On a special edition of the Walker Webcast, we shared Willy’s interview with Head Basketball Coach of Gonzaga University from the Walker & Dunlop Summer Conference. He and Willy discussed how he took his team from mid-major obscurity to consistent NCAA contenders, his leadership style, the importance of team building, recruiting the right talent, and much more
Coach Few has had an incredible journey, from playing basketball at Linfield College to an assistant coaching role at Gonzaga that turned into much more when the head coach left. He assumed that role and took the team back to the NCAA tournament for 23 consecutive years
But making it to Elite Eight was not all fun and games. Coach Few talks about his early days at Gonzaga. Beyond the pressures of coaching, the team’s president had a vision for the team, school, facilities and enrollment. All of the sudden, expectations were put on the program which were never there before, he says
How did the program live up to such lofty expectations? Everything Gonzaga basketball does goes back to “two backbones:” chemistry and team culture, Coach Few explains. When Kevin Pangos joined, for example, the culture of the team as a whole changed and blossomed. He also talks about Travis Knight, the team’s strength and conditioning coach and mental development coordinator, and how this work has changed over the years.
For the first 14 years, mental toughness was the focus, according to Coach Few. Think “toughening up” and “being a man.” Today by contrast, he estimates that 25-30% of an athlete’s time is spent on what he calls mental work, teamwork and personal growth. Players take Sundays off and start their weeks with PGMs, or Personal Growth Mondays. Openness and vulnerability are a priority, with traditions like post-practice huddles to share fun, personal things. This fosters an environment where players and coaches can help each other work through things they may be going through
Some of the things to work through over the past year include recruiting and moving on from a loss. Coach Few says he’s proud to watch assistant coaches move on to bigger and better things, even after he’s invested in them and even though it’s hard to see them go. He also talks about what it was like to exit the NCA early this year. It was an “immensely shallow and empty feeling,” but the players seemed to get over the loss quickly—unlike some of the fans, Coach Few notes
Willy and Coach Few spend a fair amount of time talking about the business of the sport: the increase in student transfers, the economics of the program, analytics, and even competition with the Texas A&M booster club. Gonzaga basketball has one of the most profitable basketball programs in the country, ranking #18 in terms of total revenue for the basketball program. Coach Few attributes this to investing in the right things out of eagerness and a healthy dose of paranoia, the school’s willingness to grow alongside the basketball team over the past 25 years, and—first and foremost—the players.
Coach Few has a personal connection to one of these players. His middle son currently plays on the Gonzaga team and “has actually become a crowd-pleasing guy.” What’s it like to coach one of your children? Like most parents with college-aged kids, he says, he feels honored just to share a little bit of extra time with him before and after practice
Coach Few wraps up with questions from the audience, sharing his take on Title IX, living in the COVID-19 bubble, and the future.
00:36 Willy welcomes Gonzaga basketball coach Mark Few
08:20 Becoming a head coach and Gonzaga’s two core values
14:42 Leadership, confidence, and joy
17:58 Mental conditioning with Kevin Pangos and Travis Knight
29:00 Moving on from a loss and the challenges of recruiting
35:12 The increase in student transfers
42:23 Managing egos and teamwork lessons from Old Warwick
49:36 The economics of Gonzaga’s basketball program
52:11 The future of graduation rates and using analytics
Willy Walker: So, this is a real pleasure for me. I mean, really excited. The reason I'm so excited to have Coach Few here is because as many people who've come to the Walker & Dunlop conference before know – I'm a leadership nut. I love reading about leadership, I love talking about leadership and I like finding leaders who have, if you will, zigged when others have zagged, who have a certain..
Mark Few: Well said
Willy Walker:W Exactly. Who has a certain leadership style that allowed them to do things that others haven't been able to do? As many of you will recall, last year we had UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel here, who took UMass from being the worst hockey team in Division One hockey to winning the national championship in the course of four years. You heard about the culture in the way that Coach Carvel turned that program around. If you look at what Coach Few has done with Gonzaga and taken a mid-major school and made it the school and taken a program to the NCAA tournament for every single year he has been head coach of the program, taking it to two national championship games over the last five years, 2017. It is phenomenal what Coach Few has been able to accomplish. So first, thanks for being here
Mark Few: Thanks for having me, what a beautiful spot to have a conference and a discussion. I mean, this is amazing!
Willy Walker: And I owe great thanks to our mutual friend Tim Wolff for having you here, because I know, Coach, you don't do a whole lot of speaking. And so, getting on your radar screen and getting you to come here was all thanks to Tim and your personal relationship with Tim. And so, thank you. I know Tim's here. Thank you, Tim. And thank you for taking my request and saying “Sure, if he's a friend of Tim's, I might think about joining him.”
