Without Dan Monson, Gonzaga is not playing for a national championship
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It's the standard line Dan Monson pitches at Mark Few every March, an annual check-in to make certain his old friend will be arriving early to the Final Four so they can connect before the hubbub of the week's activities get going.
"Hey, you coming in Wednesday?''
This past Sunday, a day after Gonzaga beat Xavier to reach the school's first Final Four, Monson cheekily called Few with the same request.
"Yeah I'm coming in on Wednesday,'' Few told Monson.
He wasn't done.
"And you're coming with us," Few said. "We wouldn't be here if it weren't for you. I can never thank you for everything you've done for me and my family.''
Retelling the story at a Phoenix downtown hotel restaurant, Monson reached for a towel he'd brought straight from a workout. He wiped his eyes.
Monson has been crying a lot this week. Cried the first time he ran into his Mike Roth, his old Gonzaga athletic director. Cried in the University of Phoenix Stadium stands alongside his former Gonzaga assistants Bill Grier and Leon Rice as he watched the Bulldogs beat South Carolina to move on to Monday's national title game.
He even broke down in the middle of a Spokane radio interview.
These, though, are not tears of regret.
These are tears of gratitude.
"For Mark to tell you that you had something to do with all this, when you don't feel that way,'' Monson said, his voice cracking before he stops to collect himself. "It's been 18 years. To say that I've had even a small part of any of this. It's ... a lot. It's a lot.''
Eighteen years ago Monson launched the Bulldogs, taking a then unknown to the Elite Eight. Four months later, Monson did what he had to do, foregoing Gonzaga's best possible offer of a $105,000 annual salary for a seven-year deal worth $490,000 a year at Minnesota.
He has spent every year since trying to recapture what he did at Gonzaga. It didn't happen in eight years at Minnesota. It hasn't happened in 10 years at Long Beach State.
Yet to Gonzaga people inside and outside the program, Monson is neither the traitor coach nor the coach left behind.
He's the architect. Fans at the Westin, the Gonzaga team hotel, stopped to shake his hand and say hello, easily recognizing the otherwise anonymous man in a black workout shirt.
And when Roth sidled by, the athletic director stopped and firmly planted his hands on Monson's shoulders.
"This is the guy,'' Roth said. "This is the guy who started it all.''
Monson reached for the towel again.
Dan Monson left Gonzaga for money he could not turn down. Still, the Zags have never forgotten what he did for the program. Joshua Lavallee/Icon Sportswire
Monson didn't want to leave.
You don't spend seven years at a place surviving on a $45,000 assistant coach's paycheck, bunking up in an apartment with your fellow assistants, sleeping on other wealthier coaches' floors during recruiting trips, generally toiling through the early years of failure to leave as soon as success finally arrives.
He had, essentially, done the impossible. Dan Fitzgerald ran the place for nearly two decades as head coach and later athletic director. But he was more a resolute pragmatist than big dreamer. At the end of each season, he'd take his coaches out to dinner and reiterate the same refrain -- why the Bulldogs could never win their league.
"Every school has better weather. Every school besides Saint Mary's has better facilities. Every school has better players in their area to recruit,'' Monson remembers the late Fitzgerald saying. "And it was hard to argue with any of those reasons.''
But Monson, along with Few and Grier, refused to follow Fitzgerald's lead. They pursued recruits that Fitzgerald believed were out of reach, insisted that Gonzaga could compete for what was then known as the Pac- 10. When Fitzgerald retired and Monson took over and, along with Few and the rest of the staff, turned things around almost immediately. The Bulldogs won 24 games and went to the NIT in Monson's first year, and then launched the unforgettable 1998-99 Elite Eight run.
"He changed the thinking,'' Roth said. "We made a conscious decision to be different, to be something more than what we'd always been.''
