Q&A: Ross Rettenmier

"Gonzaga's basketball program is now counted among the elite in the country. I'm proud to say that I played there and graduated from such a quality university." -Ross Rettenmier

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GN: Tell us about your high school career, your recruitment and how you came to decide on Gonzaga University.

RR: I played on a great high school team at Everett High – number 1 ranked in Washington all season. We were undefeated through 23 games and beating opponents by about 20 points per game. Four of our starters went on to play college ball. Our first defeat was against Anacortes, whose center, Gary Nelson was being recruited by Gonzaga among others. Zag coach Adrian Buoncristiani was giving Nelson one more look. My understanding is that Adrian liked what he saw in me and decided to pursue me instead. We both had mid-20's points, but mine were a mix of inside and outside – which Adrian liked. Plus, Nelson was 6-9 to my 6-7, but Adrian thought that I had a bit more potential. In any event, that night was the start of Gonzaga's interest in me.

I wasn't highly recruited. I started playing basketball kind of late, even by that day's standards. I never really picked up a basketball until 8th grade, never played on a team until 9th grade, made varsity as a 10th grader and learned the game under two great Washington Hall of Fame coaches (Norm Lowery and Joe Richer) in a program that was making trips to the state tournament every year. I never started a high school game until my senior year. So, I was an unknown to college coaches – even in Washington. I was recruited lightly by a handful of schools and it wasn't until Everett High was in the news for our undefeated season and I was averaging 16 points and 14 rebounds per game that I became known around the state and a bit nationally when I was named to one of the All-American teams.

No doubt, a lot of schools were scared off by the fact that I was married in February of my senior year and had a son on the way. In retrospect, it's kind of amazing that GU was interested in me. They may have thought I was more physically mature than I really was, but in fact, I was really young in my class and was still growing through my freshman year in college. By the time other schools started really showing interest, playoffs were well along. I felt real loyalty to Gonzaga for kind of going out on a limb in recruiting me.

On my recruiting trip to Gonzaga (with my wife Judy), I felt really welcome and at home. I had the opportunity to play with some of the team that weekend. The level of play was a little intimidating. Kenny Tyler had just finished his senior season and was soon to be drafted by both NBA and ABA teams. He and I were on the same team and I remember going through the key and getting a hard pass that hit me in the chest and bounced off. He was all over me for not having my hands up as I went through the key – a lesson I never forgot. I remember being in awe of the play of Jim Grady. I still think he was one of the best forwards to come out of GU.

The size of the school was attractive to me. Having only been familiar with WSU and UW, I couldn't believe that a small school like Gonzaga was D-1 and had some pretty good teams on their schedule. Their schedule was nothing like today's, but we did play some teams like DePaul and UNLV when they were ranked and national powers. Bottom line though, was that I knew I needed to go somewhere that would provide me with a good education. I didn't have any illusions about going on to play professionally after college. Gonzaga seemed like the only and best choice for me. When the opportunity came to sign a letter of intent, I didn't hesitate.

Ross with his first son Cory in 1977

GN: What are your most memorable times with then-head coaches Adrian Buoncristiani and Dan Fitzgerald?

RR: My coaches at GU were both pretty intense guys. I really liked Adrian, personally, and have kept in contact with him. I came from programs where you respected your coach and did whatever they asked – no questions. I felt I really had a chance to develop under Adrian. He helped me work through the transition from a post-up player to a face the basket small / power forward. I'm sure I frustrated him a lot as my progress was pretty slow. But, he hung in there with me and encouraged me. I was pretty frustrated part way through my sophomore year and left a meeting with him talking about transferring to another school where I would get more playing time. Ten minutes after getting back to the apartment, he was there to convince me to stay. He spent probably an hour talking to my wife Judy and me. That impressed me a lot. It would've been a life-changing move to leave and Adrian helped me to see the logic in staying and working hard on my game. He gave me a number of things to work on over the summer. The next year, as a junior, I played a lot, started some games and was really glad I stayed. That was an element at GU then, as I understand it is now – the coaching staff really cares about players and help them make good decisions in life as well.

I remember Adrian putting us through a drill where we'd take a charge from everyone on the team – one after another. He was really into teaching defense and loved it when someone took a charge. In any event, he wasn't very happy with our technique or intensity and finally jumped in to show us how. I'll never forget the sight of Dwayne Jones (6-7) run into him at near full-speed, knocking Adrian (5-4) into a backward somersault. He jumped to his feet and said, "Now that's how you take a charge!" That was one of the most comical things I've ever seen a coach do.

Adrian was a nervous wreck most of the season. I remember seeing him pacing the hallway at a hotel in Missoula. I think we had a 7 game win streak going and he was convinced it wasn't going to last. Actually, he was right We never beat the University of Montana on the road in all the years Gonzaga was a member of the Big Sky Conference. Adrian worried that losing streaks would go on forever and winning streaks couldn't continue. I think coaching was hard on him. He was a competitive guy who had to deal with a few players who didn't share his single-minded focus.

Dan Fitzgerald replaced Adrian in April of 1978. He brought in a few players who he felt would turn the program from a mediocre one to a competitive one. Fitz also set in motion the move to the new conference, a natural move for GU. Fitzgerald had a plan and a purpose that he executed starting that first season and should probably be given more credit for where we are now. He hired some great assistants along the way, stepped out of the coaching job to concentrate on the A.D. position for a time in favor of Jay Hillock, then came back to lead GU to the start of its dominance. I think that anyone who played for him would say that he was a really strong personality. During games you had the feeling that he was going to have a stroke as he paced back and forth. You always had to be prepared to be grabbed and pushed hard toward the scorers table when he wanted to get you into the game.

