Mark Few was one of the few who saw Gonzaga becoming a national power

Rick Barnes was there. And Mike Montgomery and Bobby Cremins. Each one of them had a Final Four appearance on his record. Gary Williams and Jim Harrick both had NCAA championship rings. Steve Lavin, the UCLA coach, came up from SoCal. ESPN’s Jay Bilas made the trip all the way from North Carolina. Where were they? A thousand miles from everywhere, if we’re going to be honest.

Mark Few had been head coach at Gonzaga just four years at that point. Gonzaga was a nice little story in the world of college basketball. It was the mid-major program that had stunned everyone to reach the Elite Eight in 1999 and then, despite the departure of head coach Dan Monson for Minnesota, followed that up with a couple of Sweet 16s.

People knew who Gonzaga was now, but in September 2003, they did not know what it would become. Only Few imagined that. We should have known, though. Merely by looking around that weekend — at the list of basketball dignitaries Few convinced to wipe out a weekend from their late-summer schedules and spend up to five hours on a plane to be a part of a charity golf tournament and black-tie dinner to benefit Coaches Vs. Cancer — we should have had an idea what was in store.

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Spending that weekend in Spokane, Wash., was like being given a tour of Steve Jobs’ garage in 1976. Except everyone got to stay at the Davenport and play the Coeur d’Alene Resort course.

“When a head coaching job would open up and I’d mention that he ought to consider it, he’d be sitting on his back porch and say, ‘I think I’m good,'” Bilas, who served as emcee at the dinner, told Sporting News. “I would tell him, ‘You could win it there.’ And he would say, ‘We can win it here.’ I didn’t believe that. It didn’t seem real. I think he was way ahead of everybody there.

“The vision of, ‘Hey, we can be No. 1 here,’ that seemed crazy to me when he said that.”

Saturday, Gonzaga will appear in its second NCAA Final Four, as the favorite to win its first national championship, carrying a perfect record into its semifinal game against UCLA. The Zags reached the No. 1 poll ranking for the first time in February 2013, earned their first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed that March, played in their first NCAA championship game in 2017 and completed their first undefeated regular season with a comeback victory against BYU in the West Coast Conference title game last month.

MORE: Can Gonzaga become most dominant NCAA Tournament team since 1985?

Gonzaga has recruited McDonald’s All-Americans. It has produced NBA lottery picks. The team flies to road games using private aircraft. The team everyone now calls the Zags has become a major power in the sport. Anyone who refers to the program as a mid-major either doesn’t know the subject or is actively attempting to demean Gonzaga’s accomplishments.

This all was Mark Few’s vision. So often, though, someone who innovates in the way he has, who disrupts norms, is powered by an uncommon personality: gregarious, overbearing, insistent, irrationally demanding, perhaps even eccentric. Few could be your neighbor who works for an insurance broker. He’d be a star at his company, but he never would remind you of that.

“I had known Mark when he was an assistant there,” Williams told SN. “Then when he got the head job, we stayed in touch. I think the thing that appeals to a lot of people is, he’s such a nice guy. It’s genuine. I don’t think there’s anything phony about Mark Few.”

When Barnes was head coach at Clemson, he met Few at the 1997 Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Zags and Tigers played in the championship game. Four years later, they met again in “The Last Frontier” at the Great Alaska Shootout. It’s a wonder they stayed friends, because the Zags won again.

Barnes agreed to make the trip to Spokane because of his respect for Mark and his wife, Marcy, and the work they were attempting to do to aid Coaches Vs. Cancer.

“Mark is one of those guys, once you meet him, he is real and authentic,” Barnes told SN. “He’s one of the really good guys. He’s like all of us. He wants to win that last game more than anybody. We all do that.

“I kid him all the time because when people talk about how he plays tough non-league schedules, I tell him, ‘You should, because from January on, you don’t play anybody.'”

Jokes and taunts about the relative strength of the West Coast Conference are something Few has chosen to endure, or ignore, because it has allowed him to remain in the community where he wants to live coaching the program he wants to coach. He loves the outdoor lifestyle that is available in the Pacific Northwest, particular fly fishing, and has some flexibility other successful coaches don’t because the program’s success is hard to challenge.

When the Zags reached the Elite Eight in 1999 and lost close to eventual champion Connecticut, that was only the second NCAA Tournament appearance, ever, for the Bulldogs.

Bill Grier was an assistant coach at Gonzaga then, having joined Few and Monson on Dan Fitzgerald’s staff in 1991. In his first season, the Bulldogs arrived at the West Coast Conference Tournament hoping to, for the first time, win a game. One game. They’d been in the league for six years, never done it. It was a huge deal to make the championship game and lose to Doug Christie’s Pepperdine squad.

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Monson took over in 1997, and the squad including Casey Calvary, Richie Frahm and Matt Santangelo drove that initial Elite Eight run. As every other coach in his position would have (except Few, obviously), Monson accepted a multimillion-dollar offer to become head coach at Minnesota.

Few was offered the chance to replace Monson. By 2003, work already had begun on the McCarthey Athletic Center, which would replace the old “Kennel.” Even as a mid-major, the Zags had outgrown the 2,500-seat capacity of what is now known as the Charlotte Y. Martin Center. The McCarthey Center gave the Zags a first-rate home court, and the capacity of 6,000 meant the Zags remained a highly in-demand ticket.

