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The Against-All-Odds Rise of Gonzaga Basketball
By Bud Withers
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2002 Bud Withers
All rights reserved.
The Culture on Campus
The evening begins with more non-basketball-playing Gonzaga students on the Martin Centre floor than players. Some 25 are there to form a tunnel for pregame introductions for the Zags.
There will not be any high tension on this night, for the opponent is the University of Portland, one of the bottom-feeders of the West Coast Conference. Rather, it's an excuse for the Kennel Club to pursue its raison d'Être and spend a couple of hours mocking the opponent and giving love to the Zags.
Some 1,050 are members of the Kennel Club, a student cheer group not officially under the aegis of the university. There are those who would say that's a good thing. Membership in the group requires $15, which buys a T-shirt and — just maybe — some beer when there are leftover proceeds. One of the recent T-shirts featured the mascot bulldog and, owing to the stars floating around his head, it appeared that he had attended one of the club's pregame functions.
Club members sit together at the games, a large clot of red, blue, or white — depending on that year's shirt — and ride players, bait officials, and generally try to forget they have an engineering exam the next day.
Former coach Dan Fitzgerald invented the group and named it. Since then, it has grown into one of the most recognizable elements associated with the university.
Neil Tocher, a Montana product, was president for the 2001 — 2002 season. In the house he shares with students near campus, the decor might be described as early Busch Light.
"The Kennel Club is one of the reasons I came to Gonzaga," he says.
He adds that the Kennel Club used to be notorious for "about 50 guys that would get extremely drunk and go to the games and cause a lot of problems." Knowing that, he has tried to balance the club's hedonistic bent with some restraint, because he likes what the athletic department has done for the group. Students get 1,000 tickets to the games, plus leftover faculty and staff allotments, and he has had the perk of a personal relationship with athletic director Mike Roth and the basketball coach, Mark Few.
"Things just exploded this year," he says, referring to a website devoted to the club.
To be in the Kennel Club means when Eastern Washington fans chanted "Ov-er-rat-ed" at the Zags in 2000, the Gonzaga rowdies responded with "Nev-er rat-ed." To be in the club means that when Loyola managers spread folding stools in a circle during timeouts, you chant "Kum-ba-ya, kum-ba-ya." To be in the club means deciding when to break into the singsong refrain of "It's all ov-er," to symbolize the death of the opponent's chances. Sometimes that can be adapted to the occasion, such as when Gonzaga led Portland 29 — 4 in 2001, leading to "Sin-gle dig-its," or "Up by twen-ty" — and thirty, and forty, as would be the case in this game.
Unofficially, club members are expected to ply friends at Santa Clara or San Francisco for inside intelligence on their players.
"We look for girlfriends' names; we look into history," says another Kennel Club officer, Steve Churney. "Somehow, somewhere, we get the tidbits."
A lob pass from Blake Stepp to Ronny Turiaf for a raging slam sends the Kennel Club into a froth. Moments later, Stepp finds Anthony Reason for a second one, and the crowd goes wacko. The game is over well before the club is chanting "Up by for-ty," with 14:04 left. They're mostly bored the rest of the way, at least until they realize there's a possibility of free hamburgers (which the students sometimes get if the team reaches a certain number of three-point shots). Then, with five minutes left, they chant, "We want Wen-dy's."
The evening ends with Reason's selection as player of the game and another tunnel of students formed to usher the team back to the locker room.
It's definitely collegiate, as well as collegial.
"You go, you have fun," says 2001 — 2002 student body president Cathy Smits. "It's kind of a rowdy crowd, but it still maintains school spirit. Not every Kennel Club member drinks; not every Kennel Club member goes to every party."
Still, the university casts a wary eye to the club, hoping it can display a measure of self-control.
"Unfortunately," Smits says, "there are some things with the organization that aren't the best. So I think the university is trying to work with the students to make it better."
* * *
Gonzaga University sits on 108 acres by the Spokane River, half a mile from the downtown core of a city of 195,000. The school was founded in 1887, two years before statehood in Washington, as a frontier boarding school for boys. Joseph Cataldo, a missionary who extended Christianity to American Indians in the area, started it with the encouragement of Spokane's early civic leaders.
The school is named after the 16th-century Italian Jesuit saint Aloysius Gonzaga, a descendant of a noble Renaissance family, who died at 23 attending to the sick in plague-stricken Rome in 1591. He was designated the patron saint of youth in 1726.
The trademark twin spires on "St. Al's" church, often associated with Gonzaga, are in fact an anomaly as great as the Zags' residence in the elite of college basketball. The church is a separate entity from the university, even as it is an enduring symbol of the campus.
