College Sports

Mark Few might be misunderstood, but he has no trouble winning

Gonzaga coach Mark Few is misunderstood by some, partially because he isn’t animated on the bench. All he does is win, with 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few is misunderstood by some, partially because he isn’t animated on the bench. All he does is win, with 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The Associated Press

Back in the late ’80s when Mark Few first came to Gonzaga as a graduate assistant, he was interviewed for a feature story in the school’s newspaper.

The Zags had never been to an NCAA tournament back then and were struggling to be competitive in the West Coast Conference, so adding a bottom-rung coach from the Oregon high school ranks wasn’t the biggest news.

But it was a pretty flattering profile, except that he was referred to throughout the story as “Mark Fu.”

Considering that Few has taken Gonzaga to 18 straight NCAA tournaments and has the Zags in the Sweet 16 again despite being a No. 11 seed this season, it amazes me that Few remains so vastly misunderstood.

Or at least misperceived.

Some in the media and public have called him derisive names and portrayed him as some kind of a jerk.

Granted, he is a picture of stern focus on the sidelines, but is not a chair-thrower who dog-cusses his players all the time. And he doesn’t display a great deal of delight during his media sessions, but I’ve never heard him be rude or condescending.

Here’s what he does: wins at a higher rate than anybody in NCAA basketball (averaging 27.4 wins per season), graduates his players, hasn’t had a hint of scandal or cheating, makes his players better and raises millions of dollars for charitable causes.

I’d say college sports all over the country could use jerks like Few.

I’m sure he’s weary, at tournament time, of the inevitable questions about “mid-major” basketball, which is fair in regards to his conference, but an insult when directed toward his team.

If he were interested in dealing with the persistent attention of the media or gaining celebrity from his job, he’d have never stayed this long in Spokane.

Which might be the most impressive thing about Mark Few. His loyalty.

At some point during the broadcast of Gonzaga’s punitive dismantling of Utah in the NCAA Round of 32, an announcer reminded viewers that Few has been wooed by every big-time program in the country that had a coaching opening for more than the last decade.

But he’s still in Spokane.

In a profession of climbers and perennial job-seekers, Few might be one of the most fully actualized humans in the NCAA. He knows who he is, understands what makes him happy and occupies the exact space that fills his needs.

Few used to see the employment hustling every year at the Final Four, where coaches cluster to network contacts and position themselves for their next job, while the minority seem to actually appreciate the job they had.

When tasked to write a book on Zags basketball, I talked to Few about any number of the offers he’d turned down — and why.

“If you’re lucky enough to have a job like this, you get up every morning and thank God you’ve got another day to do it again,” Few said at the time. “I get to work with great guys on a day-to-day basis in the realm of athletics and get paid for it. Can you think of a better job? Are you kidding me? This is great.”

That was in 2004 — 12 years ago — and Few is still true to his word and true to himself.

After five straight NCAA tournaments of first-weekend ousters, Few’s Zags advanced to the Elite Eight last season and lost to eventual champ Duke.

This year, their seven losses in the regular season left them unranked and needing to win the West Coast Conference tournament to earn the automatic bid.

For much of the season their guards were green or inconsistent, and in December they lost key big man Przemek Karnowski to a back injury. But the guards ripened and stars Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer have reached full potential in impressive wins over Seton Hall and Utah — by a combined 39 points.

Friday night, the Zags take on Syracuse in the Round of 16. They will play with great effort and smarts, and be as well-prepared as any team in the country.

In that way, they will be the true reflection of their coach.