by Howie Stalwick
Most people call it springtime. Mike Roth calls it "the Mark Few sweepstakes."
Roth, Few's boss at Gonzaga University, might be the most understanding athletic director in the nation. Not only does he let anyone and everyone talk to Few about coaching vacancies at other schools -- many, if not all of which can pay much more than Gonzaga -- but Roth sounds like he'd be insulted if he wasn't contacted by a top men's basketball program in need of a new coach.
"The last few years, there's been extreme interest in him every year," Roth says. "If I was at one of those other institutions, why wouldn't Mark Few be high on my list? I can't think of a reason."
Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA, Pittsburgh, Washington, Tennessee, South Carolina... Few's name has been linked to those jobs and more during his remarkable four-year run as head coach at Gonzaga. The one job Few is known to have been offered and rejected was at Washington last year, Roth says.
It's not just the 105-29 record and four straight NCAA tournament appearances that make Few such an attractive candidate to other schools. In a college basketball world slam-dunked of late by recruiting scandals, illegal player payments, academic fraud -- even an alleged murder among teammates at Baylor -- Few is the son of a preacher, and he plays the part.
"Mark is as close with his family as anyone I've ever been around," says longtime Gonzaga assistant coach Bill Grier, a close friend of Few since their college days at Oregon.
"Mark is able to take his positive personality and his positive outlook on life and apply it to coaching," adds Roth. "He's a good person who is a very good basketball coach."
"Mark does a really good job of managing people," assistant coach Leon Rice says. "He's strong in all areas. He's great with the players. He's great with his communication with them. He really cares about them, but he's going to push them hard."
The Bulldogs have bumped up Few's salary four straight years, but Roth says he's certain all of Few's suitors pay more than Gonzaga. GU releases few contract details, but it seems doubtful Few makes more than half the $1 million or so that is becoming increasingly standard in the total packages paid to many high-profile coaches. Money, however, isn't what motivates Few.
"He's extremely competitive," says Grier, who has been promised the head coaching job if Few ever leaves Gonzaga. "It doesn't matter if it's on the basketball court, golf or cards. When you're out fly-fishing with him, he wants to catch a lot more fish."
Few seems quite content to remain a big fish in a small pond at Gonzaga, at least for now. The married father of two small boys is currently building a new home on the South Hill, but he's careful to never rule out leaving for another college or even the NBA someday.
"We have a very unique situation here," says Few, who remains so low-key and unassuming that his home phone number is listed in the phone book. "We're competing at a national elite level, yet we're able to maintain our values, ethics and family atmosphere. We haven't sold out."
"He has very strong family values," Grier says. "That's why it's such a great fit with Gonzaga. The university itself is one of strong, traditional, family values, and so is the community."
Few, 40, never played college basketball (interestingly, neither did Rice, and Grier only played in junior college). Few's dreams of a small college baseball and basketball career were thwarted by recurring shoulder problems during his freshman year at Linfield College, not far from his native Creswell, Ore.
Few spent three years as a high school assistant coach in Oregon, then came to Gonzaga as a graduate assistant in 1990-91. He's been there ever since, watching the Bulldogs develop from basketball unknowns to one of the most respected programs in the country.
"Recruiting is easier in one way," Few says, "but now our competition is Arizona, Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA. Kids can see we are a national program now. We can get to the Final Four and, possibly, win a national championship here.
"Kids see we're more of a team, [with a] family atmosphere, rather than a fast track to pro ball."
Still, the Bulldogs regularly send players to pro leagues overseas, and Atlanta's Dan Dickau and Seattle's Richie Frahm represent Gonzaga in the NBA now that the legendary John Stockton has retired from the Utah Jazz.
Forward Ronny Turiaf, center-forward Cory Violette and point guard-shooting guard Blake Stepp are potential NBA players who return this year off a 24-9 squad that won the West Coast Conference regular season title. The Bulldogs lost to San Diego in the WCC Tournament finals, then beat Cincinnati in the NCAA tournament and came up short of a Sweet 16 appearance only after dropping a classic double-overtime game to Arizona.