Father Robert Spitzer, 50, is a Gonzaga grad who came most recently from the faculty at another Jesuit school, Seattle University, to the president's office at GU. He is not put off by the notion that some people know Gonzaga only for its basketball, citing the accomplishments of a final-four debate team in 2001 and consistent high marks for GU's schools in fields like business, accounting, engineering, and law. U.S. News and World Report's annual catalog of America's best colleges has placed Gonzaga among its top comprehensive regional universities in the West for 13 of the past 16 years.
It's a private school with about 5,000 students, a little more than 3,000 of them undergraduates. Full-time undergraduate tuition was $18,300 in 2001 — 2002.
The university espouses a commitment to go beyond intellectual teachings to development in spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical pursuits. About half the students are Catholic, and a degree requires three courses in religious studies, one each in scripture, Christian doctrine, and applied theology. Gonzaga basketball players say the campus ethos regarding Catholicism is nonjudgmental.
"No expectation, nothing further," said Jeff Brown, a three-time All — West Coast Conference player in the early nineties. "I still remember the public school kid, taking my first religion class taught by a Father. I remember thinking, 'What do I call this guy?' Call him Father."
Vice president for student life is Dr. Sue Weitz, a smiling, gregarious woman whose background was mostly with public schools before she came to Gonzaga two decades ago.
"It was a concern to me," says Weitz, who was Presbyterian. "My father was pretty anti-Catholic. I was so welcomed."
There's an unmistakable feeling of community and high-spirited camaraderie, born partly of the cozy enrollment number and surely not damaged by the success of the basketball program. Between frequent hellos to student acquaintances and faculty members, Weitz points to a display in the central dining area where the cook staff bakes small cakes available to every student, to be picked up and devoured during the month of his or her birthday.
In the middle of campus is the Crosby Student Center, converted from its original use as a library. Outside it is a statue and just inside is a room of memorabilia dedicated to the life of Harry Lillis Crosby.
He was born in 1903 in Tacoma, Washington, before his family moved to Spokane. As a boy, he would clamor for someone to read to him the "Bingville Bugle," a youth feature in the Spokane Chronicle, and "Bing" was born. He would become one of America's most beloved singers and actors in the mid-20th century, and his family one of Gonzaga's major benefactors.
The overwhelming percentage of students who shuffle daily past the Crosby statue are white, a fact not lost on Gonzaga administrators who have tried to bring more diversity to the population. A faculty member recalls an introductory address in the late nineties by Spitzer's predecessor, Father Edward Glynn, whose tenure was brief due to a power struggle with the board of trustees.
Glynn had been at Gonzaga a generation before and had come most recently from St. Peter's College in New Jersey. "I'm reminded of what lovely people you are," Glynn, who pushed hard for diversity, told the faculty. "The problem is, you're all white."
In the 2001 — 2002 school year, 76 percent of the student body listed itself as Caucasian. Some 5.5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, 3 percent were Hispanic, 1.5 percent were American Indian or Alaska native, and 1 percent was listed as black. Two percent identified themselves as international, and 11 percent declined to give information.
Spitzer has pushed diversity as well, and figures show the mix has increased at least slightly since he took over. All minority listings were slightly lower in 1999 — 2000 than two years later, albeit with a greater 17 percent rate not reporting.
The effort toward a more multicultural university includes scholarships for racial or ethnic minorities, a recently created vice presidential position to encourage diversity, and the establishment of Unity House on campus. There is also a one-credit-hour course for freshmen called University Pathways, in which perhaps half the curriculum includes diversity awareness.
"Spokane is such a tough place for diversity to be a piece of cake," says Gonzaga registrar Jolanta Kozyra, who says she knew of a prospective female student from Chicago who chose not to attend GU because she couldn't find a hairdresser who specialized in African-American styles. Indeed, although Spokane has a relatively robust metropolitan population of 420,000, the percentage of blacks was only 1.6 in 2000, compared to 91 percent white.
Gonzaga point guard Winston Brooks came from a heavily African-American area of Richmond, Virginia, but time at two junior college outposts helped him adjust to the reversed racial mix.
"When I left to go to school at 18, that was like the first white people I'd been around," he said. "I didn't have any problems with it. To me, we're all human.
"Here in Spokane, I have so many friends of different colors and races. It's a whole new atmosphere to be in."
The city that surrounds the Gonzaga campus grew up around the labors of fur trading, lumber, mining, and, in 1881, the Northern Pacific Railroad. The intersection of those industries gave Spokane a meteoric population boost, from mere hundreds in 1880 to 20,000 in 1890 and to 100,000 some 20 years later, rivaling the biggest cities in the nation.
Lewis and Clark reached the area in 1804, and a few years later, the Hudson's Bay Company of fur traders established themselves near the falls at the Spokane River, a position that gave the city its first name, Spokane Falls. Late in the 19th century, Spokane was the hub for an explosion of gold, silver, and lead mining nearby.
