Gonzaga: The evolution of a mid-major
With just over 14 seconds remaining in Gonzaga’s first-round matchup against #16 seed Southern University, sophmore point guard Kevin Pangos stepped to the free-throw line with the Zags clinging to a 4 point lead. After making the first, Pangos calmly knocked down the second, and in doing so, ensured that the monster of all mid-majors remained on the right side of the record books
Receiving one of the four highly coveted number one seeds in the annual NCAA Tournament, has generally been an honor thats reserved for such basketball powerhouses as the Duke’s, UConn’s, and Ohio State’s of the college basketball world. This season however, a program that has for the past 15 years become synonymous with small school success on the big-time stage, broke into the ranks of the NCAA’s best when Gonzaga University was awarded the top seed in the west region of the NCAA Tournament..It didn’t take long however, for the Zags to learn first-hand that with great reward, comes great responsibility, and for the first time in the school history, Gonzaga is truly among the NCAA’s elite.
After starting the basketball program during the 1907-08 season, the Zags quickly found themselves without a head coach. Determined to field a team that season, they decided to play despite the fact that they were unable to find a suitable candidate, and in the spirit of countless Bulldog alum who had not yet graced the hardwood, they finished their first season with a [9-2] record. With that, Gonzaga basketball was born and although the program struggled to find success and failed to gain notoriety over the next 80-plus years, their time in the spotlight would come
It was during the 1994-95 season that Bing Crosby’s alma mater was first able to punch their ticket to the big dance. After earning an automatic bid by winning the West Coast Conference Tournament, the Zags were knocked out of the 1995 NCAA Tournament in the first round as a #14 seed. Disappointed Bulldog fans wouldn’t have to wait much longer for their Zags to attain post-season relevance outside of their conference. The next logical step forward for the newly dance-drunk Zags was simple; return to the NCAA Tournament. During their first venture into the madness of March in the spring of 1995, the program had briefly gained interest on a national level, and in doing so, were able to bring in new head coach Dan Monson for the start of the 1997-98 season.
The impact of Monson’s presence was felt almost immediately and in just his second year at Gonzaga [1998-99], the Bulldog basketball program would change forever. Finishing the 98-99 regular season an impressive [28-7], the Zags rolled through the W.C.C. Tournament and earned their second trip to the big dance as a #10 seed. With a first round victory over the University of Minnesota, Gonzaga soon found themselves scheduled to play the second-seeded Stanford Cardinal. As a nation of basketball junkies watched every possesion, the Zags did the impossible, sending the Cardinal home to southern California and earning a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The Cinderella run that every fan hopes they’re able to see in their lifetime was happening right before our eyes. While the Bulldogs were preparing to play national hoops power Florida, their near cult folowing continued to grow. With just seconds remaining in their Sweet Sixteen matchup versus the Florida Gators, the Zags Casey Calvary made the winning basket, knocking out an NCAA giant, and giving birth to a legend. Although the Zags were beaten in the Elite Eight by eventual champions UConn, their season had been an overwhelming success.
The following season [1999-2000], head coach Dan Monson left Gonzaga to coach at the University of Minnesota. Monson’s departure was a blessing in disguise however, as it gave then assistant coach Mark Few the opportunity to take the position. First named W.C.C. coach of the year in 2001, Few has since won the award nine times and has given the program consistency and has instilled a sense of pride and tradition among his players. Beyond Few’s individual success, Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament an astonishing 15 straight years. Prior to this years #1 seed, the Bulldogs had been seeded as high as #2 in the 2004 NCAA Tournament, followed by two consecutive #3 seeds in 2005 and 2006. For the once comfortably anonymous mid-major, finishing the season [31-2] on the way to winning their 10th W.C.C. Tournament title under head coach Mark Few, all while packing for their annual trip to the ball, has become almost commonplace. Earning the #1 ranking in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the regular season, as well as a #1 seed in this years NCAA Tournament however, is a sign that Gonzaga’s basketball program has come full-circle.
It wasn’t just the fact that things changed for the men’s basketball program. Besides the obvious boost that recruiting got from the success on the hardwood, the effects of Gonzaga’s new found popularity would be felt in every corner of the Bulldog’s campus. The ”Flutie Effect”, to be exact, refers to a schools drastic rise in enrollment, and their overall popularity immediately following that schools unexpected success in some form of atheletics. For example, there was a 65% increase in the size of Gonzaga’s freshman class from 1997 to 2003 that according to school officials,is directly related to the success of the basketball program. In fact, University President Rev. Robert Spitzer has openly stated that the success of the basketball program was directly responsible for the 23 million dollars the school received to build the Zags current home, The McCarthey Atheletic Center.
Until the 1998-99 season, Gonzaga was known across the basketball world simply as the school that NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton went to. Celebrated as one of college basketball’s perrenial underdogs, the Zags have since outgrown their previous identity. When your home record is [120-9] over a ten year period [1999-2009], it becomes hard to sell yourself as the mighty mid-major that you once were. Whether or not the Zags are able to live up to their #1 ranking in the polls as well as their #1 seed in this years NCAA Tournament, remains to be seen. For the once proud king of the mid-majors however, the evolution is complete and David has most definitely become Goliath.