- Gonzaga technically plays in a small conference (the WCC), but the program is hardly a mid-major, a notion the Zags affirmed with their run to the national championship game against North Carolina on Monday night.
GLENDALE, Ariz. — For eight seconds of an 18-year-and-counting tenure at Gonzaga, Mark Few was unable to generate a coherent thought. He had been asked to describe the growth in the program’s basketball resources in his time on campus. He sought out the words to contextualize what he had to work with then and what he had to work with now, on Sunday, just one day before the first national championship game in the school’s history. And for several beats, the enormity of the change defied mankind’s capacity to form a complete sentence.
After agonizing to unpack the idea for those eight seconds—uhhh, basketball resources…I mean…I don’t know—Few settled on an appropriate measurement for the evolution. “Zero to, like, 500 percent,” he said. “You wouldn’t even recognize the place.”
But if it’s a less abstract reference point you’re after, there’s one conveniently available at University of Phoenix Stadium: North Carolina, the team occupying the opposite bench for the 2017 title tilt. No, do not be fooled about the dynamic at play on the floor on Monday evening. This is not Gonzaga’s moment to close the gap between a boutique basketball operation and the college hoops bluebloods at long last. There is no gap. The gap is gone, way gone, bridged by Few’s program both performing and spending at a level commensurate with many of its power conference peers, a group that includes the school looking to add a 21st national championship to its collection at Gonzaga’s expense.
There is really no appreciable difference between Few’s program and the ones in a more regularly exalted class—and this only partially regards the Bulldogs’ 37-1 record and their standing as the best team in the 2016-17 season, in the estimation of many analytics. Few can’t brag about banners like his good friend, occasional poker buddy and hoops powerhouse foreman Roy Williams can. But his school can spend $7,261,657 on men’s basketball in 2015, according to the latest figures reported by the U.S. Department of Education. North Carolina’s expenses for the same time period: $8,667,111.
Of the teams at this year’s Final Four, Gonzaga spent nearly as much on hoops as Oregon ($7,785,909) and more than South Carolina ($7,080,820). It is not an outrageously more thrifty operation than last year’s champion, Villanova ($9,447,148). A program that spends that way, that charters to games and recruiting visits, that has a new $24 million practice facility opening this fall, that boasts McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster…well, that sort of program is not trying to crash the basketball aristocracy. It has its own fine china set out already.
“We're no longer, you know, the little however you described it,” Few said to another questioner Sunday. “We don't pretend or think we're anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky. But I think we do feel we've been a national entity for quite some time. The product, the brand, the players, the team that we're putting out there on the floor—we feel we can compete with anybody in the country on any given night. We understand we don't have that tradition that dates back 40, 50, 60 years. And so we defer to that. But we also think that this is the national brand and national entity. And we're not going anywhere.”
At one point, the have-versus-have-not narrative was entirely, and almost hilariously, valid.
Tommy Lloyd joined Gonzaga’s staff in 2000 as a $1,000-a-month administrative assistant. There was no basketball secretary. There was no video coordinator. There was Few, three full-time assistants and, as Lloyd recalls, maybe a work-study student who came by to help prepare recruiting mailers. Lloyd’s 15-year-old son, Liam, was born when Lloyd didn’t even have health insurance through the school. “That’s how far we’ve come,” Lloyd said in the locker room Sunday.
Another measure of how far they’ve come is an assistant like Lloyd, who could reasonably be in the mix for head coaching gigs elsewhere, determining that Gonzaga has grown into a destination job. “We’ve been rewarded for good work, which I think is the right way and a really cool way to do it,” Lloyd said. “We didn’t have a practice facility. We’re building one now. So we’ve earned that. We didn’t fly private at the start. We’re doing it now. We didn’t have private plane hours for recruiting. We do now. That stuff has come over time. And we appreciate it. But we’ve never allowed that to have us veer off our path and our process. Our process has stayed the same even as some of the amenities have come.”
The combination obliterates any notion that Gonzaga has something to prove Monday. In fact, this may represent the greatest tribute to its ascent: All it can do is reconfirm that spending well and coaching well is a sure path to championship contention.
“I actually just read through the story of David and Goliath yesterday,” North Carolina forward Justin Jackson said. “I don’t think that’s what this is at all.”
Gonzaga is not among the sport’s most profligate spenders. According to those Department of Education figures, it does not throw money at basketball with the vigor of Kentucky ($18,910,412), Duke ($17,890,632), Indiana ($12,129,479) or Kansas ($11,636,720), by way of notable examples. But prorate the expenditures for a school with less than 5,000 undergrads and no football team, and this seems like a distinction without much difference. If Gonzaga and North Carolina are devoting similar resources to their programs and eliciting similar results such as enviable recruiting hauls and championship-game berths, then these are programs operating on the same plane, in virtually every sense.
On Sunday, the coaches of those programs reminisced about a late-night adventure during the Sweet 16 in 2009. Gonzaga and North Carolina were set to play in Memphis, and before both teams made their way to the city, Williams called Few. The Tar Heels coach asked about Gonzaga’s arrival schedule and their hotel location. Williams then hatched a plan: Once the midnight curfew for players passed that Wednesday, both coaching staffs would pile into courtesy cars, drive to Tunica, Miss., and kill a few hours playing craps and losing money.
So they did. “I think I had six, seven guys in a Ford Fiesta,” Few recalled. “And I think Roy had the same.” Everyone duly rolled the dice and lightened their wallets. Then, on the way back, Williams was pulled over by a cop—a car bearing giant NCAA logos on the road at 3 a.m. can be a bit suspicious, after all. Williams subsequently tried to goad the officer into stopping Few and his crew when they came by a few minutes later. (He did not, which Williams said ruined his day.)
The point of the story was to note a prank one coach tried to pull on another. It might also be said that, even then, on a night in Tunica eight years ago, Gonzaga and North Carolina were at the same table. And they most certainly are now.