Mark Few: 100%. Now just getting to know you, meet you and know our similar likes makes even more sense now that we should have done this a long time ago
Willy Walker: So, Coach, you grew up in Oregon. You went to Linfield College and played basketball and baseball because of a shoulder injury, ended up then leaving Linfield and going and graduated from the University of Oregon and then made your way to Gonzaga as an assistant coach. Talk about the early days in the 90s when you were a mid-major school, what that experience was like in the 90s
Mark Few: Oh, wow. I mean, amazingly and so vastly different than what most people are familiar with now. At that point, my first year up there, I came on as a graduate assistant, and the way they did graduate assistants back then at Gonzaga is you basically got your school paid for to work on your master’s degree if you taught a couple of classes. So, I really challenged my intelligence level and taught weight training, basketball, tennis, flag football and participated in all of them for a workout every day just to stay in shape and had a blast with the students. But then it was but you were basically full-time coaching, and I was sleeping on my good buddy who talked me into going up there, Dan Monson's couch and kind of living for free in his apartment. My first two years, my salary was $1,500 a year. So, we've come a long way. Gonzaga’s come a long way. But our team at that time probably had maybe two or three Division One level players on it. What I would say and the rest of them could very easily play, probably should have been maybe at a Division Two or Three level. And we used to have to go around to the cafeteria and around campus and try to drum up excitement to get people to come to the games, which is vastly different like we were speaking prior to coming out here now where I mean, every game's been sold out in the new arena and students actually camp out for several days just to get in to watch the guys
Willy Walker: So, talk about 1999 when you made it to the Elite Eight because to make it that far in ‘99 was a wholly new experience for Gonzaga. You there, you end up losing, I believe, to UConn in the ‘99 Elite Eight. Talk about that as far as the first taste of national exposure and what that was like
Mark Few: Yeah, it was such a lightning in a bottle. And I don't know how many people here are familiar with the NCAA tournament, but it's just such a..
Willy Walker: I think it's pretty fair to say, coach everyone's familiar with the NCAA tournament. That’s a baseline here.
Mark Few: Okay, good, good, good. I need to just know my audience like you do with any good pre-game talk. So, it was just an amazing two-week experience. And we kind of caught the eye almost like Saint Peter's did this year, the entire country and you're just on an adrenaline rush for two weeks and you're doing nothing that you've ever even conceivably even imagined you could do before. But the cool thing about it was to just see a group of guys that had so deserved it with all their hard work. And I've never been on that kind of stage to finally get to play those types of level games. So, it was just so much fun, and it was just pure, unadulterated hoops with no pressure. We were under no pressure at all, which is vastly different than now.
Willy Walker: As I think back to that, if you sit there and say, okay, someone who is going to make a bet on the program of losing the head coach, you become the new head coach. And for the next 23 years you go back to the NCAA tournament. So, I guess 23 was that year. So, since that year, that includes 23 straight runs. I mean, George Mason made the Elite Eight, but didn't go back to the tournament. We'll see whether a team like St. Peter's can get back into the tournament next year. But the concept of getting to that and then holding that for as long as you have. Talk for a moment about the pressure you felt after an Elite Eight year stepping into the head coaching job
Mark Few: Yeah. And then that was so different from what we'd had before. We never had expectations before. And so all of a sudden there were expectations put upon the program. And it's funny, I've had a busy week. I was in Kansas City at a huge recruiting event, a Nike event that has all the top young players in it. And I had the chance to sit for a game and a half next to John Scheyer, who had quite a bit more daunting task than I had at that time. John Scheyer is taking over for Coach K here next year. And so, we were trying to share with him just some of the incredibly strange feelings that you have when something like that happens, you know, goes from always wanting to be a head coach, you know, and everybody talking about you becoming a head coach. And then when you get that call, it's like “oh, you know what moment” like, oh, what the hell did I just get myself into here? But then kind of things settle down and then you're literally running around just crazily. Your whole life is changing, and you are trying to get everything organized. The one thing that helped me was I had been at Gonzaga. I knew everybody around the program, you know, that was so involved, whether it's compliance in academics or housing or tutoring and all those kinds of things. Plus, the players had heard my voice and I just tried to share that with John, too. Like, you know, you're going to be fine. It's so much better than if you stepped into a brand-new place, how difficult that would be.
But the one thing that was totally different than what we had faced before were the expectations, you know, and everybody got a taste of that crazy success and just thought you could easily do it again. That first year, those guys were so special, some of them that came back from that ‘99 team and were seniors that year and literally, I don't know, people don't realize this, but we were not going to make the tournament just based on how we'd perform it. At that time, we weren't able to schedule the way we are right now, so we weren't able to get enough really big-time games to ensure that we'd be in the tournament if we didn't win our conference tournaments. We had to win that conference tournament, which put an incredible pressure on teams, coaches, and staff. And we ended up winning the tournament, I think, in overtime in the final game and what a relief that was and that same group because they were just so, you know, pardon the French, but just so ballsy and so tough. And just so I mean, they've all moved on to do great things in their lives. We went to another Sweet 16. We went to lead Sweet 16, Sweet 16, which was pretty amazing
Willy Walker: So, talk for a moment about your coaching style because there you are sitting next to the Duke coach. Every recruit in the country is being wooed by various coaches when they sit around and say, “Come play for Coach Few.” What is it like to play for Coach Few? What's the differentiator at Gonzaga?
Mark Few: If it's cool, I'll just kind of veer for a second just to give you an always humbling moment that always levels me out when people ask me this question. When it all went down, when Dan Monson left, my AD was a great guy, unbelievable guy who just recently retired, went to our president, great guy named Father Spitzer, who had the vision to really let the basketball grow, the school grow and the facilities and the enrollment has went crazy, in sync with the basketball winning.
He went to the president right when it went down and the president's like, “Well, Mike, what are we going to do? And he's like, ‘Well, we already know he's going to be the head coach.” And Father Spitzer goes, “And who's that?” And Mike goes, “Mark Few.” And the president of the university goes, “Who's that?” So, I started with that. So that all levels me out when I'm sitting there. And whether you're sitting next to Coach K or whatever, it's nice to have the humility piece and the humbleness to just kind of level you out a little bit. But our program has two backbones that drive everything we do. And the first one is team chemistry and team culture is something we're very, very proud of. We're very protective of, and it's really been the pillar of everything that we've built there. And then it goes hand in hand with tracking the kind of guys that want to put in the work. We take a lot of pride in taking guys a lot of times that people haven't heard of you know, not so much recently, but really developing them and turning them into great college players and now, even NBA players
Willy Walker: So, I heard an interview you did with Adam Morrison, who played for you in the early 2000, who is now a radio commentator on Gonzaga basketball
Mark Few: Amongst other things
Willy Walker: Among other things. What I found to be interesting, Coach, was that he said that he as a player was sort of petrified to talk to you and that didn't consider you as a friend until after he graduated. So, talk for a moment because we see from the outside these players come off, they talk to you. They seem to have a very tight rapport with you. And we see it on national television. But I was surprised that Morrison said a) he was kind of intimidated by Coach Few. And b), it wasn't until after I was out of the program that I actually became friends with him
Mark Few: Yeah. You know, what Willy I'd say that probably has changed as I've grown up or got older or both, in the profession. And again, I think it's important. Like I think we've always built Gonzaga on having phenomenal relationships with our players, but I think it's good. In some respects, there has to be appropriate fear with the leader, and I don't know, fear is the right word but maybe appropriate.
Willy Walker: I think he used, “you are demanding without being demeaning”, which I thought was a great way of saying it
Mark Few: I'm glad he used that because that I would hope to be described how I try to be. And all along, it's fascinating because these are kind of going hand in hand. I just got done with a great day and a half down at USA Basketball and Steve Kerr and I were talking about the approach moving forward with this next group of guys for the Olympics on how to get them to understand how big this moment is going to be. The amount of stress and pressure on even the greatest players in the world to win a gold medal is really amped up. But getting them to play with freedom and getting them to play with the most confidence they've ever had and getting them to still play with an unbridled joy is the whole thing. And if we can capture that, I mean, that's what we try to do at Gonzaga. I love watching Steve's teams and how he coaches because I share a very similar view of that. But there still has to be one guy in charge and in control of that to kind of move everybody in the right places
Willy Walker: Talk about that for a second. Because during this last NCAA tournament, one of your players mentioned that during the tournament, Chet Holmgren was “balling.” That he'd gone from kind of just playing to balling. And I heard that, and I thought, wow, that's great that he is doing exactly what you're talking about, of being relaxed and playing. But then I put that against, if you will, a Coach Saban who has “the program” at Alabama. And it's like he talks explicitly about if you're a running back and you think you can go right and cut back left, you're not playing for Alabama. You need to go right tackle and you need to hit that hole. And if the hole is not open, shame on the team for not creating it. Basketball is obviously a different sport, but how much balling do you allow versus playing the program?
