How Gonzaga's Mark Few went from an unknown assistant to one of the best college basketball coaches ever

Former Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth shared behind-the-scenes details on Few's rise
Photo by Erik Smith, Myk Crawford

Mark Few was destined to be the next head coach of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program — it was just a matter of time.

Dan Monson, months after guiding the Bulldogs on an improbable run to the 1999 Elite Eight, was being heavily courted by Minnesota to be the Gophers next head coach. Monson had turned down the job before, but eventually, the opportunity and family ties to the Big Ten were enough to pull the Spokane native away from the Inland Northwest. 

“That was tough. It was tough on Dan, it was tough on us,” former Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said. “But not for the wrong reasons. It was the right move at the right time for him. He couldn’t foresee any more than any of us could foresee that we were going to become who we would become.”

Roth had the foresight to put together a contingency plan, though. Monson was a hot head coaching commodity, but so was Few, who was “one of the hot assistants in the country” and was respected as a recruiter at the time, according to Roth. 

In fact, Few had received some praise from then-Pitt head coach Ben Howland, who had been an assistant coach at Gonzaga in the early 1980s. Knowing Howland and probably dozens of head coaches and athletic directors across the country wanted Few on their bench, Roth decided to be proactive. 

Before Gonzaga’s magical run in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Roth approached Few with a guarantee to be the next head coach of the Bulldogs once Monson moved on.

“I guaranteed Mark the job halfway through [the 1998-99 season] and put it in writing that if for some reason, Monson were to leave, [Few] would be the next head coach,” Roth said. “The word was already out in college basketball that Mark was a great recruiter and one of the hot assistants in the country.”

Gonzaga University’s president at the time, Father Robert Spitzer, S.J., was in a panic following Monson’s decision to leave. Father Spitzer had just been named the school’s president in September 1998 and didn’t have much experience in college athletics. Apparently, he had forgotten that Roth had already put in a contingency plan for the next head coach of the men’s basketball team.

“I called Father Spitzer up to tell him Dan’s taking the [Minnesota head coach] job, they’re holding a press conference in another hour, and Father was great, he gave it the, ‘OK, OK … what are we going to do? What are we going to do Mike?'" Roth said. “I said, ‘Father, I’ve already told you … Mark Few’s going to be our next coach.'”

“That’s great, that’s great … which one is he?” Spitzer replied.

It didn’t take long for Spitzer, Spokane and the rest of college basketball to remember Few’s name. Under his guidance, the Zags have never missed the NCAA Tournament and are currently riding nine straight appearances in the Sweet 16. This past season, Few became the third-fastest head coach in NCAA Division-I men’s basketball history to reach 800 career wins.

With success came opportunities to coach elsewhere. It’s no secret that Power Five schools across the country have called up Few over the years with the intent of bringing him in as their next head coach. If he could take Gonzaga to a national championship game, what could he do at a program with unlimited resources?

Once again, Roth was prepared for such an occasion.

“What we did for years with Mark was, it would usually be in February before the NCAA Tournament, that we would sit down and [say] ‘here’s what we’re going to do.’ So that when the phone calls come in, I could be upfront with Mark,” Roth said. “We were able to show Mark, look, we’re being upfront with this. We’re rewarding you for what you’ve done for Gonzaga to the limit we can.”

“The biggest factor was Mark’s belief that we were on the same page, that we could win it all. That we could win a national championship at Gonzaga. So why do we have to go anywhere else?”

Roth shared many more stories on a special episode of Gonzaga Nation. You can watch the full show with Dan Dickau and Roth below.

WATCH THE FULL MIKE ROTH EPISODE:

Produced by Thomas Gallagher.

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Cole Forsman

COLE FORSMAN

Cole Forsman is a reporter for Gonzaga Nation, a member of Sports Illustrated’s FanNation network. Cole holds a degree in Journalism and Sports Management from Gonzaga University.