The Small School from Spokane: The Story of Gonzaga Basketball and its Rise to Fame
When college sports fans are asked to think of basketball blue bloods, they often come back with answers like Kentucky, Duke, or North Carolina. That makes sense. Each of these schools has at least five NCAA tournament championships, plays in a top conference with competitive teams and has a raucous fan base that packs every game as well as the comment sections of social media pages everywhere. So, when a small Catholic school from Spokane, Washington went from earning their first tournament bid in 1995 to a national powerhouse in 20 years, fans from across the country were blown away.
Background on Gonzaga & Their Basketball Program:
Total Undergrad Population- 5,210
# of Sports- 16 men's and women's teams
Conference- West Coast Conference (WCC)
# of Players Drafted to NBA- 24
Last March Madness Championship Win- Never
Yeah... not exactly the normal numbers one might expect to find when looking at one of the best basketball programs in the country. But, that is because the Gonzaga basketball program has undergone an immense transformation over its history, one worth exploring yet not publicized enough to be well known by the common fan. So, get your seatbelts ready as Let's Talk Sports dives deep into the history of Gonzaga Bulldogs basketball.
The Early Days:
Founded in the 1907-08 season, Gonzaga basketball started their run as a team in classic fashion, without a coach. However, they did somehow go 9-2 in their first season and eventually hired George Varnell to become the first coach of the Bulldogs. However, this wouldn't last long as after one 10-2 season Varnell left and the team hired William Mulligan. Yet again, this era lasted for one season as Mulligan was eventually replaced by Frank McKevitt, who led the Zags to a 8-1 record. This tumultuous early period (Gonzaga had 12 coaches in their first 20 seasons) is not uncommon among programs, but in Gonzaga's case it proved that the team did not need a reliable coach to thrive, as they had more winning seasons than not within that span.
Yet, throughout the next few decades they experienced similar instability, as they would not have a coach who coached more than 100 games and had a win percentage of over .550 until the late 1970s when Dan Fitzgerald started the first of two coaching terms at the program. However, this era was not without success eight NBA players were drafted in that span and the team won two conference regular season championships.
The Turning Point:
However, the real success started to come during Fitzgerald's reign as head coach/athletic director. In this span, which lasted from 1978-1997, Gonzaga won their first conference tournament and made their first appearance in March Madness. Additionally, they produced their first NBA star in John Stockton, who would go on to become the NBA's all-time leader in assists in steals. Although Gonzaga was not anything close to a blue blood or even a respectable team, this recent success had put them on the map.
Rise to Prominence:
After Fitzgerald left the program in 1997, the Bulldogs took a chance on Dan Monson, a young hotshot in a family of coaches (his father Don spent 14 seasons coaching college basketball) ready for his first head coaching job. Although he only stayed for two years, as Minnesota gave him a better offer that he would eventually accept, Monson led the Zags to a 52-17 record under his reign and led them to their first Elite Eight run in which they upset second seeded Stanford. This would eventually give Gonzaga just enough momentum to make their appearance on the big screen permanent.
Here to Stay:
The first thing Gonzaga did with this momentum was hire current coach Mark Few, who at the time was a longtime assistant of the program. Since then, Few has won two Naismith coach of the year awards, made two Final Fours, recruited twelve five stars and made TWENTY ONE straight March Madnesses. That is just the surface of his accomplishments, as Few has now won over 600 games with the team. As it turns out, when a team is the only good team in a non-Power 5 conference, they can rise to prominence quickly.
The next thing that the Zags did right was improving international recruiting. Although in 2021 recruiting the next star is constantly being done across the globe, Gonzaga were the pioneers of expanding this beyond our borders. In fact, the Bulldogs have produced nine NBA players from other countries under Few, including notable names such as Domantas Sabonis, Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke and Kelly Olynyk. By expanding their recruiting borders, the Zags were able to find more hidden gems and improve their reputation as recruiters and a team as a whole. With these improvments, the program was now able to recruit top players in the USA and truly compete with the best of the best. Although things didn't click immediately under Few as early exits in the tournament became commonplace for the Zags, the team finally started to come to full blue blood status in 2015, when they started their streak of six straight possible seasons (no March Madness in 2020) with a Sweet 16 appearance. In this span, the Bulldogs have won over 90% of their games.
Nowadays it seems impossible to talk about college basketball and not mention Gonzaga. The college basketball season kicks off in a few weeks and once again the Zags find themselves the favorites to win it all. However, they have yet to do so (one of their only drawbacks in their rise to power) and are challenged by other strong teams such as Kansas, Michigan, and Duke. Although the Bulldogs are easily going to make March Madness in a weak WCC, a championsip still might be a while away. But, this does beg the question if the school should switch to another conference like the PAC-12 for basketball to play a more respectable schedule. The school really doesn't have any serious intention of doing so, although rumors always run rampant about the possibility. But, this would give the conference another blue blood and cement Gonzaga's legacy as a top school in the sport. However, many could argue that their legacy belongs with the WCC and taking the school away would do a disservice to the school's history. With that being said, that concludes a history of how the Gonzaga Bulldogs rose from a small Catholic school in the corner of the country to one of college basketball's most feared teams within a matter of a few years.