copyright Gonzaga University
Look around Spokane, and you will see signs of “Zags” love everywhere, with local businesses displaying team memorabilia and residents sporting fan wear. The Gonzaga University men’s basketball team (the official nickname is the Bulldogs but they are also known as the Zags) rose from obscurity to national fame over ten years ago. They have continued to shine as the pride of the region since, referred to as “a recognizable brand name in college basketball” by The New York Times (March 23, 2009) and considered a major program despite playing in a mid-major conference, the NCAA Division I West Coast Conference.
Before 1999, the team had only a mediocre history occasionally punctuated with stand-out seasons and players, including the recent Hall of Fame addition John Stockton, who held Gonzaga’s all-time assist record until Matt Santangelo surpassed it in 2000 with 555 assists. Stockton graduated in 1984 and went on to break many assist records during his nineteen seasons with the Utah Jazz, but the Bulldogs did not make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament until a decade later, in 1995.
The year 1999 marked a turning point in Gonzaga’s history, when the team unexpectedly plowed through the West Coast Conference (WCC) regular season with a 12-2 win/loss record and rode that wave of success through the WCC Tournament and onto the regional finals of the NCAA tournament (known as the “Elite Eight”). The Zags finished that season with a No. 12 final ranking.
In a few short months, the little-known team from a small Jesuit university beautifully situated on the Spokane River had established themselves as among the nation’s basketball elite. Under the outstanding leadership of Coach Mark Few, who took the helm when Dan Monson left for Minnesota in 1999, the Bulldogs have achieved NCAA tournament appearances every year since. Mark Few is one of only two active coaches with a winning percentage of 80% or better. The Zags is not a team that rests on its laurels; for the past few years, the motto has been “Anyone, anywhere, anytime,” as they have deliberately put together some of their toughest schedules ever to prove themselves beyond the boundaries of the West Coast Conference.
In 2005, the Bulldogs opened their new 6,000 seat arena (McCarthey Athletic Center) with a 13-0 home game record to end the year with the nation’s longest active home-court winning streak, which GU held until February 12, 2007, when they fell to Santa Clara. The building of the new center, which is one of the best in the region, was funded by two Gonzaga alumni brothers, Phil and Tom McCarthey. They pledged their support after Gonzaga’s 1999 epic season, realizing that the new arena would help develop Gonzaga University as a whole.
The team finished the 2009 season with an overall win/loss record of 28-6 and a WCC record of 14-0 (plus a 90% win rate over the past eight seasons), reaching the NCAA Round of 16 for the fifth time in eleven years. Gonzaga ranked 10th in the final Associated Press Top 25 in 2009, their fifth Top 10 ranking since 2002, and 21 in the NCAA final 2009 ranks.
The incredible success of this small, private university has positively affected Spokane, WA, both with economic boons and fierce Zags pride. Season tickets are completely sold out, and single-game tickets are tough to come by. Students are known to camp out in freezing weather for a chance to score tickets. CNN recently named Spokane, which will host the NCAA first- and second-round men’s basketball tournament next March, as one of the top basketball towns to visit. The Zags have been featured in national publications including Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, USA Today, ESPN the Magazine, and Sporting News.
copyright 2009 CBS Interactive
With an enrollment of less than 7,000, over the last several seasons, the famous Bulldogs have beat powerhouse schools with four or more times the enrollment of Gonzaga University. They hold the highest winning percentage and number of wins for an NCAA Division I School located in California, Oregon, and Washington and have won numerous All-American honors. Among their many accomplishments, in the last fifteen years, the Bulldogs have produced ten WCC Player of the Year recipients and had eight players nominated for the John R. Wooden Award as the top player in the country.
If you would like to know more about the history of the Zags, check out The Decade of Excellence, a 100-minute DVD produced by IMG College and KHQ-TV that chronicles the historic rise of Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball.