They work the same long hours as head coach Mark Few -- for significantly less pay, we might add -- and Gonzaga assistant coaches Bill Grier, Leon Rice and Tommy Lloyd can certainly identify with the rags-to-riches story of Bulldog basketball.
In this era of million-dollar contracts for head coaches, all three Gonzaga assistants broke into the college coaching ranks by leaving jobs with better pay to work for wages that left them well below the poverty line. Lloyd, in fact, literally worked for free his first year at Gonzaga.
"I just started out working in the office... a lot of video work and recruiting mailings," recalls Lloyd, who came to Gonzaga in 2000 after playing professionally for two years overseas. "I wasn't asking for anything. I was married, and my wife got a job at the Bon Marche for, like, $900 a month.
"We got by on that. We didn't go out much."
Grier knows the feeling. When he resigned after one year as head coach at Creswell (Ore.) High School -- Few's alma mater -- to become a graduate assistant coach at Gonzaga in 1991, he had no idea it would take seven years before he earned a full-time salary. He managed to avoid starvation largely through the kindness of Dan Monson, who bought a home that Monson, Grier and Few lived in when they were assistants under Dan Fitzgerald.
"I got a little money and grad school [tuition], and Dan basically didn't charge me any rent," says Grier, who later squeezed a few more bucks out of Gonzaga by serving four years as its first women's golf coach. Grier finally earned a full-time salary after Monson replaced Fitzgerald as head coach in 1997.
Rice was fortunate enough to arrive at Gonzaga after the basketball glory days had begun, so he's been able to make a decent living since joining the staff in 1999. However, Rice recalls when he worked for next to nothing as a grad assistant for Don Monson (Dan's father) at Oregon after two years as Pasco High's freshman coach.
While substitute teaching during the day.
And teaching night school.
And managing a bar.
And coaching freshman football one year at Hanford High and the next year at Richland High.
"Those two years," Rice says with a sigh, "were the longest eight years of my life."
Rice, who graduated from Richland High, says he learned a lot when he taught migrant workers at night school in Pasco.
"I think every teacher or coach should do something like that," Rice says. "It gives you more perspective on life.
"Those people would get up at the crack of dawn to work in the fields all day, eat dinner at school, have four hours of classes, go home and do some homework, then get up at the crack of dawn and go out in the fields and chop asparagus again.
"It was a real eye-opener for me."
So, too, has been Gonzaga's rise to national prominence. All three assistants are quick to credit Few for his role, and the Bulldogs also benefit from behind-the-scenes aid from director of basketball operations Jerry Krause -- "He has the highest level of integrity," Rice says -- a former Eastern Washington head coach who deals with anything and everything other than on-court coaching.
"Mark has always believed we can accomplish these kinds of things at Gonzaga... he's an extremely competitive person," says Grier, who has been close friends with Few since they attended the University of Oregon.
"He's very fair," Lloyd adds. "People who work for him get a lot of responsibility and a lot of freedom. He never looks over your shoulder. At the same time, he expects a certain level of performance."
"Your input in games and practices is always listened to," says Rice, who was head coach at Yakima Valley Community College before coming to Gonzaga. "We have a healthy relationship. We can debate things and argue about things. There's no egos here."
Lending support to the latter statement is the fact that Grier, widely recognized as Gonzaga's head assistant and defensive guru, has no title indicating as such. He could care less.
"I'm not into titles," Grier says. "I have it in writing that if Mark was ever to leave, I'll be the next head coach. What else do I need?"
Chances are that Gonzaga's coaches learned to check their egos at the door during their days as athletes. Added perspective comes from the frequent office visits of their young children (all four coaches are married; all but Grier have children).
Few never played college sports, though he was an outstanding high school basketball and baseball player in the Eugene area, where Grier also was raised.
Grier, vertically challenged like Few, saw his basketball playing career end in junior college. Rice, a Washington State grad, quit football after playing at Spokane Falls Community College. Only Lloyd, who starred in basketball at Kelso High, Walla Walla Community College and little Whitman College in Walla Walla, enjoyed much success as a college athlete.
"I don't know," Lloyd says with a laugh, "if we're going to win too many 4-on-4 games."
Fortunately for Gonzaga's players, their coaches discovered long ago that they could win plenty of 5-on-5 games while staying on the sidelines.
Publication date: 03/17/04