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Sunday, March 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Men's NCAA Tournament

Few the Man in Spokane

Seattle Times staff reporter

SPOKANE — From the 10-acre homesite of Mark and Marcy Few a little southwest of this city, you can see for miles: to the city lights, to snow-capped Mount Spokane far in the distance. >> The Gonzaga basketball program brought them here, and with a little imagination, one can also envision an even wider panorama, of 27-win seasons and runs deeper into the NCAA tournament. >> At the north of this plot of ponderosa pine and the occasional wandering deer or elk sits the rustic, 5,000-square-foot lodge-style home of the Fews. All stone inlays and natural wood and 7-foot doorways to accommodate the tallest collegians, it is a monument to serendipity, longevity and a crazy confluence of forces that have made the Zags one of the game's most irresistible stories. >> Inside, sitting at a wood counter where you can turn and take in a red-orange sunset through sweeping picture windows, 3-year-old Joe climbs the rungs of a barstool, ducks under his dad's arm and noses toward a platter of tortilla chips. >> About then, it's pretty obvious why Few, the Gonzaga basketball coach, doesn't join his profession's familiar dance of flee-or-get-fired, take-the-money-and-run. >> This is a guy who seems to have the game figured out.

Few, 44, knew early he wanted to be a coach. He just didn't envision that it would be at a college program that in the past three years has twice been ranked in the nation's top five and today figures to gain a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, after being a No. 3 last year, after being a No. 2 the year before that. He was just getting out of the University of Oregon when the boys basketball job opened up at his old high school, Creswell, 10 miles south of Eugene. Kent Hunsaker, then the superintendent, passed on Few.

"Because, quote, he didn't think he had a grasp of the game."

Norm Few, the coach's father, chortles as he says this. An active Presbyterian minister in his mid-70s, he's sitting with wife Barbara in their Creswell living room, being Norm, which is to say wisecracking, irreverent and generally a hoot.

"Eight-hundred sixty-two funerals," he says he's officiated. "They ask me how I've survived so long. I tell 'em, I've buried everybody else."

Originally from Minnesota, he drove to Creswell in a '55 Oldsmobile from seminary in California in 1957, told to look up a woman named Simmons when he arrived.

Today

NCAA tournament men's selection show, 3 p.m., Ch. 7, KJR (950 AM)

"Hello," he told her. "I'm your new pastor."

"What the hell do I need a pastor for?" she shot back.

Wrong Simmons.

Today, there are 4,000 people in Creswell. Then, there were 400, 14 of whom showed up for Norm's first worship service.

Later, he met Barbara, who had lived most of her life nearby on 80 acres farmed by her parents. Mark was their second of four children.

All four were athletic. Mark, small but quick, was good enough in basketball and baseball that Barbara allowed him to play football as a senior only after he begged in a letter to her.

Then he promptly dislocated a shoulder and missed the early part of a basketball season in which Creswell was undefeated and No. 1 in the state in 1981 until the tournament semifinals.

They'd vacation in central Oregon, and the kids grew to love the outdoors. Few's voracious appetite today for the nuances of fly fishing was fed by simpler times, like when he was a kid, walking with his brother and father through sagebrush in the Cascades. He insisted they stop at an unlikely trickle of a stream protected by scrub willow. He slapped a grasshopper on a hook and to Norm's shock, pulled a 14-inch trout out of the water.

"In those days, we weren't into this fly fishing," Norm says with mock disdain. "I think after a couple of NCAA tournaments, then you fly fish."

In the mid-1980s, Gonzaga was a program led by a hard-driving Californian named Dan Fitzgerald. The future of it — the whole, improbable, nation-grabbing next generation — belonged to a bunch of footloose twenty-something basketball junkies hanging out in the liberal atmosphere of Eugene.

Don Monson was the coach at Oregon. His son Dan wanted to coach, and so did a knot of others who used to work the senior Monson's camps — Few, Cottage Grove High coach Bill Grier, and Leon Rice, an assistant at one of Don Monson's high-school stops in Pasco. They couldn't have known what a thick relationship would develop.

Dan Monson got a break when Fitzgerald, looking for an assistant coach in 1988, hired him. A year later, Monson encouraged Fitzgerald to bring Few aboard as a graduate assistant.

Soon, Grier, and years later, Rice, joined them. They were professionally driven and personally inseparable. Eventually, when they all got married in the '90s, Norm officiated every time.

Before that, Monson, Few and Grier shared a house in Spokane for a time, bachelors and basketball coaches. There would be summer gatherings of a dozen friends in the high country of Sisters, Ore., when they'd have decathlons — two-on-two basketball, doubles tennis, bowling, a poker tournament and the like.

"Mark always seemed to be the guy that instigated it and held everything together," Rice says. " 'You're going this year, or you don't get invited back next year.' You could never tell him no."

Rice did once, as an assistant at Northern Colorado. Few was going to marry a striking student of Basque descent at Gonzaga, Marcy Laca, whom he'd met when she worked monitoring the entrance to the school's athletic facility. The bachelor party was a fishing trip to Montana.

Rice begged off, too broke as a low-paid assistant to fly north. Some of Few's friends scraped together the funds — with a hitch. They flew Rice up without telling Few and deposited him on I-90 east of Spokane in a sheik's costume with a wig and a fake mustache.

"Nooo," Few protested, as their van pulled to the side of the highway. "We're not picking up a hitchhiker."