Few received lots of interest from big-time programs, even college basketball “blue bloods,” after those Sweet 16s. The names coming after him became even grander as the success persisted through the ’00s. Few hasn’t budged.

“He always had this vision. Why can’t we do this here?” Grier, now an assistant coach at Colorado, told SN. “He was the only one. He had a tremendous belief and conviction. What they’ve done now? No. I didn’t think it was possible. It’s crazy how far it’s come.”

Williams moved from American to Boston College to Ohio State because that sort of climb made perfect sense, and it worked beautifully. He returned home to Maryland because it was his alma mater, and there he won the 2002 NCAA championship with the Terps and completed a Hall of Fame career.

“A lot of times you think about that next job: Do I want to coach in the Pac-12? The Big Ten? Mark has found peace in being at Gonzaga, not just with the success but with his family, the lifestyle,” he said. “It looks like he wants to see it through for his career. I think it would be great if he did that.”

Williams admires Few’s strategic flexibility, the willingness to find an approach that works best with a particular group of players. With the 2020-21 Zags, who have two point guards (Jalen Suggs and Andrew Nembhard), two wings who can move and pass (All-American Corey Kispert and Joel Ayayi) and a center who has few skill limitations (Drew Timme), they’ve become a team whose excellence begins with ball movement.

“You get so tired of seeing another screen-and-roll, and he doesn’t rely on that,” Williams said. “He really gets guys involved, and you better move in his offense. You can tell: That’s one thing that really bothers Mark, if guys stand in his offense.

“Every guy that’s out there, no matter what he averages, is a passer. If a guy is open, you better get that guy the ball. He seems to find guys who have real talent and are willing to play that style and probably could go somewhere else and score more points if they wanted to.”

Bilas sees that reflected in the number of former Gonzaga players who have remained in, or returned to, Spokane after their basketball careers were completed.

He says Zags basketball is “built on the same basis as any great organization is: It’s built on values and togetherness and hard work. You’re not going to build something lasting without that sort of stable foundation,” Bilas said. “They were guard-oriented. They were offensively oriented, and the teams that would beat them would be someone like Michigan State. They’d get hammered on the glass and they’d say, ‘We’ve got to get better here. We’ve got to get better here.’ And they would recruit guys who were ultra-competitive, good guys.

“They’re all smart and engaging, have other interests, but when it’s time to play they’ll fight you.”

Few had the idea for a Coaches Vs. Cancer fundraiser in Spokane after he and Marcy were invited to New York to play in an event arranged by Jim and Julie Boeheim. The Fews believed a similar weekend in Spokane would go well.

In 2002, Jerid Keefer was fresh out of grad school at Gonzaga, working at Jack and Dan’s tavern and “firing resumes all over the country” in search of a job in athletics. While he was earning a master’s degree in sports management and administration, he had helped with the booster club golf tournament. So the Fews “recruited” him to run the Coaches Vs. Cancer event. Like Gonzaga basketball, they all have come a long way.

Organizing was a family affair, in more ways than one. Several of the coaches’ wives were involved in planning, and several, including Marcy, had young children.

“You look back on those meetings, and there were a lot of diapers being changed,” Keefer told SN. “It’s funny how looking at the old pictures, you tend to get a little nostalgic. To be able to do that in your fourth year as head coach, I think it speaks to the vision that Mark always had — but, at the same time, the friendships and relationships and respect people in the industry had for him. You’re leaning on those friendships, not only with getting the celebrities to visit, but also with sponsors. It was a well-intentioned way to give back to the community.”

The Coaches Vs. Cancer event ran from 2002-14, and the next year it progressed — of course — into a much larger occasion now known as “The Showcase.” It now benefits an organization called the Community Cancer Fund, which has built a Ronald McDonald House in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and another in Spokane. Keefer, who serves on the CCF board, said the idea was “to keep more money local and make more of an impact here. Research is fantastic, but we wanted to impact other areas of cancer patients’ journey.”

The Showcase is scheduled for July 29-31 this year. The entire weekend now is held in Coeur d’Alene, with the golf still at the resort course with its famous floating green, which can be moved to make the hole either impossible or slightly less impossible. One literally must take a boat from the tee and can wave at golf balls left behind in the lake on the way.

Entertainment at the most recent Showcase was presented by country superstar Keith Urban, and they previously featured John Fogerty, Sheryl Crow, Aloe Blacc and Adam Levine. Celebrity guests have included Wayne Gretzky, Charles Barkley, Jerry Rice and Anthony Michael Hall.

Keefer said the format change has allowed the Fews to remain deeply involved in the event but no longer serve as its focal point. “The one thing they did not like about the weekend . . . they did not want the spotlight. With the CCF, they’re a huge part of it. They’re just not the face of it. They’re able to do great work in the community and have it not be about them.

“Whether we’re talking about the charitable side or Gonzaga basketball, when it’s all boiled down, that’s really the cool thing about Mark and Marcy Few . . . I look at those pictures, and they’re still the same as they were 20 years ago. It’s crazy to think of what they’ve created and to see it now, today.”

The Showcase, since its inception, has raised almost $17 million for the Community Cancer Fund. It should be no surprise to see that something Mark Few supervised grew beyond what anyone might have imagined. When he has an idea, it starts big, and it grows. Bigger.

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