Dan Fitzgerald, the gregarious, mercurial guy who laid the foundation for the men's basketball program at Gonzaga dies at 67 after collapsing outside a Spokane resident.

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Before Gonzaga became a story, he was the story.

Dan Fitzgerald was hard-charging, energetic, wisecracking, gregarious, mercurial and the guy who laid the foundation for the men’s basketball program you see today.

The name might not mean much. It has been so many years that the Zags have been a part of the weekly polls and Selection Sunday that the underpinnings get misplaced.

Tuesday night, Fitzgerald died at 67 after collapsing at a restaurant outside Spokane. He was probably in the middle of regaling somebody with a tale. He had a couple of million. He was all about the journey, and never mind the destination.

Eight years ago, researching a book on the rise of Gonzaga basketball, I needed to get with him. He agreed, picked me up at a downtown Spokane motel — St. Patrick’s Day, of all things — and we went to one of his watering holes on hospital hill. I brought a 90-minute microcassette tape, figuring I only needed about an hour.

Soon, I’d exhausted both sides of it, and I began scribbling. Five hours after picking me up, he dropped me off.

That was when he told me about his first coaching job, handling the JVs at a Catholic high school in L.A. One day, the opposing coach was sick, replaced by a nun in full habit.

“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve got about 12 pages of notes and every offense known to mankind.”

The nun won.

His Gonzaga was different from the one you see today. He got the head-coaching job in 1978, after a couple of years there as an assistant in the early 1970s. Fitz, as everybody called him, had grown up in San Francisco and played baseball at Santa Clara.

He took the Gonzaga job for $18,000. He said his first recruiting budget was $700. Three times, he recalled making the 1,200-mile trip to Los Angeles by car, sleeping in it.

“Things were so screwed up it was unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said. “At that time, there was talk of the school closing. Financially, it was just a disaster.”

In the early ’80s, Fitzgerald attracted John Stockton to the program. He had to out-recruit Idaho.

It was in the ’90s that things really began to cook. Fitzgerald hired Dan Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier, young lions who didn’t really get — or accept — Fitz’s old-school ways and his dogged belief that you could only do so much at Gonzaga. And besides, success would only create expectations.

He had his methods. After games, especially losses, he’d get a case of beer and they’d meet in his office, analyzing video until there wasn’t anything left to analyze. He’d reverse the remote, accidentally overshoot, and then he’d see more things to break down. Then the sun would come up and he’d want to go out for breakfast.

He told them how stupid they were, that there was no use in trying to recruit against Oregon or Washington State or Utah. They did it anyway, and the Zags got better. Four times in the ’90s under Fitzgerald, they won 20 or more, and he took them to their first NCAA tournament in 1995.

Wearying of the dual AD/coach role, he approached the administration about a succession plan to name Monson coach-in-waiting. That happened despite some sentiment to take the search national.

“Here’s why you don’t have a national search,” Fitzgerald said he told one administrator. “One, you don’t have enough money. Two, you’re so dumb you’ll hire the guy with the best tie.”

You could say that turned out OK for Gonzaga. Meanwhile, things got messy for Fitzgerald, busted by the NCAA for setting up a separate bank account built on basketball revenue outside the university books.

He contended it was to prop up a bare-bones basketball budget. The Zags got whacked for lack of institutional control and he resigned late in 1997.

After that, he didn’t come around the school, feeling it had left him hanging during the probe. He went away with a 15-year record of 252-171, but more than that, a legacy: He built this thing, even if he did it kicking and screaming.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com