The bacchanals of the Kennel Club may have come by their diversion naturally. Four years before Prohibition swept the nation, Washington voters approved in November 1914 state Initiative No. 3, which banned the sale and manufacture of liquor in the state. It didn't, however, do away entirely with drinking, allowing import permits to be obtained from county auditors for either two quarts of hard liquor or 12 bottles of beer every 20 days. According to Don Duncan's Washington: The First Hundred Years, there were 34,000 of those permits gobbled up in Spokane County, which had only 44,000 registered voters.
The biggest employer in the area is the Fairchild Air Force Base. Kaiser Aluminum is the largest manufacturer, and there are a growing number of electronics-related companies. Housing is cheap; the median home price is $104,200, less than half that in Seattle and below that of other inland cities like Boise, Idaho, and Tri-Cities, Washington.
The urban core was gussied up by a world's fair in 1974. The sporting ethos includes the 12-kilometer Bloomsday Run, annually attracting more than 50,000 participants, and Hoopfest, a three-on -three summer basketball tournament that has drawn as many as 5,600 teams.
Don Kardong, a 1976 Olympian and longtime chief of the Bloomsday Run, notes that Spokane "is sometimes described as not being a very good spectator-sport town. But one thing that GU basketball showed is if you have a good product, it's going to create a mania.
"It's the perfect kind of Spokane story, in a way, this overlooked team — Spokane always feels it's overlooked by western Washington. It's kind of the ultimate underdog moving up the ladder, that's pushed everybody's hot buttons."
Spokane's climate is more Midwestern — without the humidity — than West Coast, to the surprise of a lot of outsiders who figure it for the drippy, gray weather of Seattle. Spokane's annual precipitation is only 17 inches.
* * *
On the Gonzaga campus an oft-debated issue — as it is at a lot of Catholic institutions — is that of academic freedom versus the religious imperative.
David DeWolf, a Gonzaga law professor who has been active in the debate, describes the opposite camps:
"The liberal attitude, in kind of caricature, is that to be a Catholic university, you have to be a university first, and what a university is, is defined by what other universities say it is," he says. "And essentially, whatever is left over gets to be Catholic.
"I'm more of the conservative variety: to be a Catholic university, you have to be Catholic first, and you need to make it a place that you wouldn't need to look up in some catalog someplace to find out what's Catholic about it."
Let the arguments begin.
"It's polarized the entire campus," says theology professor Mark Alfino, who has debated both DeWolf and Spitzer on the issue. In his joust with Spitzer, Alfino insisted, "It is a weak faith that does not welcome reasons, challengers, even rascals and rogues. That's why it is a strong faith that embraces academic freedom."
The controversy descends from the papal encyclical Ex Corde Eccesiae, which prescribed a sort of Catholic vision for universities. A fundamental part of it is a provision that theologians at those schools essentially need to be answerable to their local bishops. With liberal theologians, that does not universally sit well.
In 2000, the Women's Studies Club at Gonzaga — recognized by the university but not part of it — invited a speaker from Planned Parenthood. Spitzer got wind of it and had the invitation rescinded.
Two years later came a bigger firestorm. This time, the Women's Studies Club sought to sponsor a play called The Vagina Monologues. After considerable debate, Spitzer decided to allow the presentation to take place at the West Coast River Inn — off campus.
"The Gonzaga ideal is enhancing the whole person," says Cathy Smits. "So there's a fine line. How do we educate the whole person and still give them information on these issues that aren't affiliated with or don't coincide with the Catholic faith?"
In his debate with Alfino, Spitzer, himself a professor of philosophy, argued that among legitimate options for the university is a stance between sponsorship and rejection — nonassociation.
"He thinks there's something between censorship and academic freedom," says Alfino, "and I don't think that makes a lot of sense."
Responds DeWolf, "There are a lot of people who teach here and go to school here who view Gonzaga's Catholic identity as sort of an interesting historical resource, but one that doesn't have much to do with the day-to-day operation of the place.
"My attitude about it is, if you're going to run a Chinese restaurant, it ought to be recognizably Chinese."
The success of the basketball team seems to have introduced another dynamic to the discussion. Enrollment is up dramatically at Gonzaga, and almost everybody seems to agree that basketball has something to do with it. Does the mere fact that some students have been attracted by basketball bring a measure of secularization to a school whose administration has tilted toward conservatism?
Apart from basketball, meanwhile, there are side issues.
"People seem to want Gonzaga for their kids," says Alfino, "although they don't necessarily want Catholicism. They want that ethos of a Catholic campus even though their kids weren't religious.
"This is a heck of a place, and nobody wants that ethos to go away. There's no polarization on that. But some people feel that there's already something wrong with wanting the ethos without the religion."
* * *
You can look, but you won't find an athletic dormitory on the Gonzaga campus. While high-level basketball demands much from those who can take part — sequestered hours of practice, days on the road — there appears to be a genuine connection between the Zag players and the rest of campus.
Excerpted from BraveHearts by Bud Withers. Copyright © 2002 Bud Withers. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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