Gonzaga's top six scorers from a year ago are back, including all-WCC picks Stepp, Turiaf and Violette. Stepp was named the WCC Player of the Year, made honorable mention on the AP All-America team and played for the United States in the Pan American Games last summer.
The 6-foot-4 Stepp, a four-year starter from Eugene, led the Bulldogs with 18 points, 1.6 steals and a league-leading 6 assists and 3 three-pointers per game. The 6-10 Turiaf -- the best French import without a cork -- averaged 15.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and a team-leading 1.5 blocked shots. The 6-8 Violette averaged 11.4 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.
Erroll Knight, a 6-7 sophomore transfer from Washington, provides scoring and athleticism on the perimeter. Richard Fox (6-11, 275) adds muscle down low, and fellow seniors Tony Skinner and Kyle Bankhead are lethal outside shooters.
Two forwards from Spokane, 6-8 Adam Morrison from Mead and 6-9 Sean Mallon (a redshirt last year) from Ferris, and blurry-quick little point guard Derek Raivio from Vancouver, Wash., are freshmen with big-time potential. Morrison, who scored 29 points in Gonzaga's exhibition opener, broke Mallon's career and single-season records for Greater Spokane League scoring.
Add it all up, and it's not surprising that Gonzaga cracked the top 10 in several preseason rankings. Gonzaga teams have occasionally looked more comfortable playing the role of underdog, but it's readily apparent that worthy opponents of the 2003-04 Bulldogs are, uh, Few and far between.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs open the season versus Saint Joseph's of Philadelphia -- like Gonzaga, a small Catholic university that excels in NCAA Division I basketball -- on Friday, Nov. 14, at the storied Madison Square Garden in New York City. ESPN2 will televise the game nationally at 6 pm PST. Martin Centre figures to sell out all games once again in its final year of service, including the home opener next Friday (Nov. 21) against Idaho and the WSU game on Dec. 28. Gonzaga plays in the much larger Spokane Arena on Nov. 29 (against SEC power Georgia) and Dec. 31 (Eastern Washington). Most Gonzaga games are televised.
When rumors first surfaced that Dick Bennett -- the legendary Dick Bennett, the guru of college basketball coaches, the wizard of offensive and defensive strategies -- might be willing to come out of retirement to coach at Washington State, the relatively few remaining supporters of WSU's moribund men's basketball program were left speechless.
Count Thomas Kelati among them -- but for different reasons.
"I'd never heard of him," Kelati admits.
Kelati, who sheepishly explained that he was "more into the NBA" when starring at Walla Walla High School, discovered what everyone was so excited about once he met with Bennett.
"I spent two hours with the guy, and we connected right away. Everything he had to say sounded perfect," recalls Kelati, a junior guard. "I didn't know much about the guy, so I asked around, and everyone said, 'This guy is amazing.' Everyone has so much respect for him."
Bennett, the master of rebuilding hapless basketball programs, says the revival of the Cougars may be an even greater challenge than he faced in his three other head coaching jobs. Oh, well -- he's having too much fun to worry about the not-always-so-good old days at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin.
"I'm enjoying it more," Bennett says. "You coach in one state that long, you carry expectations from every place you've been. I felt that. Plus, I was so in love with the idea of getting Wisconsin turned around, I put more pressure on myself.
"I don't feel that here. I will certainly do the very best job possible and live with it. The best job I can do."
Cougar fans are confident that, sooner rather than later, Bennett's best will help the Pac-10's worst gain respectability. Cougar players say they're not interested in a gradual climb toward respectability -- they want to go to the NCAA tournament this season.
"As a college basketball player, you've got to strive for that," standout point guard Marcus Moore says. "I'm a senior, and I've never been."
"With Coach Bennett's system, I think we'll surprise a lot of teams," Kelati says. "You're not going to see us [continue to] give away any games with mistakes at the end of the game."
