SPOKANE — Three years ago, the Gonzaga men’s basketball team lost the national title game.
Nearly every year for two decades, such an appearance seems a possibility for a program that has built itself into one of the nation’s most consistent.
It has done so in a midsized market, returning to the tournament year after year after year — 21 consecutive in all — while so many other programs, even the best of them, endure an off year now and then.
That’s what North Carolina did in this COVID-19-shortened season, ending with a 14-19 record and nowhere close to a spot in the NCAA tournament that, in 2020, never happened.
The national-title game would have been held Monday, and Gonzaga had hoped, as it does every year, to cut down the nets to claim its first national championship in men’s basketball.
But even without such a victory to cement its legacy, its stamp is found in more and more places across the country as its coaches and players try to bring tenets of the Gonzaga Way to other programs.
Many former members of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program have gone on to coach elsewhere: Ray Giacoletti, Leon Rice, Bill Grier, Donny Daniels, Kyle Bankhead, Ken Bone, John Jakus and Rem Bakamus, to name some.
Many of those, like Daniels, had already established their careers elsewhere before coming to Spokane. Some, like Bankhead and Bakamus, were just starting theirs as players at Gonzaga.
Each of the three said Gonzaga’s sustained success is unique, and while its manner of doing so isn’t the only model, it is certainly one that is difficult to replicate.
“The most remarkable thing is how long Gonzaga has sustained excellence through the years,” Daniels said.
Daniels, 65, spent nine seasons at Gonzaga as an assistant coach up until the 2019-20 season, when he accepted a job at Utah as its director of player development.
It’s his second stint at Utah, his first coming from 1990 to 2000 when the Utes reached the NCAA tournament eight times and the title game once. He also coached at Cal State Fullerton and UCLA.
In the one-and-done era, when players can leave after just one season of college, Gonzaga’s ability to restock its talent stands out to Daniels.
“You just have to reload quicker,” he said. “Carolina’s kind of going through that right now. Duke had their time when players left so quick they couldn’t replace to that extent. The amazing thing is how Coach (Mark) Few has maintained this.”
But that maintenance is a symptom, in some sense more than the cause. The cause is tied to the way Gonzaga has created ideal conditions for players to reach their fullest potential and also to a knack for identifying talented players who are also team-oriented.
“It’s a little easier said than done to get the level of players they’re getting,” said Bankhead, a Walla Walla native who played for Gonzaga from 2000 to 2004.
In 2007, he followed Gonzaga assistant coach Bill Grier to San Diego, where they both coached from 2007 to 2015. Bankhead just finished his third season as an assistant coach at UNC-Greensboro.
Bankhead said his time at San Diego was “a bit of a wild ride.” The Toreros went 117-144 during his time there, and Brandon Johnson, a player recruited by the previous San Diego coaching staff, in 2012 pleaded guilty to conspiracy in a 2010 point-shaving scheme.
An NCAA investigation cleared Grier, Bankhead and the rest of San Diego’s coaches of any wrongdoing. When Grier was fired in 2015, San Diego athletic director Ky Snyder said Grier “rebuilt the character” of the program, according to an ESPN.com article.
In Greensboro, the Spartans finished 13-5 in the Southern Conference this season and 23-9 overall.
While the Spartans would like to have the same success as Gonzaga, Bankhead said they aren’t trying to replicate the Zags’ model.
“The thing I always tell people is, it’s impossible. It really is,” Bankhead said. “To try and use the Gonzaga formula is a little bit of a time-waster. What they’ve done is so unique.
“Player development is really big. Getting kids in your program who want to work and get better. And the other thing is culture. That’s maybe the biggest thing that you want to take from their program.”
By that, Bankhead said, he meant getting “high-character kids” and creating great team camaraderie: a locker room where players put personal statistics aside and put winning first.
“They just want to win, they want to develop, they want to be great with their community,” Bankhead said. “The fact they’ve consistently brought in players to do that is mind-boggling.”
Greensboro is headed in the right direction: Last season the team went 28-8 and reached the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. The year before that, Greensboro earned a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost in the first round, 68-64 — to Gonzaga.
“When I got to UNCG the culture was already in place,” Bankhead said, crediting head coach Wes Miller, who just finished his ninth season there. “We have a great culture, great kids, similar to those early years at GU. We have blue-collar kids with chips on their shoulders.”
‘A really selfless group’
Bakamus, the former Gonzaga player, went from one national power to an upstart one when he took a graduate assistant position at Baylor in 2018.
He was following John Jakus, who left Gonzaga a year earlier, in May 2017, to be an assistant coach at Baylor, where he had served a two-year term as graduate assistant from 2012 to 2014.
“He’s done a great job doing some of the things we did at Gonzaga,” Bakamus said of Jakus. “The intent was to have me help him. We have some Zag ways that we’ve instilled here and it’s helped us be successful.”
Some of those traits Bakamus identified were putting others first, giving credit to others and not being selfish.
But at Baylor, it wasn’t a drastic change. Coach Scott Drew, Bakamus said, was already recruiting the right type of players and guys who do put the team first. The Bears finished 26-4 this season, ranked fifth in The Associated Press poll.
“That’s why we (saw) so much success this year,” Bakamus said. “It’s a really selfless group.”
Bakamus also talked about the importance of culture, a word he said is easy to throw around. But fostering a healthy one starts from the top and goes from the coaching staff all the way down to the managers and graduate assistants, and to the players.
“Everybody has to set an example and hold each other accountable,” he said. “Your actions are far more important than just talking about it.”
In Utah, Daniels is not technically a coach any more. As director of player development, his is an off-the-court job.
“I think I’m received well. I know I like talking to guys and being around the guys,” he said. “I hope I have an impact.”
In Daniels’ estimation, being a basketball player isn’t just about the sport, and he gets to talk to players about their personal lives, about their parents, about their academics.
“They have to do a lot when they’re in school,” Daniels said. “But the overall factor is trying to recruit good kids and create a culture they can thrive in and be successful.”
Many programs reach the NCAA tournament nearly every year. Neither Daniels, nor Bankhead, nor Bakamus, is currently trying to rebuild a program.
But sustaining them is a challenge as well, and that Gonzaga has done so speaks to how well its coaches have been able to do the fundamental thing all in the profession seek to do, Bankhead said:
They recruit great players.
“One thing we’d all like to take from Gonzaga is recruiting really high-level players and giving them a simple system and allowing them to go out and play with confidence …,” Bankhead said. “Of course you want to be a person who can go out and get a kid in your program and he turns out to be a great player, but it’s not that easy.”