Mark Few: Well, I try to allow as much balling I mean, if they can get to that point, if they're really, truly balling, I'm all in. But if they're throwing the ball in the stands and then I have a tendency to veer towards Coach Saban for moments to get him back in the proper frame of mind. But any time you get your athlete where they're not thinking and instinctually just playing, and then back in my young assistant days, the guy that I worked for was very demanding and very demonstrative and stuff on the sidelines. And I always felt like our players were always playing like this. And I always thought to myself, like, man, if I ever get lucky enough to be a head coach, I don't ever want them looking at me; Is this right? Is this right? I just want them playing with the crazy amount of confidence they play when they play pick up, you know, because that's how sometimes when you see them at their best. If you can harness that and put it into an organized model where there's a common goal and a plan, but yet you're still hoopin’, that's as good as it gets. I think most coaches would say that. And nobody's better than Coach Saban, right and as successful as him. But his last couple of teams have had some ballers on it and they may deviate from the plan like two of those weren't planned roll outs and all that went to was thrown it from the hip 70 yards
Willy Walker: So, you talked about culture and the importance of culture. I heard you say that for the first decade or so as head coach, the culture just sort of evolved and naturally happened. And then you said that when Kevin Pangos was playing for you, there were some things that came out of Kevin being on the team that kind of changed the culture of the team. a) What changed? and b) why did Kevin have such an impact?
Mark Few: He was just amazing, a really, really good guard we signed from Toronto that just was wise beyond his years and very perceptive of what was going on. And he was a very personal guy. I mean, he's literally been obviously one of the all-time greats in our program, but probably one of the most loved guys ever to come through the program. And he was the one that said, “Hey, coach, do you mind if we start doing some things off the floor? Just building team and doing things and working on chemistry instead of just talking about it.” And I was like, “Yeah, all in.” I mean, because he's such a wonderful guy and sure as heck, if it didn't start blossoming into something, I think that's where we hired a young man who's been with me now for gosh, I mean, I'm probably 10-12 years now and Travis Knight is technically our strength and conditioning coach, but he's also now our team coach and basically our mental development coordinator. So, he handles everything that has to do with the mind, basically. And I can tell you, Willy, I think a lot of coaches are like this for the first 10-14 years of my career, we just talked about the mental part of saying “toughen up, work hard, get your confidence” and that was it. Now, I would say we spend probably 25-30% of the athlete's time on mental wellbeing, just anything that starts with team building. We do this thing called PGM, it's called Personal Growth Mondays.
So, you know the ordinary role of the season, you'll have games during the week and then usually you can take Sundays as a mandatory day off, so the guys get to rest and then Monday you kind of start it back up again. So, we start every Monday with this Personal Growth Monday and basically what that is, is the staff, me and coaches aren't allowed in there. It's just the players and Travis Knight, our strength coach and mental coach. They can dive into a myriad of anything that's currently happening or that they've requested or what Travis thinks they might need from processing pressure, processing expectations, lack of confidence, hitting adversity, handling success, everything. What's interesting, especially with this generation of players, Travis has been able to come up with this great catalog of videos that they can watch. An example of one of the videos was several years ago when Steph Curry missed 11 threes in a game, nobody ever missed 11 threes in a game or something like that. And so, they show that to the team. Stop it. And then ask each individual guy, be like playing golf and literally shanking a whole around and hitting 12 out of bounds, shots off the tee and fore jacking on every green or something. And so, they go to them: “So now what would you do?” And so, the athletes formulate some responses or whatever. And then the next video shows them Steph Curry's next game (and I might be wrong a little bit on some of the stuff), he literally set an NBA record for how many threes he made the next game, and then it showed Steph talking after the game - “Well, yeah, I just that's what I do. I shoot threes. I just came back the next day and did my normal routine, I knew the next one was going in.” And so, I mean, to have that and then to tie it in with the discussion where the players can share, if they could do that. And then the last part of it is Travis gives them some exercises and some thought processes that can kind of lead them down that path where they can kind of deal with something like that
Willy Walker: So, talking about the after the game, when you lost in the in the Sweet Sixteen this year, after the game was over, Drew Timme came into the huddle and was very open with his fellow team members about how proud he was to be on the team and how he wouldn't have done it with anybody else. How do you create that sense of vulnerability and openness inside of the team where someone like Drew Timme will not only say that in the huddle, but then turn around and say it in the press conference afterwards?
Mark Few: Yeah, well, first of all, he's a special guy. I mean, he's a unique, unique player, he is the best player in college basketball, but also just a really connected, thoughtful and well-loved guy in the program
Willy Walker: But he has to be supported in that by you. I mean, he goes plays for some other coaches and he can express himself that way?
