A Glimpse at building a Program

Is it just chance that more and more former Zags are playing profesional ball than ever before? Is it chance that more and more student-athletes want to be walk-on Zags rather than full scholarship athletes for other colleges? (photo courtesy of TheFinalScore.tv) The foundation has been built and the maintenance continues.

I'm sure there are handbooks about it, and every coach and fan has his or her views, but building a successful team and program is essential and a top priority for every coach. Building a strong, healthy and successful program is much more difficult than merely building a team. A team will dissipate over a small number of years through graduation and other less fortunate attrition. We at Gonzaga have the good fortune of a solid program already firmly in place. It can be argued as to when the program solidified. Did it begin way back with the likes of John Stockton or the McPhee brothers, or with Jeff Brown transfering from UW to GU, or with the recruitment of Matt Santangelo?

Or maybe and more probably with Dan Fitzgerald and the coaches that followed and have kept Gonzaga one of the most fundamentally sound teams in the country. Let's face it, nobody executes the basics better than the Zags have the past dozen years or so. And when those fundamentals aren't executed well is when the Zags have their problems.

One thing is certain. It takes like-minded coaches who know what works and what doesn't for a specific program. Fitz-Monson-Few-Grier-Rice... With only slightly different styles, each of these coaches have taken the baton and and continued in the footsteps of the one before them.

Take Idaho football, 1981. Enter Dennis Erickson, his first head coaching job. His mentor was the late Jack Elway, an innovator of the short passing game, now known as the West Coast offense. Erickson turned Idaho around and into a winning tradition. Four years later, Erickson left and assistant Keith Gilbertson took over. Gilbertson tweaked what Erickson had but kept things almost exactly the same. Good quarterbacks were key to this offense, so in came Scott Linehan, Rick Sloan and John Friesz. Gilbertson left for Cal and John L. Smith took over, another Erickson protege. More success followed, yet not much had changed since Erickson, only now better recruits were coming in, wanting to be a Vandal. (Sound familiar?) After Smith came Tormey, another disciple of Erickson, and more winning seasons, including a bowl game. Now a former player under Erickson is coach, and still not much has changed.

When I started writing this I had a future team in mind. I believe the past is paramount and can never be forsaken or forgotten, lest the future might not be so bright. Gonzaga Men's Basketball has a bright future. Fans across the country know this, albeit not as clearly as we do.

Just look at three years down the road, for example. Coach Few is bringing in a marquee player in Ferris High School's Sean Mallon, a top-75 player. Building from the inside out, Dustin Villepigue will compliment Mallon, as will the then-veteran seniors like Cory Violette and Jay Sherrell. Josh Reisman will be the point guard, just a soph like Mallon, and he's already proven himself a winner at Mount Vernon. With another recruit or two or three, we'll have solid, talented guards and wings to go alongside Reisman in the backcourt. And who better to show the new guys how it's done than the then-veteran senior Blake Stepp?

Nothing much will have changed, only the names. The past and present give us our future. And I don't see any letup in what's been happening on Boone Avenue for as far as my eye can see.

But this is just the surface of building and maintaining a program and improving on it. Countless factors, tangible and intangible, go into it. Morals and ethics, and sticking to them no matter what. Student-athletes who are more than mere quaility players but kids of strong character and values. Support from the administration and everyone involved. A willingness to move forward as GU is with a new arena. Much can be debated, there is so much more that one short article can't possibly do the topic justice...

But those who are at the helm, and have been at the helm, know the pieces I haven't mentioned. It makes a Zag fan sleep well at night. I know I do.

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