SPOKANE, Wash. -- There I stood Thursday on the banks of the Spokane River, fly fishing for trout on an unseasonably warm day with one of America's brightest young coaching lights. Gonzaga coach Mark Few was a few feet away, balancing himself on a rock while rhythmically casting his line into the clear, rolling waters.
I, on the other hand, suck at casting. When I flick my rod backwards, the hook gets caught in the trees behind me, and I have to repeatedly ask Few to bail me out. If the fly travels 10 feet before landing in the water, I consider it a moral victory. As we fished for about 90 minutes, only two thoughts were at the fore of my mind: Do not poke Mark in the eye with the hook. And do not, under any circumstances, fall into the water. Suffice to say, the trout were safe with me on the hunt.
The only thing more remarkable than the fact that I might actually go fly fishing is that I was doing it with a major college basketball coach, during the season, less than an hour before the start of practice. Few, to say the least, is not your typical coach, just like Gonzaga is not your typical program. I did not once mention the phrase "mid-major" to Few because I didn't want to spoil such a nice day, but I think he and the school should embrace that label. By any definition, Gonzaga is a mid-major program, which makes their current run of elite success one of the most remarkable stories in all of sports.
Gonzaga first broke through as a Cinderella story when it reached the Elite Eight of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. The Zags were within a couple of minutes of becoming the first mid-major to reach the Final Four before they lost by five points to Connecticut, the eventual champ. Most mid-majors peter out after making such a run, but incredibly, Gonzaga has since gone back to the tournament six consecutive times. It has finished in the top 10 of the final AP poll three of the last four years. Though they lost a first-round draft pick in center Ronny Turiaf, they begin this season ranked seventh and have a bona fide national player of the year candidate in junior forward Adam Morrison. How many major-major programs can say all that?
That has obviously made the 41-year-old Few very attractive to a lot of high-profile schools, but he has never even come close to leaving Spokane. After spending the day with him Thursday, I can see why. Two years ago, he and his wife built an elegant house on 10 acres of property, with a spectacular backyard view of a rolling valley below and downtown Spokane in the distance. It takes him less than 10 minutes to drive to work, and that includes the stop at a drive-by coffee stand. Few first came to Gonzaga as a graduate assistant in '90. He has known his top assistant, Bill Grier, since they played for rival high schools outside of Eugene, Ore. Grier has been on Gonzaga's staff since '92, and he likes it there so much that last spring he turned down the chance to be the head coach at Loyola Marymount. The vast majority of assistants would have jumped at that opportunity, but Grier, like Few, stayed put.
If the fishing and the lifestyle didn't demonstrate why Few is so reluctant to leave, then that afternoon's practice was the closing argument. Many people have said this is Gonzaga's most talented team ever, and while I'm not quite ready to go that far, I can report that this is the quickest team I've seen at the school. We're used to thinking of Gonzaga as fundamentally sound but athletically challenged. Not this group. The Zags have an embarrassment of riches on the perimter, and they have all the ingredients -- size, depth, experience, guard play -- that you look for in a Final Four candidate.
This rosy outlook is complicated by injuries to two of Gonzaga's top six players. Senior forward Errol Knight, their best defender, has been battling chronic pain in his left knee and had it scoped early this week to clean it out. Redshirt freshman Josh Heytvelt, an athletic 6-foot-11 center who was a major recruiting coup, is battling a stress reaction in his left foot. Neither player practiced Thursday but they both hope to be back in time for the Maui Invitaional over Thanksgiving.