GLENDALE, ARIZ. – A day after his former Gonzaga team beat Xavier to reach its first-ever Final Four, Dan Monson got a call from Zags coach Mark Few.
Few and Monson worked together as assistants for nearly a decade on Dan Fitzgerald’s Gonzaga staff in Spokane, Wash. They were both part of the Zags’ first NCAA tournament team in 1995. Monson replaced Fitzgerald as head coach in 1997. Few replaced Monson after he left to take the Minnesota job in 1999 — and he’s been there ever since, building an elite program.
Few hasn’t forgotten Monson or any of the players who have passed through the program.
He invited all former Zags players and coaches to a team reception Thursday, and he asked Monson and his family to sit close by when Gonzaga plays South Carolina in the national semifinals on Saturday.
Few told Monson: “I want everybody to know they’re a part of this.”
Said Monson, who just finished his 10th season as coach at Long Beach State: “That to me shows what separates that program from most. How they feel it’s really been a 20-year process to get there.”
It was 22 years ago when the Zags used a midseason turnaround to reach their first NCAA tournament. Instead of panicking after opening West Coast Conference play with a 0-6 record, they managed to rally with 10 wins in their next 11 games, twice winning five in a row.
Monson fondly recalls senior guard John Rillie nailing 20 three-pointers in three games to lead Gonzaga to the West Coast tournament title and an automatic NCAA bid. The team was so excited to be there it made a quick exit in a first-round 24-point loss to Maryland.
“We didn’t know if Gonzaga could ever get to the NCAA tournament,” Monson said. “Back then going to the [tournament] was as unfathomable as going to the Final Four is now. It was a big thing. When I first got to Gonzaga [in 1988], it had never won a league tournament game.”
Fitzgerald told his assistants to not even bother recruiting players who had interest from Pac-10 schools. Gonzaga had a limited recruiting budget and resources.
Few and Monson, though, eventually decided to go after more talented prospects. They also encouraged their boss to put together a tougher nonconference schedule. It didn’t pay off right away. But in Monson’s first season as head coach in 1997-98, the Zags upset No. 5 Clemson 84-71 in the Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. They lost by only two at Michigan State. The following season many of those same players won a school-record 28 games and made a run to the Elite Eight.
“The one thing we had going for us was continuity,” Monson said. “Mark and I and Bill Grier we were all assistants for eight years together. We lived together. Mark’s dad married all three of us. We were all three in each other’s wedding. We had great continuity going. When we went through that run, we didn’t know any better. When we played Minnesota in that first [NCAA tournament] game, we thought we had a better team.”
But Monson eventually left for the Gophers job because the Spokane native didn’t feel like he could consistently win at that elite level with the Zags.
“If I would’ve believed in my heart that it was even possible from there, I would’ve never left,” Monson said. “You look at that time where Minnesota had just been there and they’re in the Big Ten.”
That’s why he left to replace Clem Haskins after the Gophers’ academic scandal. As he struggled to turn Minnesota into a winner during probation, Few took the team he and Monson built together to back-to-back Sweet 16s in his first two years as head coach. Players such as Matt Santangelo, Casey Calvary and Richie Frahm laid the foundation for the powerhouse program that Gonzaga is now in its first Final Four.
“Those guys are still friends of mine today,” Monson said. “I’m looking forward to seeing some of them at the Final Four. The thing that is so neat about Gonzaga is that everyone puts their hands into the huddle and says ‘family.’ And everybody tries to create that family atmosphere. Nobody’s done it better than them. Mark has just embraced that.”
Few has led the Zags to five Sweet 16 trips. He produced a national player of the year in Adam Morrison in 2006. But it took him 16 seasons to duplicate Monson’s feat and get Gonzaga back to the Elite Eight in 2015. Both times the program made it that far it lost to the eventual NCAA champion — Connecticut in 1999 and Duke two years ago.
Expectations are high for the Zags now.
“It’s 500 percent different,” Few said. “The school. How we travel. How we’re treated. We have a new arena. Everything is [different]. We have expectations. We’re expected to win. We’re expected to advance. We’re expected to get to the Final Four. If we don’t get to a Final Four, it’s a disaster or a failure.”
Monson isn’t surprised that his old program finally got to the Final Four this year. He thinks this is Few’s best team in 18 seasons and the path was favorable.
The Zags were once known solely as NBA star John Stockton’s alma mater, then they were the king of the midmajors. But with two more victories Gonzaga could soon be called the best college basketball team in America.
“If they win the national title, I don’t care what people call them,” Monson said. “They’re going to have to call them national champions.”