"I've only seen great things out of him so far," says freshman guard Lance Den Boer, the Class B legend out of Sunnyside Christian High. "He's a great teacher. He doesn't just scream at you; he instructs you."
Bennett seems similarly impressed with Den Boer, although it's possible Washington's all-time leading prep scorer may redshirt. The Cougars are loaded with experienced guards.
"He's got a ways to go defensively," Bennett says. "He really can shoot it. I like him. He's got a good head on his shoulders. He has a wonderful stroke. He may need some physical maturity."
Ready or not, Den Boer may be forced into action this year, since the Cougars have no proven top scorers besides Moore. The 6-foot-6 Moore, who said he'd be "long gone" to the NBA if ankle surgery last season had not hindered his draft status, led the Cougars with a career-high 18.2 points per game.
Moore also shot a career-low 35 percent from the field, and that won't fly with Bennett. The 60-year-old coach stresses patience and good shot selection on offense -- along with stingy, relentless, nasty defense -- though Moore is pleased that Bennett has made it clear that he loves to fastbreak when the opportunity presents itself.
Bennett developed a reputation for coaching boring, low-scoring basketball at Wisconsin, even when he guided the Badgers to the NCAA Final Four in 2000. Three games into the following season, he retired, citing burnout.
Now he's back, with -- for better or worse -- many of the key players back from a 7-20 squad that finished last in the Pac-10 under fired coach Paul Graham. Kelati was WSU's second-leading scorer with 10 points per game last season. No one else besides Moore averaged more than 7.8, even though Kelati and everyone else was called on to shoot more after Moore went down.
Bennett says the Cougars "can probably be a decent defensive team." As for the offense...
"Marcus Moore is necessary to give us that one threat or offensive credibility that will require some preparation by our opponents. He is very talented offensively."
Even the demanding Bennett has been delighted by the Cougars' work ethic -- "There is an unmistakable hunger that exists among our players" -- but he knows WSU is desperately short on talent, size and muscle inside. Seniors Justin Bellegarde (6-9, 240) and Ezenwa Ukeagu (6-8, 253) might be the best options down low, and neither averaged even six points or five rebounds last year.
WSU's top recruit, 6-6 swingman Jeff Varem, is awaiting NCAA eligibility clearance. Bennett says the Cougars are being cautious to make certain there are no problems tied in with Varem's move from Nigeria to Buffalo, N.Y., in high school (though he did not play high school basketball). Last season, Varem averaged almost 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocked shots at Vincennes University, a two-year college in Indiana.
"Basketball is Back" is the marketing slogan of the Cougars, but Bennett realizes that may be more appropriate in a year or two. He's excited about WSU's recruits for next year.
"I think it will be the best recruiting class I've ever signed," Bennett says, "and I credit 90 percent of it to my assistants."
One of those assistants, ex-NBA player and Wisconsin assistant Tony Bennett, is the coach's son and a possible successor to his dad someday. The elder Bennett likes to think the next WSU coach will benefit from the current staff's recruiting.
"I was treated with far more respect out here than I ever was back home," Bennett says with a smile, "because everyone in the Midwest was, 'Why would you want to go and play with that guy?'"
Why? Well, consider that in Bennett's last 11 full seasons of coaching, he guided teams to six NCAA tournaments and three NITs. As a comparison, the Cougars have gone to four NCAAs and three NITs in school history -- none since the mid-1990s.
"I am very thankful to be back in the game I love," Bennett says. "Our profession is not so much the destination, but the journey.
"I found that I missed the journey."
The Cougars play their second and final home exhibition game Saturday at 7 pm against the visiting EA Sports semipro touring squad. WSU opens the regular season on Nov. 20 against Virginia Military Institute at the BP Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska. WSU's first home game is Monday, Dec. 1, against Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne. WSU plays two games at the Spokane Arena, both during Christmas break -- Jan. 8 against UCLA and Jan. 10 against USC.
Publication date: 11/13/03