Mark Few: Yeah and again, I think that goes back to when we huddle up after practice, share things, some on the personal variety, some on the fun variety, some on any variety, spiritual anything at the end of every practice. So, I think that's something that we try to really, really reinforce to kind of open up yourself and even show your vulnerabilities to your teammates. And that's how we can kind of all help work for them
Willy Walker: And I'm assuming that your assistant coaches fully buy into that. Talk for a moment about when you'd been an assistant for almost a decade, when you got the head coaching job, you had Tommy Lloyd with you for 22 years before he went off to coach Arizona
Mark Few: You are a machine in your zag history, like this is incredible!
Willy Walker: (Laughs) As people know, I do a little bit of homework for these things. So, Tommy Lloyd goes off to Arizona, but when you first came into the program, an assistant was thankful to have a job working for you. Now an assistant who comes to work for you is target number one for an up-and-coming program to say if we can get an assistant from Mark Few, we're going to put a lot of money behind that and try and pull him across. How has that been in both investing in the time in your assistant coaches and then also dealing with the losses of them?
Mark Few: I mean, first of all, you're overjoyed, like with Tommy's situation. It was a great job I mean, to go from who would have thought somebody could be an assistant at Gonzaga to be the head coach at Arizona? So, I mean, that was one of those kinds of wow-our-program’s-really-arrived moments. You still kind of are harder to get as we move along. But you're overjoyed for him, you're excited for his family. You're worried about him, you know, hoping it's you know, Gonzaga is a unique place with the support we have and the unconditional love we have, and everybody in the entire athletic department school will kind of pull the rope in the same direction, which is not common in big time college athletics. But then there's a personal loss. I mean, he's a really, really good friend. He's been my sidekick forever. Our wives were best buddies, our kids grew up together. So, then it's just kind of trying to hold the whole home front around and everybody's ballin’ and its pretty emotional times. It's really cool then to see the success that Tommy had this year though, and Leon Rice is right up the road at Boise State. They had an unbelievable year this year, he's family too. My guy that's with me right now, Brian Michaelson is just so uber talented
Willy Walker: Why is he such a good recruiter?
Mark Few: He's extremely organized, which is a great combination with me, who is not extremely organized. So, I always try to hunt out people that are a little different than me. And he's very relational, unbelievably relational, and is able to really bond with..
Willy Walker: But he goes somewhere like Texas to recruit Drew Timme, how does he win recruiting Drew Timme against all the other recruiters who are out there trying to get him to either go to UT, go to Memphis, go to Duke. I mean, what's the sales pitch?
Mark Few: It's again, that relational piece that he has. He's unbelievable with the families. He's unbelievable. He gets, I think, to where the player really, really trusts him for his future. And, you know, with these types of guys, these are big, big, big decisions now because we're not just talking like 30 years ago where you get to go to school, and these are decisions that are going to lead on to futures in basketball and, professional futures and such. So, he just does a great job of doing that and then, I mean, he's got some pretty good, you know, with all the ammunition behind him with all the success.
Willy Walker: Just as a side, Coach Few’s winning percentage is 0.836%. 83.6% of the games he goes into, he wins
Mark Few: The guys win. And that is the one thing about coaching – the players are the ones, they make the baskets, they get the stops. You know, they are the ones. It's our job to find the right ones and I think at Gonzaga, we've been blessed and lucky and fortunate enough to find the right ones that really fit what we're all about, and then to direct them and organize them and get them in the right, system and frame of mind to succeed. And I think that's what I take probably the most pride in that whole process
Willy Walker: So, you obviously exited the NCAA tournament early this year for the expectations on you as the number one team in the country
Mark Few: This was going great at Sun Valley; we're going to go on this ride later. I was fired up for the ride and now I really don't
Willy Walker: I won't mention Arkansas again. No, but talk for a moment, Coach, about the next day in the sense that the disappointment of the loss is obviously there. You work with the team to say, “Hey, it's a game. We move on from this” and I've heard you talk about that extensively. But what I want to get to is how your world, the day after the tournament, you know your players, the day of the tournament, you know your coaches, the day of the tournament. You to some degree know you're recruiting inbound on the day of tournament and then all of a sudden the next day, it's as if everything goes sideways. Yeah, talk about that
Mark Few: Willy, it is the absolute most shallow, empty, worse feeling in the world. You just go from having a purpose every day and an organized, hey, we wake up, we meet, we watch film, we walk through and then we do media and then we do practice and then we have a good session of dinner and fun with the guy. I mean, it's just all everything's about that and then it's over, just like that. And, you know, and you see the angst on the families and the players are hurting. It's tough. It's tough. It's interesting. I've done it enough now that I kind of got it down pat. I mean, it takes a while to heal and get over it. But I always say this, the players get over it first, you know, because they're young and have everything in front of them and they're kind of bulletproof. It takes them about 48 hours or something usually, you know, they mope around for a while and then they're back in the gym a couple of days later. The coaches it takes us about a month to get over it, probably a good, solid month, and the fans never get over it.
