Now that coach Mark Few's Gonzaga Bulldogs have made it to the NCAA basketball tournament's "Sweet 16" for the eighth consecutive time, the hoop dynasty that he has created will logically dominate much of the media attention at the tournament.
But what has begun to attract similar media attention is the impact Few's 24-year tenure of dramatic basketball success has had on the university, its campus, its student body and its supporters.
Few's Bulldogs have had a total of 11 appearances in the top 16 and reached the national title game twice in the past six years, losing to North Carolina in 2017 and Baylor two years ago in the Zags only loss of the 2021 season.
Of course, that 'Sweet 16" string and two championship games are only a small part of what Few, who turned 60 on December 27, and the program he has built have accomplished in attracting visibility and support for the once little-known Spokane school.
Few was only 37 when he assumed the head coaching role, having been an assistant in 1999 when the Zags made their first NCAA tournament appearance and became the Cinderella team, making it to the final eight before losing.
And Few's team making it to the NCAA tournament in 2000, and most years following, generated strong alumni support and proved that athletic success can lead to success for the university.
"Gonzaga basketball success has been instrumental in building our brand, fostering alumni pride and introducing the university to families nationwide," said GU Communications Manager Dale Goodwin.
One agreed-upon aspect of Few is that he is a nice guy, allowing me to suggest, in a column on him after the devastating 2017 championship game 71-65 loss to North Carolina, that he laid to rest the oft-quoted axiom that "nice guys finish last."
His nice-guy trait was on display in the nationally televised interview after that game when Few declined the opportunity to blame the referees for the loss, despite a couple of calls generally viewed as errors, saying instead, “The referees were excellent.”
In addition to his “nice guy" image, Few has a focus on what he described to me in an interview a couple of years ago as "family," meaning a focus first on the players but also the coaches, students and fans as family. Mark Few is described as having 'An incredible focus and an iron will'
Few and his wife, Marcy, have three boys and a girl so his focus on family obviously begins at home.
It may be easier for a small school with just under 5,000 undergrad students in a city of 233,000 residents to develop a family focus but the family aspect has been imprinted on regents and prominent alums as well.
Jack McCann, a retired GU trustee 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.
Thus McCann and others were 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 and North Idaho developer who along with two others came up with the idea of using their own planes on away-game trips, once explained to me the reason for that commitment.
“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.”
And the generous help from supporters of the charters allows them to have closer roles in the Zag family, traveling on the plane with the team and having seats near the bench for those away games.
Among non-alum supporters who view themselves as part of that family is John Rudolf, a successful investor, active athlete, and long a fan of Gonzaga and Few.
Rudolf, who opens his Hayden Lake, ID, home to the university for student retreats, lauded the university for making the decision to "pour the money from basketball back into campus facilities" with a dozen new athletic, academic, and student life buildings. But he also noted the importance of Gonzaga's decision to focus part of the investment on attracting prominent new faculty and creating new programs.
"There's no question of the positive economic impact basketball has had on Gonzaga, taking it from a small, little-known private school to a national-class university," said Rudolf.
Rudolf, who competes regularly with Few on the pickleball court, joked to me once that he helped all members of the Zag basketball team become pickleball stars.
I asked Rudolf for his thoughts about 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 told me “Under Mark’s leadership, these exceptional student-athletes develop from a focus on individual success to a primary focus on team first.“
'Mark has a unique blend of personal and leadership characteristics, all wrapped up in a low-key Huck Finn persona,” Rudolf said.
“When involved in anything important to him, he has an incredible focus and iron will, balanced with a sardonic humor about the often inexplicable aspects of life, people, and his coaching profession.”
And Few's team making it to the NCAA tournament in 2000, and most years following, has generated strong alumni support and proved that athletic success can lead to success for the university. including sports facilities.
First among those was the 2004 debut of the $26 million McCarthey Athletic Center, home of The Kennel, which opposing teams fear because of the fan noise that is generated there.
The McCarthey Family, led by Tom and Phil, former owners of the Salt Lake Tribune, are alums who have been long-time supporters of the school, including major contributions to the McCarthey Center.
Another is the Kermit M. Rudolf Fitness Center, named after John’s father with a major contribution from him. The Center’s amenities include cardio and weight training areas, three full-sized basketball or volleyball courts, and a pool.
Then was the April 2018 dedication of the Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement, named for Pat and Sandy Volkar of Coeur d’Alene, ID
“Wow,” said Volkar at the dedication of the four-story 51,000-square-foot facility that now houses a salute to the school’s history and athletic hall of fame as well as counseling rooms and areas for men’s and women’s basketball teams and other student-athletes
Volkar become interested in the school after attending his first Zags’ basketball game in December 2011 at the urging of Stone, who was involved with his major Coeur d’Alene development at the time.
The Volkar Center enhances the Zags’ ability to “chase three things,” said Mike Roth, then athletic director: “winning sports programs, winning in the classroom, and winning in the community.”
Roth, who during his 20-year career played an integral role in the success of the men’s basketball program, retired a year ago, turning the job over to his respected associate AD, Chris Standiford.
A final note in expanding the Gonzaga family is the degree of interest basketball has generated in prospective students. University research folks confirmed for me that freshman enrollment has risen from 500 in the fall of 1998 to 1,217 last fall and applications have risen from 1,841 in the fall of 1998 to 9,887 last fall.