By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Gonzaga comes to the Coliseum today to face West Virginia in a 9 p.m. game televised nationally on ESPN2 and, like it or not, it is Gonzaga and not the Mountaineers that has the star power to make this an attractive national game.
The Bulldogs have gone to the NCAA Tournament for 15 straight years, have had Adam Morrison win national player of the year and have sent guard John Stockton not only to the NBA but also to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Not bad for a private Catholic university with an undergraduate enrollment of 4,835 students that has not fielded a football team since 1941.
How does a small, private school like that become a national power in basketball?
“It’s in a great city,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins says first. “Spokane, Wash., is a great city. Everyone up there talks about what a great city Spokane is. They have a great airport, so you can get kids in and out of there. They’re in an area that wasn’t recruited until recently. People didn’t recruit Portland and Seattle. That, plus they have done a great job with their foreign connection.”
A great airport?
Oh, man, I hope WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen doesn’t read this or he’ll be asking the administration to build him a big-time airport in addition to a new meeting room, a turf practice field and a new indoor facility.
Gonzaga started basketball in 1907-08 but did not find its way to the NCAA Tournament until the 1995 season under Dan Fitzgerald, who was also athletic director.
In 1997 he turned the coaching job over to Dan Monson so he could concentrate on being athletic director, Fitzgerald leading Gonzaga to a conference regular-season title, but the best they could do was get an NIT bid.
The following season they would push their way into the national consciousness, earning a No. 10 seed in the NCAAs and then proceeding to defeat Minnesota, Stanford and Florida, 73-72, on a last-second tip.
Just when they appeared to be that year’s Cinderella team in the regional finals, they came across the eventual national champion Connecticut Huskies. Trailing by just a point with a minute to play, they ran out of pixie dust before losing, 67-62.
Such success got Monson the head coaching job at Minnesota with Mark Few taking over the job he still holds today, 15 years and 382 wins later.
“Few has done a great job with it. They’ve had a lot of stability there and an unbelievable fan base,” Huggins said.
The fan base started with a small arena that was always packed.
“When they moved into the other bigger place, it continued because it had become the winter thing to do in Spokane,” Huggins said.
Indeed, it was the thing to do.
Monson — upon finishing his coaching career, came back to Spokane, as did Jud Heathcote, known for winning a national championship at Michigan State as Magic Johnson’s coach — began his career coaching high school basketball for 14 years in Spokane.
“Who would ever have thought Jud would go back to Spokane, but he’s there at every game, and just having John Stockton grow up and go to school there didn’t hurt them any,” Huggins said.
Neither did having Adam Morrison as the centerpiece on the 2006 team that went to the Sweet 16.
“They have the profile of what it takes to get something like that going,” Huggins said. “Obviously, everyone doesn’t do it, but they have the resources to be able to do that.”
Actually, Gonzaga’s formula is similar to many basketball schools that have built themselves into national powers.
Think of it for a minute ... St. John’s, Villanova, Georgetown ... all of them in great cities with great airports, a strong recruiting base and a lot of resources.
The formula works, sometimes to different degrees, for there are similar schools following the same approach that have worked to different degrees. We’re talking Duquesne, St. Louis, Detroit, St. Bonaventure ... all of them at one time players on the national scene and able to compete with schools from the big football conferences.
In many ways this is what makes college basketball and the NCAA Tournament what it is. The power schools often recruit players who stay a year or two while these other schools have more stability in their rosters so that a VCU or a George Mason or Gonzaga can come along and play deeply into the tournament and capture the imagination of a nation.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.