Mark Few is a name held in such high regard by the Gonzaga faithful that St. Al’s church may need to be renamed St. Few’s by the time the beloved coach reaches his 800th victory. That milestone could be reached within 10 years if Few and his team won an average of 20 games per year, a regression from his current average of 28.5 wins per year.
In Few’s 21 years at Gonzaga, the Bulldog faithful have had nothing but adoration and gratitude to show toward the future Hall of Fame coach who has brought unprecedented athletic success to a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. That same reverence may start to dry up as Zag fans come to expect National Championships, not WCC championships.
Few and his staff have recorded a record year thus far, not only starting the year unbeaten against two ranked opponents but also landing atop the AP rankings. This is in part due to point guard Jalen Suggs, the most highly ranked recruit the Zags have landed to date.
As the Bulldogs check box after box on the list of requirements to have “blue blood” in college basketball, the narrative surrounding the program and the attitude of fans may not simply tolerate WCC crowns and Elite Eight Appearances. Blue blood programs have blue blood fans, and the rabidity and scrupulousness of the Blue Devils and Jayhawks and Tarheels of college basketball don’t bask in the glory of a conference championship when they expect to win the real tournament in March.
Since 1975 when the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament doubled the number of teams from 16 to 32, only 21 different programs have won the recognition of National Champion. Since 2000, that number is cut nearly in half to only 12 programs. Gonzaga lost to the University of North Carolina in the 2017 National Championship and was poised to make a run in the 2020 NCAA Tournament as a projected #1 seed before the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Zags can reasonably make the excuse that the tournament was theirs to lose in 2020, but the fact remains that winning a tournament consisting of 68 teams over a matter of weeks is one of the steepest summits on the way to a championship in all of sports.
Maybe Few should avoid scrutiny due to this fact alone. Ask a basketball coach at any level of the sport and nearly all will tell you that come tournament time, luck is a bigger determinant of success than many would like to admit. Luck when it comes to seeding, officiating, venue, injuries, and matchups makes the margin for error razor thin.
As the Bulldogs continue to land 5-star recruits and defeat ranked foes at the top of the sport, Zag fans should keep the former in mind. With every passing year the Zags seem to achieve a new milestone, but with each season that ends without a national championship for Few and his staff, the highly touted recruits, conference titles, and shiny firsts will begin to lose their luster as the devotees of Gonzaga hoops become evermore impatient.
Perhaps this attitude is better described as complacency. A significant amount of Gonzaga Alumni and fans alike maligned the lack of a student section at some home games during the 2019-2020 season. The empty rows toward the back of The Kennel may indicate that regular season victories, no matter the margin, have become hollow accomplishments in the eyes of the Bulldog faithful.
Alumni and older fans are quick to defend that they would never have an empty Kennel when they attended the university. That may be true, but that is because winning was still fresh to those Zags, whereas this generation has come to see victories against the University of Portland or Pacific as foregone conclusions before the ball is even tipped.
Take D1 FCS Football juggernaut North Dakota State University for example. Don’t blame yourself for missing the unparalleled run the Bison have put together by winning nine of the last 10 National Championships in their classification. As the championships have rolled in for the program the interest level of fans is negatively correlated. The Fargo Dome routinely sold out the 18,700 seat stadium in the early years of the run. In recent years, media members have taken note of the empty seats following halftime of another blowout victory. Sound familiar?
Complacency is a side-affect of the type of dominance Few and his staff have achieved over the last 20 years. The National Championship Zag fans desire so badly would perhaps only make that complacency worse as fans eschew regular season games in favor of the games that matter in March. Ask any devoted Bulldog fan and they would gladly make this trade for the March Madness crown that has eluded the program for years. Just don’t ask them to keep the complaining to a minimum when a regular season blowout of UP doesn’t sell out.
Gonzaga fans have never more rabidly anticipated a National Championship since Few arrived at the school than this year. Few has already built a resume that is beyond worthy of induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and will go down as one of the best program builders in the sport’s history. Despite this, Zag fans would be kidding themselves if they wouldn’t feel a twinge of disappointment when Few calls it a career in the Kennel if there isn’t a National Championship banner dangling gingerly from the McCarthey Center rafters behind him.