But they were. Rice, yelping "Mee-zooo-la, Mee-zooo-la" — the sheik was bound for Missoula — leaped joyfully onto a shocked Few before the object of the prank realized what was up.

In 1997, Fitzgerald retired and turned the job over to Monson, who immediately upgraded the schedule. It was now a staff of young lions who had big ideas for the program.

Two years later, Gonzaga won its first NCAA tournament game. Then another, and one more. In the Elite Eight, it was within a possession of eventual champion Connecticut in the final minute before succumbing.

It was that run that shaped, ultimately, two polar views of Gonzaga's future. Monson, after agonizing painfully, decided to take a big raise at Minnesota to rebuild a program ripped by academic fraud.

Few has stayed.

"Everybody was telling us, it was lightning in a bottle," Few says. "I think that impacted Dan leaving: 'Hey, you'll never be able to do that again, not here.' "

And perhaps they won't. But Few, with some of the nucleus returning, coached the Zags into the Sweet 16 in 2000. And then with a significantly different cast, they did it again in 2001.

Recalls Few, "We said, 'We need to capitalize on this,' instead of just accepting it as our one chance and one chance only. Everybody's been on board."

That means Robert Spitzer, the Gonzaga president, and Mike Roth, the athletic director. Few, Grier and Rice have been there since 1999 when Monson left.

The program has a template, an established way of operating at every turn. For instance, while the Zags have recently bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round, it's never because of internal strife or pettiness.

Utah coach Ray Giacoletti, one of Few's close friends, had a team at Eastern Washington that led Gonzaga, 45-29, at halftime in 2001.

"I stood at the door and watched those guys go off at halftime," Giacoletti said. "We're up by 16, and there was no fear or panic or bitching or griping.

"They know how to win. They believe. No situation is too great for them to overcome. I think that's the greatest feeling you could ever give a team."

That game Giacoletti recalled? Gonzaga won in overtime.

A wanted man

It's March, and that means rising pulses, shots that beat the buzzer, deliverance and heartbreak over basketball. And inevitably, it means that Few's name will be linked to some high-level job where the results didn't meet the insatiable appetite to win and the coach got fired.

This is a funny profession, not a gold-watch-at-retirement kind of business. It's a continual ebb and flow of coaches getting out while the getting is good, or getting canned.

There's a school of thought in coaching — fanned by million-dollar contracts — that you don't wear out your welcome. They'll get you eventually, so you get them first by moving on.

Of course, sometimes there's that rare circumstance when you're at peace with the place, and you have security, and you're a fixture. You're Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Roy Williams at North Carolina, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse.

Those guys are in their 50s and 60s, acknowledged to be at their last college stops. They've won national championships at those schools. And then there's Few, who is 44, and he's at Gonzaga.

Make no mistake, Few is not content to win 24 annually and make the NCAA tournament. But his job has an exquisite mix of security, promise and lifestyle.

"My thing is, as long as everybody's willing to keep growing ... as soon as we stop growing, people are going to catch us," Few says. "If we sit back and say, 'We've done this and this, we've built a new arena, we're paying the coaches, we're traveling great' ... we've got to keep growing the product and growing the product."

The national splash created by Adam Morrison this year has taken awareness of Gonzaga to unprecedented heights. The Zags battle for more high-profile recruits than ever before, more than after those three Sweet 16 runs.

Few has the formula down. He's an excellent recruiter with a keen offensive mind. Gonzaga should dominate the West Coast Conference for the foreseeable future, and that means a virtually automatic NCAA berth.

Guard Matt Bouldin arrives next fall from Denver, where he was Colorado player of the year. A former McDonald's All-American, Micah Downs, has transferred from Kansas.

Guard Steven Gray of Bainbridge Island, who committed before he was a junior, reminds people of former Gonzaga standout guard Blake Stepp. A junior 7-footer from Vancouver, B.C., Robert Sacre, is headed their way. Freshman big man Josh Heytvelt is just scratching the surface of a vast potential.

The ultimate question, then: Can they win a national title at Gonzaga? Surely that crossed Few's mind when there were feelers about the UCLA job two years ago.

"What do you think, Dad?" he asked Norm then.

"Well," Norm harrumphed, "I haven't seen many record trout coming out of the Los Angeles River."

Few has been romanced before, sometimes in clandestine fashion. More visible was the Washington dalliance four years ago, when he admits he came close to accepting the job.

"We knew there were all those kids [recruits] coming up in Seattle," he said.

But then there were the Gonzaga players, the ones he'd grown close to, and the advice he'd heard from those coaching icons, people like Boeheim and Williams and Mike Montgomery, who had been in Spokane for his golf tournament charity fund-raiser.

"Boeheim tells me, 'You're crazy to leave,' " Few says. "Roy Williams always tells me that.

"It always comes back to: Show me a place that can win like this. I want to win."

Few is believed to make about $600,000 a year at Gonzaga. It's possible he could triple that elsewhere. But it might also triple the headaches, and the pressure.

"Money is the crux of our business," says Giacoletti, who left Eastern Washington for a four-fold increase at Utah. "People take jobs because of money. Money ruins everyone."

Sometime this month, an athletic director will knock at Few's door, inquiring whether, just maybe ...

"I don't think there's a place [Few would go to] for the next 10 years now," says a person close to him.

Indiana?

"I don't think he would have an interest."

Oregon, his alma mater?

"If you're not going to go to Indiana, why would you go to Oregon?"

For now, at least, Mark Few stays put, content to live life among the ponderosa above the city lights. He has taken Gonzaga to great heights, and vice versa.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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