Fitzgerald should also be credited with getting alumni more involved with the program. Whenever GU played on the road he made a point of introducing former players who attended the post-game functions. He was really gracious that way.

GN: What was the toughest, most heartbreaking loss you experienced, and what was the most thrilling win?

RR: I'd have to say that the most heartbreaking loss was the last game of my senior year. We were playing Boise State at home for a spot in the Big Sky Tournament. I'm sure that Fitzgerald would've loved to get there his first year at Gonzaga. We seniors were playing in our last home game and it was for the chance to go on. Personally, it was tough because we had a late lead and I both missed a couple key shots and had a foul that put them on the line to grab the lead. Then, I missed the last shot for the win. Even though it was a desperation shot from half court, it was everything that contributed to losing that last game that hurt.

The most thrilling win? When we beat Seattle University at home my sophomore year with a last second shot. That resulted in the best after-game celebration of my four seasons. I think the party went until the early hours the next morning.

GN: There were some colorful characters on the teams you were on. Share an occasion that you'll never forget.

RR: We did have some characters on some of those teams, but especially my junior year. We had some guys who were really tough for Adrian Buoncristiani to cope with. In an indication of challenges to come, we had a guy who refused to shave his goatee on picture day. Adrian wanted no facial hair. The player finally gave in, but we had to wait on him for a while. It was a compromise that ended up with him keeping his mustache. We also had a guy on the team that year who had a 2 pack a day cigarette habit. He only lasted a season. Another guy, recruited out of Oakland could jump through the roof. He could do some amazing things like palm two balls, do a 360 degree turn and dunk them both. Unfortunately, when in a practice or in a game, he traveled almost every time he touched the ball. Adrian recruited a couple of guys out of an inner-city school in Los Angeles who were really out of sorts in Spokane. I had one of them in my speech class, taught by the nicest and easy-going Jesuit, Fr. Pat Carroll. This guy was called upon to do an impromptu speech in Hughes Auditorium. The theme was to describe the process, sights and smells of peeling an orange. I remember him looking at Fr. Carroll and saying, "This is bull@#$t" as he walked out, never to return to class. He was gone at the end of our freshman year.

GN: Summarize your life after graduation till now.

RR: I returned to Everett after graduation. My oldest son, Cory, was 4 years old. Judy and I had another son, Casey, in 1980, ten months after graduating. Our third son, Riley was born in 1983. I spent about three years in public accounting with Moss Adams, then went to work as a controller for a client. Sixteen years later, I entered the securities business and currently manage investments for individuals and business for AIG Financial Advisors. Judy and I are in our 32nd year of marriage. She runs the health office at Everett High. We look back on our Gonzaga years as both fun and formative years. Our oldest son Cory is a recreation supervisor for the City of Everett and is engaged to be married in August of 2007. Middle son Casey is in graduate school at PLU. He'll be a school teacher within the next year. Youngest son Riley graduated from Gonzaga in 2005 and works in Seattle for Speakeasy. We really enjoyed Riley's four years at GU. We made many trips to Spokane and really marveled at the progress the school and the basketball program has made.

It's hard to believe, but I still love to play the game. I've played in recreation leagues over the years, but now it's just twice a week pick-up games with ten to fifteen guys at a Boys Club in Everett.

Ross, Judy and family celebrate son Riley's graduation from Gonzaga in 2005

GN: In what ways are today's Bulldogs different than the Bulldog teams you were part of?

RR: That's a tough one because I'm on the outside looking in on the teams that came after mine. Most of us felt really privileged to play for GU. It was Division 1 basketball, we were on full scholarships and we felt like we were pretty special. I don't know that we were as disciplined and team-oriented as the current teams are. I think Mark Few and his staff have done a phenomenal job of finding, attracting and blending talent. It's no easy task to take guys who are pretty much the stars of their high school teams and convincing them that they are a role player who must subjugate their substantial skills to a team goal. Back then, we felt pretty mature. I look at today's players and think that they're just kids. But they play in a much more mature and advanced way then we did. For a few years we had an Old Dogs team that played a game against the current teams in an exhibition game of sorts. It was only a game for a few minutes and we were just pounded by them. The obvious differences were that the big guys could dribble around us, the guards could jump over us and their defense shut us down.

GN: If a high school student asked you to describe the Gonzaga Experience and the one thing you took away from Gonzaga, what would you tell that student?

RR: If I had to pick one thing I took away from Gonzaga, it would have to be the connections with people. Basketball has given me great opportunities – my education being one of the most important. And I certainly took that away from Gonzaga and used it to advance my work. Still, the most treasured thing would be the friends I've made through my years at GU. I get a lot of satisfaction from being able to run into people I played with or against and having a life-long connection. For example, current Athletic Director Mike Roth and I played one year of ball together as freshmen on GU's jayvee team. He and I became friends that year and have remained close. He was a surrogate father to my son Riley while he was attending GU. He may even have helped him in ways that I don't know about! Another guy is Athletic Development Director Steve Hertz. He was the assistant baseball coach while I was a GU and took over to coach the jayvee team on our Montana trip – where we beat the University of Montana in Missoula – a first. Then there are our friends Mike and Mary Shields, who are the longest running and most dedicated Zag fans I know. Another significant couple to us was Charlene and the late Joe Cooney. They were like parents to us. My school experience was quite a bit different than other students because I was off-campus for all four years, but the friendships with teammates, other students, professors and people connected with the basketball program will last for years.

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