I was at the lake in the summer, in July, like, “Oh, I can't believe… what happened?” and you're like, “I am so over that. Okay, like we're moving on” and they are literally yeah. So, it's just like clockwork. So, I look forward to time at the lake dealing with that, you know, on a dock somewhere.
Willy Walker: So, Chet Holmgren goes number two in the draft. You've taken a program that used to have people for several years at least, and now you've got a lot of one and dones. How's that made coaching and recruiting and the complexity of fielding a team that much more challenging?
Mark Few: It's made it incredibly more challenging because, you know, with that, we never want to lose our culture of team first and the chemistry, of obviously playing for the name on the front and the name on the back. And we, you know, we've had back-to-back lottery picks, top five picks. And it's just been unbelievable how both of them have handled it, how they've been champions of our culture and their and they're so appreciative. And we just had dinner down in Vegas I was just down for the NBA Summer League watching Chet play his first game down there and watch and Andrew Nembhard was our other draft pick play his and we had a dinner with you know Domantas Sabonis who was years ago now is now an NBA All Star. You know, Zach Collins was our first one and done, but that was 2017. All our former players, Rui Hachimura, all from different generations, but they all get together at this dinner and they're the best of friends, even though they never even played with each other, and the connection is Gonzaga basketball and the kind of family that is because of that. Talk about a powerful moment. I mean, it's just so cool to see that. But that's kind of what we're able to, we hope to kind of make sure we continue to have even though we're recruiting this higher-level guy that in both cases we knew was only going to be at school for a short time
Willy Walker: So, with the transfer portal now that doesn't require…
Mark Few: Explained transfer portal to the audience.
Willy Walker: You can explain this better than I can
Mark Few: It's as weird as you think it is
Willy Walker: I'll give you the layman's view of the transfer portal. It used to be that if you wanted to transfer from one school to another, you went, you told the coaching staff you wanted to transfer. They would put you into the system and if you then transferred to another school, you had to sit out for a year. And the NCAA changed the rules last year that you go into the transfer portal, and you can go to any school you want, and so you can go immediately from Michigan to Gonzaga if you want to and you just go into the transfer portal and if you want to come, you come. What it's done is just created not only a market for all the talent, but the management of who's on your program for one year and the next. And where I was going to coach was we spoke previously about Jalen being on the team and Andrew transferring when he didn't have to sit out for a year. and how you managed Jalen, having had your commitment that he's the starting point guard and then Andrew coming in and being able to play in the conversation you had to have with him. You're gonna have to have that conversation almost every year given the transfer of talent and recruiting people to come in saying, you're my starting point guard, and then someone says, I want to move from university to you
Mark Few: Yeah. And again, it's like building your team used to be you could kind of map it out on a four-year plan and you knew where everybody was going to be and project hopefully. Well, this guy's not ready to start this year, but a year or two will be ready to start. That's just been thrown into the wind now. And so literally roster building and trying to figure out who your team is, you usually have a pretty good eye on April 1st and now I think most of us are just now getting a feel for where our rosters are and team. We had a couple of practices before I went out recruiting. Those are our first practices. That's first time we were all together. And so, yeah, it's not fun. I can't say that it's fun. I don't know that it's a lot of things that happen right now or are happening are well-intended rules, I think. But what didn't happen is they didn't get proper input from us coaches who live the life every day. So, there's a lot of unintended consequences right now. Consequently, the transfers, I think we went up from maybe 20 something percent. Gosh, I think there's probably 60 or 70% of athletes now who are transferring and bouncing around from school to school. So, it's a huge challenge from what we spoke to earlier about re: team building, chemistry and culture and playing for the name on the front. But so far we've been able to navigate it pretty well. It just goes back to the people you select into your program
Willy Walker: And when we talked about Drew, you were talking about the decision for him to come to Gonzaga and that it's a major life decision. It used to be to get a scholarship, go play basketball and if you play really well, you go on to the pros. Now, every Drew Timme out there is sitting there going, all right, a) Am I one and done? And b) What about Nils? Yeah. So, talk for a moment about name, image, and likeness and how that is changing the game of college basketball
Mark Few: Yeah, it is changing the game, probably in a way more difficult type of change than the transfer portal did in that it can begin to become very transactional unless you have a handle on it. And the name image likeness like the transfer thing is, is a great plan and a great idea. For instance, Chet Holmgren and Drew Timme were two of the probably highest, them and the Kentucky kid Oscar Tshiebwe, earners or beneficiaries of name, image and likeness (NIL) last year but it was the legitimate name, image and likeness where Drew had shave club for men commercials
Willy Walker: That mustache had a little bit of trimming
Mark Few: And what a great personality for that. You know, Chet was able to do all kinds of national type advertising. But with these things now, it dives into some of these areas where basically booster clubs are putting forth money just to pay guys to come play at their school or stay at their school and that wasn't the intention of it. That's where it gets to an area where it doesn't need to be there, but it's going to be hard now since the genie is out of the bottle to get it back
Willy Walker: So how does a school like Gonzaga that has seven men's sports, and seven women's sports compete with the Texas A&M Booster Club? Sorry to anyone in the audience who's a Texas A&M alum, but that's Texas A&M on the football side to those who don't know, did exactly what Coach Few just talked about, which was go out, raise $25 million from their booster club and then use that to guarantee NIL income to Texas A&M recruits, which then gave Texas A&M the very best high school football recruiting class of this year. So that's where Coach Saban made some comments about it being out of the letter of the intent on NILs of using these booster clubs and the breadth of them to create these, if you will, blank checks that could bring players to Texas A&M. So how does a smaller school like Gonzaga compete?
