There are a number of ways to describe the ingredients in the secret sauce that Mark Few has brewed at Gonzaga to create one of college basketball’s most remarkable success stories. But perhaps Few’s own description of “Family First” may best explain the string of 20 consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament under his leadership.
And this season of year-long undefeated number 1 ranking may be the pinnacle of the two decades of the 58-year-old Few’s leadership with possibly an NCAA title in the offing.
The key ingredient for Few’s formulae isn’t the model of other major schools to find and recruit the best basketball players available.
Thus this column, based on an interview I had with Few early this week, isn’t about the basketball prowess he has created but about the man whose focus is first on the players, coaches, and fans as family and the culture he has created around that focus.
“We need to have the shared feeling of like a mom-and-pop store rather than a supermarket,” Few offered. “We need to keep the mom-and-pop feel and charm and the Spokane component and the Jesuit component are parts of that.”
But it’s also interesting to hear the comments of those close to Few, including 20-year assistant Tommy Lloyd, who has guided Gonzaga’s global recruiting that has created a leading-edge for Gonzaga and is a story in its own right, and two-year assistant Roger Powell, 37.
“Mark really presses the issue of spending family time and I’ve learned a lot about coaching in my two years,” said Powell, a 2005 graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a Big-Ten all-star. “Mark is demanding but he gives people the freedom to fulfill. He demands excellence but I’ve had the freedom to grow.”
The focus on international as a key part of Gonzaga’s recruiting horizon has been an area where Gonzaga has been hugely successful over the years since Lloyd, a Whitman grad who played several seasons in Germany and Australia, began convincing international standouts to come to GU.
Gonzaga has been credited with establishing an overseas foothold that few, if any, competitors have been able to match
“I think it’s an area where a lot of people don’t know how to navigate,” said Lloyd, who keeps in touch with scouts and keeps his eye on various national team rosters.
“In some cases, the players from overseas have been the most endearing and in some ways, their capacity to learn is way better,” said Few. “I think it’s partly that they learn multiple languages.”
“They’ve had no problem integrating into the program or the family atmosphere,” Few added.
Lloyd helped steer international past standouts Ronny Turiaf, Elias Harris, Kelly Olynyk, Kevin Pangos, Przemek Karnowski, Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Juan Batista, Rob Sacre, and Kyle Wiltjer to Gonzaga. Five of the players on this year’s roster are from other countries.
Ironically, Gonzaga, 63 years ago when it was an unknown little school in a small town in Eastern Washington, suddenly found itself with national attention because of a 7-foot-3 Frenchman named Jean Claude Lefebvre who had enrolled at Gonzaga to play basketball.
Lefebvre made a brief splash but returned home midway through his sophomore season. But a
Sports Illustrated article summed up his importance to Gonzaga basketball history saying his time there "may well have given birth to a new dimension in basketball recruiting and brought an end to isolationist thinking among domestic proselyters.”
So in terms of that “birth of a new dimension in basketball recruiting,” Gonzaga in the Few era, having Lloyd with attention to the international prospects, has brought that new dimension.
So I have to explain how a writer whose claim to fame since retiring is writing Flynn’s Harp managed to get an interview with the most sought-after coach in America, one who routinely turns down interviews because he doesn’t have high regard for personal visibility opportunities.
Thank a mutual friend named John Rudolf, who has a home on Hayden Lake in Northern Idaho where Few also has a home, allowing coaches and families to hang out together through the summer. In addition Rudolf and Few regularly play pickleball with coaches and friends with such competitive intensity that Few refers to those matches as “Bangerball,” Rudolf told me with a laugh.
“So what did you say to Mark to get him to let me have an interview?” I asked Rudolf, “I said you had the best credentials of anyone as a grad of St. Aloysius (the grade school where his sister-in-law is principal and his four kids have attended), Gonzaga Prep, and GU.”
Rudolf, a longtime successful investment advisor who now entertains himself (and those who accompany him) with long hikes and bike rides, racquet sports, and what he jokingly refers to as “occasional special challenges like climbing Kilimanjaro and Denali,” donated The Rudolf Fitness Center to the students. Named for his father, Kermit, the center provides cardio and weight equipment as well as an indoor track and basketball and volleyball courts and a pool.
I asked Rudolf for his thoughts about Few, who was an assistant coach for a decade before succeeding Don Monson, who was hired away by Minnesota after the 1999 season which ended with the Zags making a spectacular run from virtually nowhere to the Final Eight in the NCAA tournament. Thereafter, the NCAA tournament became a routine under Few.
“Few has a special talent of being able every year to build a new team-oriented to a ‘we first’ bond and attitude from a new group of disparate, strong individuals, each with his own personal career hopes and goals,” Rudolf said. “Under Mark’s leadership, these exceptional student-athletes develop from a focus on individual success to a primary focus on team first.“
So are there some targeted prospects who don't get to Gonzaga, I asked Few. And he said, "a prospect who expects a lot of recruiting attention or numerous visits isn't our kind of kid."
I asked Few about what I was told are frequent phone conversations with other coaches and he said: “I enjoy hearing other coaches' experiences because I’m continually trying to grow as a coach, as well as a parent and a leader.” As a parent, Few and his wife, Marcy, have three sons and a daughter.
Another friend of mine who knows Few told me that he thinks the remarkable thing about Few as a coach “is a unique ability to get every player into a zone, not just one or two players.”
I asked Few about that and he described a “zone.” “There is a perfect point where confidence is at an all-time high. It’s not arrogance it’s that your anxiety is at just the right level, pushing peak performance but not being nervous or questioning yourself.”
I can think of others besides basketball players who could benefit from learning how to enter that zone.