Monson turned down Minnesota twice. Said no the first time because he didn't want to be the guy in between, the coach who did the clean up of an academic scandal that cost Clem Haskins his job and the Gophers a postseason only to have someone else enjoy all the success. (Ironically that's exactly what happened. He was forced to resign at the start of his eighth season, making way for Tubby Smith to enjoy the program's return. "I'm an asterisk in the Minnesota history books,'' Monson says).
He said no a second time because he couldn't bear to leave his family. Monson grew up in Eastern Washington. His parents had retired back to Spokane. His soon-to-be wife's family also called the town home.
But then Minnesota countered with a "friends and family package," essentially including money that would allow Monson to fly people to Minneapolis and put them in a hotel as often as he needed. He also was two weeks away from getting married. While the days of living poor as a single guy were fun, he didn't think it would be quite so enjoyable as a husband.
Plus, he knew the $105,000 Gonzaga agreed to pay him was probably stretching the university beyond its budget.
"I didn't want it to be about money,'' he says. "I didn't want to be the guy who left for money, but I also realized I could make as much money in two years at Minnesota that I could make in 15 at Gonzaga. I was single for 37 years, and when you're facing those pregame marriage jitters, you start thinking a little differently.''
When he told Roth he was leaving, both men cried.
Monson knew he'd always have a special place in his heart for Gonzaga. It was the first place to trust him as a head coach, the first time he realized the enjoyment that only comes from achievement.
What Monson didn't expect -- didn't really appreciate until he arrived at this Final Four -- is that the place would still have a special affinity for him.
On Saturday morning, Roth spied Monson tucked in a corner at the Westin restaurant. Soon enough three of Monson's four children came by.
"I told them, 'Your dad is the reason all of this started,'' Roth told the kids. "I know it meant a lot to him to hear it, but it meant a lot to me, too. It's one thing to sit here and tell a reporter what he means to us, but to be able to explain that to his kids, it meant so much to me.''
You don't have to work to hard to guess Monson's reaction.
Mark Few has made sure Dan Monson has been along for this entire Final Four ride. Photo courtesy of Dan Monson
He didn't know the guy, but already Monson pitied him. It was a Sunday afternoon in 1988 and Don Monson, Dan's dad, had called all the coaches who would be working his basketball camp in for a quick meeting.
"This guy walks in two or three minutes late -- and my dad is not the kind of guy you want to be late,'' Monson said. "I was like, 'Oh, Dad. Don't fire him. I can't find a coach in a few hours.''
The tardy coach was Few, then a high school assistant at tiny Creswell High School in Oregon. Monsn hit it off with Few. Later, when Fitzgerald informed Monson he was in the market for a restricted-earnings coach, Monson suggested Few.
The job paid $500. Few said no. A few weeks later, Monson sweetened the pot -- $500 and free housing in Monson's spare bedroom.
Who could say no to that?
"I never would have been in coaching without Dan Monson giving me a job and believing in me and letting me grow,'' Few said.
Monson and Few spent seven years together as roommates. Few's new bride, Marcy, even spent her first three months of wedded bliss living in Monson's house.
During this NCAA tournament, on the day after Gonzaga beat Xavier, before Monson even heard from Few, he got a text from Marcy.
"Thinking of you this morning, and praising God for friends like you,'' Marcy wrote. "You started all this. You brought Mark here. We wouldn't be together if it weren't for you.''
As Monson read the texts aloud, his voice started to waver and he shook his head.
And then he reached for that towel again.
Late Saturday night, hours after Gonzaga had cemented its place in the title game, Monson's phone pinged with a text from Few.
"Where are you?"
He was in a hotel conference room that doubles as Gonzaga's meeting space. Few was leading a postgame celebration with family and friends and wanted Monson to join them. Monson, with his wife and kids, went to the party.
Eventually, Monson started ribbing his old friend, suggesting Few should go back to work and start paying attention to North Carolina.
"I told him, I don't want to be the guy that started a second-place deal,'' Monson said. "If you're going to give me credit for starting something, I don't want credit for a team that finishes second.''
This time, Dan Monson smiled.