Mark Few: Well, again, I firmly have that belief, that we can continue to attract Drew Timme's, the Chets, the Jalens and the Kevin Pangos’ based on our success. Because at the core of all of that, and I'm sure with this group, money is great, but how you do it and the way you do it and who you do it with ends up mattering the most in the end, and that's the type of guy that we still end up attracting. And in that process, I think our guys realize that the NIL stuff is a nice piece to this but if I do my work and do the plan at Gonzaga, I can see what how Chet's doing right now, our Jalen is doing right now, our Rui Hachimura is doing, Corey Kispert is doing, exactly how much money Domantas Sabonis is making, and it's nothing compared to what the NIL stuff is. So that's what we're banking on and I firmly believe that that will hold true, you know, in the long haul
Willy Walker: You don't need to convince me on that Coach, we picked you up in Las Vegas at 6 am this morning. So, you're up at 5:15 am to get to the plane and you're flying back to Spokane tonight? Yeah, it's a busy time.
Mark Few: But I went on recruiting, then I met with Chet and staff of the Thunder and was able to watch Andrew play for the Indiana Pacers and get with him and kind of support him. And then we had USA basketball meetings yesterday, which is just what a great, it’s weird to get or seems weird at this point in your life to get just such a great professional development head to sit in those meetings where Grant Hill's leading them and what an amazing person Grant Hill is and all the life experiences he's had. Steve Kerr is the head coach. Erik Spoelstra is an assistant. Monte Williams is an assistant. You know, in the past we were all in there with Coach Popovich.
Willy Walker: And Coach K was there?
Mark Few: And Coach K was there too, prior to that and it just gets your juices flowing probably like this conference does for these people to just start thinking in your planning and your learning and, but yet you're also kind of reinforcing a lot of the stuff that you already did that it's great to hear that Steve, Monte or Eric or are doing that with their own programs. And it's just like a bolt of lightning to kind of get you going. We're usually just kind of limping along in the summer doing recruiting stuff. So, it's pretty good stuff
Willy Walker: As you think about Coach Kerr and coaching in the pros versus you coaching in college, what's the biggest difference in how he has to coach his team versus how you have to coach your team?
Mark Few: I think those pro guys, whether it's Steve, Monty or Eric, just watching them over the years and talking with them, it's how they deliver their message is very important and then just kind of a management of egos that needs to happen. And you can, you know, as you spoke to the NIL piece with me, but can you imagine trying to build a team when the guys sitting on the bench are making significantly more money than you are by a long shot?
Willy Walker: I get used to that with my bankers at Walker & Dunlop. So, I know exactly what's going on about working with people who make more money than you do.
Mark Few: But then also they might be up for a contract that year and the guy next to you. So sometimes if you have a contract, you have to kind of make yourself look good. So, fighting those individual instincts that they might have to try in a contract year and still build a team. And that's what's so brilliant. I mean, when you watch the Warriors play or the Miami Heat play or Phoenix, it's just inspiring how those guys are able to pull that off. I don't want to bore anybody but so we were down there, and Coach Popp had to go to a wedding, but he gave us some takes from just the recent Olympics. He writes out these cool little notes or whatever, and I got to read this because I didn't want to be brutal with it, but this is pretty cool. And this sums up why Gonzaga is still going to work in this NIL, and it sums up how those guys are able to still coach in the NBA, and how we were able to win a gold medal last year.
Okay. So, hang with me, try to, you're like my team here. You have to have an attention span longer than five or 10 seconds here, so.
