, who was once again named WCC coach of the year this season and is now one of 11 coaches named as a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year (he already won that distinction in 2017 when he and the team won a program record 37 games), holds the record for ongoing tournament appearances since beginning his career as head coach. It’s incredible to realize that the Bulldogs, under his leadership since July of 1999, have never missed March Madness! As Withers mentions in the book, to have been so consistently great is a feat no program like Gonzaga has been able to replicate. And it is largely Mark Few and his staff’s dedication to the program, where “literally, there isn’t a stone that goes unturned here,” that has nurtured that greatness.
I played basketball in a small town in North Idaho back in the late 80’s and we had a head coach who taught the fundamentals of basketball well, had a smart system in place, and his players gave him a lot of effort and respect. He got gallons of sweat out of us preaching a strong emphasis on defense, teaching that “charges taken” was the best statistic any player could hope to accrue. “Defense creates offense” was his mantra. He molded rag-tag groups of mostly farmers and loggers kids into decent basketball players, got the support of a fair percent of the community and the school, and won a fair number of games. But as part of the basketball team, I knew his coach-player relationship was based on heavy-handed control, and a too often belittling of his players. His rhetoric lacked even the modicum of compassion and respect that makes a good player-coach relationship. Besides the fact that he told inexcusably racist jokes sometimes (perhaps as his best attempt to bind players together through a backwards, small-town mentality), I don’t think many of the players enjoyed playing for him. As a coach, it seems to me you have to walk a very fine line between, on the one hand, asking/demanding/ harassing your players to do what you want them to do to be their best and, on the other hand, showing compassion toward them as individuals, allowing them to have fun playing basketball, and allowing them to use their natural talents as they’ve developed them already. It became, for me and my fellow teammates, difficult to enjoy the game we were playing whether we were winning or losing. What I felt on the court then was not the love of the game and the desire to compete and win and play well. Instead I felt the hesitancy, second-guessing and anxiety that comes with not wanting to mess up and garner his reprimand. My feeling is that the team was far worse as a result.
My idea of Mark Few as a coach is as a man who walks that line well, choosing love over fear. Withers quotes Ray Giacoletti again, speaking about Few, as saying: “I’d be hard-pressed that there’s maybe anybody in college basketball that’s as good at keeping things in proper balance.” This proper balance, in which a player finds his coach not only a very demanding, trusted authority on what is best to improve his and the teams’ basketball skills and direct their efforts and performance in games, but also a compassionate proponent of the player as a fun-loving, caring individual with goals, feelings and desires separate from his use as a player seems a very necessary part of being a great coach. What I think the best coaches get as a result of walking that fine line so well is not simply fearful effort that comes from a desire not to do poorly, but expansive effort from the heart to do well not only for yourself, but for your teammates, your fans, your coaches, , your family, everyone involved that you care for, and perhaps your God on top of all that. You can see it in the way the Gonzaga players put heart-felt effort into the games they enjoy playing and enjoy playing together. It’s one of the important, intangible things that rarely get mentioned. Sam Scholl, head coach of the San Diego Toreros men’s basketball team said it well when talking about the Zags after his team was bested in a very good effort this season: “The thing that doesn’t get talked about enough with Gonzaga is that they play for each other, as good if not better than anybody they play against. You can see it in everything they do, the way they celebrate for each other’s baskets, the way they talk to each other on the floor, the way they come in and out of timeouts, the way they huddle. That for me is the most impressive thing. They’ve got an unbelievable amount of talent, but man do they play for each other.”
One of the things Spokane and Gonzaga fans everywhere are so thankful for is something Mark Few’s wife, Marcy, says of him in the book while reminiscing about their early years together: “What I remember sticking with me is how loyal he is, and what a good person he is.” His loyalty has kept him in Spokane despite being wooed toward other head coaching positions. In Glory Hounds, Oregon’s attempt to woo Few away from Gonzaga and closer to his hometown of Creswell, Oregon was mentioned as perhaps the most difficult offer he had to refuse. Another attempt to take him away is mentioned in which someone offers to build Few a trout steam on his potential new property (should he take the coaching job) so he can continue his beloved hobby of fly-fishing while coaching somewhere in the Mid-West. But Mark Few seems to recognize that a real trout stream (or a river for that matter) in the Pacific Northwest is far better than more money and a fake one somewhere else. (Maybe they should have offered to build a wave pool to surf in as well).
Mark Few’s insistence on loyalty, integrity and family has also brought together an excellent bunch of assistants. From Tommy Loyd (in his 17th year with the program) and his hard work recruiting overseas, nearby and all over to the inventive strength and fitness routines put together for the players by Travis Knight. From Donny Daniels adding his considerable experience from places like UCLA and Cal State Fullerton, to Brian Michaelson in his 10th year with the Zags program scouting and developing players. Few and his assistants’ focus on family, loyalty, hard work, integrity, sincerity and honesty have created and defined Gonzaga basketball.
The current players say as much whenever they can, never hesitant to use the word “love,” when referring to the players, coaches, fans and the program. Zach Norvell calls Mark Few “one of the most humble guys in the world,” and in the next sentence demands that “he loves to compete” and that Few’s motto is “never settle. And always get better.” Rui Hachimura, after his considerable trials coming into Gonzaga with extremely limited English to play basketball for a team he somehow trusted to do the best they could for him, in English improved through the dedication of so many on the staff and at the University: “I just love being here. I love my coaches. I appreciate everybody.”
The love definitely goes back and forth, round and round between players and staff and fans and the rest of Zag nation. This is truly a “Family” in the best sense of the word.
~ Clark Karoses