John Stockton, Mark Few, Przemek Karnowski. To the Zag faithful, these names represent the most influential characters in Gonzaga men’s basketball history. But what about Joe Roberts? Only the most ardent fans know the name of the man who defined rowdy GU fans in the ‘80s with this moniker: The Kennel Club.
Roberts coined the term in a meeting among administrators, coaches and the founding members of one of the largest clubs on campus in the fall of 1984. Earlier this October, he died from complications with Parkinson’s Disease at his home in Tacoma.
Upon arriving on the GU campus in 1981 after taking a gap year, the Ketchikan, Alaska, Roberts wasted no time in establishing friendships that endured until his last day. Mike Shields was one of the many friends Roberts made through a shared love of basketball.
Shields is a part of the unofficial founding group of The Kennel Club that included Roberts and their various housemates. Shields co-authored the book “We are G.U.” to explain the genesis and history behind the Kennel Club.
According to Shields, former GU men’s basketball coach Dan Fitzgerald appreciated the ravenous, albeit small number of GU basketball fans. Fitzgerald tasked Shields with organizing fans in a manner that would create a home-court advantage for his Zags.
Shields’ college ingenuity led him to organize a free keg party with two stipulations for attendance:
You must paint your face.
You must attend the basketball game.
Thus, the Kennel Club was born as over 50 Zags attended the game (and the party) with painted faces.
Roberts was one of the early riders on the Zag hype train. Although reserved in his daily life, Roberts became a leader at Zag basketball games.
“He was one of those guys that if anybody was out on the floor (cheering) he was going to be one of them,” Shields said. “But if you saw him Monday through Friday you would never guess that he was that kind of guy.”
In the 35 years since that fateful midwinter day, the Kennel has become an iconic student section that is feared nationally. Before settling on the name Kennel Club, other ideas like “The Dog Pound” and “The Dog House” were suggested before Roberts interjected with, “The Kennel Club.”
This interjection was somewhat out of character for Roberts, who Shields describes as being, “a very low-key guy, with the exception of his involvement in the Kennel Club.”
“He took a lot of pride in the fact that he came up with that name. It’s the perfect name, the perfect fit,” said Shields.
Roberts told Shields that he suggested the name, “because he thought that ‘The Dog Pound’ meant mutts whereas ‘The Kennel Club’ suggested sophistication and good breeding.”
Crissy Lubke, current brand representative of the Kennel Board, didn’t know Roberts personally, but the Kennel Board as a whole had prior knowledge of the creation of their beloved group.
“Kennel Club went through a history training of the club earlier this year,” Lubke said. “It was neat to find out where we came from. It made it even more impactful when we heard of Joe’s passing.”
For Lubke, the club is the most important part of the Kennel. The community aspect of what the club stands for is what brings unity to the school.
“Club is a really important word because it preaches community,” Lubke said. “A few if not all of my fellow board members agree that the Kennel Club is such a community. We want to make that known to other students and fans. You can see how much unity there is. It’s really important.”
Roberts wasn’t just a fan of basketball. He was a regular player in the noon basketball league and intramural leagues in the old Kennedy Pavilion. Basketball was one of numerous activities that Roberts bonded over with his group of friends. The sheer amount of time the group spent together made for relationships that endured beyond college.
“Joe was a really smart guy, but very reserved and the Parkinson’s magnified that over the years,” Shields said. “He became a little more reclusive, but the one exception was his classmates, his closest friends. There was a group of 10 or 12 of us that were incredibly close. It’s almost a daily occurrence that I talk to those guys, and Joe was a part of that group. It’s an amazingly close-knit group of guys.”
Even the Jesuits took notice of this rambunctious group of young men. According to Shields, two unnamed Jesuits started a Scotch of the Month Club. The “Lectern of the Label” would read the label of the “always” single-malt scotch to the group to broaden their cultural horizons before enjoying their Scottish beverage.
Some time after their years at GU the group made a pact. The premise was simple: when one member of the group dies, everyone will drop what they’re doing and attend the memorial service. At the service, they would toast their fallen brother with a bottle of scotch.
“Joe’s passing was the first time any of us will have drank a bottle of scotch from that pact,” Shields said.
Without him, the Kennel Club wouldn’t be the ear-splitting model of fanaticism that it is today.
“His loss was a big one,” Shields said. “There’s a lot of folks that are really sad about his passing.”