Okay, this is called “Old Warwick”
A man became lost while driving through the country. As he tried to read a map, he accidentally drove off the road into a ditch. Though he wasn't injured, his car was stuck deep in the mud, seeing an old farmhouse just down the road. The man walked over to ask for help. An old farmer answered the door. “Warwick can get you out of the ditch,” the farmer said, pointing to an old haggard mule, beaten down, standing in a field. The man looked at the old haggard mule and then looked back at the farmer. It just stood there, nodding, Yep, old Warwick can do the job. The man figured he had nothing to lose, so the two men and Warwick made their way back to the ditch.
After the farmer hitched the old mule to the car. He snapped the reins and shouted, Pull, Fred, pull, Jack. Pull Ted, Pull Warwick, with hardly any effort at all – the lone mule pulled the car from the ditch. The man was amazed. He thanked the farmer, patted the mule, and asked: “Why did you call out all those other names before you called Warwick?” The farmer just grinned and said, Old Warwick is just about blind. As long as he believes he's part of the team, he doesn't mind pulling.”
That kind of sums up. We get these little gems from Pop all the time. He's an amazing man, and an amazing leader
Willy Walker: He's an amazing leader and created such great teams down in San Antonio with Tim Duncan as the most, if you will, uncelebrated most valuable MVP ever in the NBA
Mark Few: Yeah, correct. And just an incredible culture when you think they had that run basically with the same core: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and that gang, much like what Golden State's doing with Steph, Klay, and Draymond
Willy Walker: One of the things they say about Tim Duncan was that just by looking at his fellow players, he can get people to do things. Like he'd come off and you did not want to see that look in his eye that said that you disappointed what Tim Duncan did. I remember back to hearing Adam Morrison talk about when you all lost to Stanford back in, I'm going to swag it to 2006 or 2007 and you flew back from Palo Alto, back up to Spokane, and the team got off the plane. This is when you were still flying commercial, not private, and you sent them straight to the gym and you all did a workout in the gym. Do you still do that kind of stuff?
Mark Few: Ahh, you can't do that now. There are all sorts of great aspects about Drew Timme, but his nickname with me is “the union rep.” (Everyone laughs.) Drew doesn't go for that. So yeah, I pick my battles with the union rep
Willy Walker: That's great. So, you and Marcy have three boys and a daughter? And your middle son is playing for you at Gonzaga. How fun is that?
Mark Few: It's been awesome. It's really, really been cool. He’s been great, it's fun to see how he's bonded with all the team and how close they are to him. And then, you know, it's actually when you have a college age kid, you just long for just a little bit of time around him. So, it just has kind of forced time to be around him and either before or after practice.
What's been so cool and so amazing as he's become kind of this crowd favorite guy, you know, that they're just rooting like crazy for him. In fact, this is what I mean, ridiculous but like, I'll be coaching him if we're fortunate enough to get up. He found his own fans yelling and screaming at you: Put Joe in. We want Joe. We want Joe. You know, that's my son, and they're on me to put my own son in. But we have a hierarchy of Gonzaga. There's some walk ons that have put their time in before and that need to enter the game before Joe does. So that makes for some anxious times with the fans on my ass
Willy Walker: Will you be faced the decision of giving him a scholarship or does he get in under the professor/coach plan?
Mark Few: Yeah, he'll be on the coach plan
Willy Walker: He'll be on the coach plan.
Mark Few: No, he is not a scholar. Nor is he good enough yet to get a scholarship. So, he's getting there. He's getting there
Willy Walker: It's great. Final thing before I open up the questions, if anyone has questions, which is just the economics behind it. Coach, I think in the NCAA tournament this past year, Gonzaga basketball was number 18 as far as total revenue to the basketball program. Yet you also put $6 million to the bottom line. So, unlike a lot of other programs that I went and looked at, you have probably, if not the, one of the most profitable basketball programs in the country. First of all, is the university cutting you on that? And second of all, does that give you the ability to bring in coaches and do things that other programs can't do?
Mark Few: The best greatest part, other than the players and everything that we've been able to attract there is, I think, this willingness and over the course of 25 years now of the school to grow with us. And nothing was ever given to us. I mean, even after that Elite Eight, Sweet Sixteen and all that, we were still in this crappy little locker room that was probably 10X20 and in an old, dilapidated gym, and didn't finally move in I think once the school began to recognize, like, hey, we can really, this still jives with what we're all about at Gonzaga and but yet we can grow. I think that first run in ‘99, I think there were maybe 2,800 students or something. Gonzaga, it's now up to 8,000 and there's been 17 or 20 something buildings built since that or something along those lines. And it's just been a great lesson in if you invest in the right things, it can make everything better, which is no different than Alabama football. I would say everybody hammers them for how many coaches and how they do this and that. But I guarantee you the track team is traveling better and in better facilities. The tennis team is better
Willy Walker: And the number of PHDs they're creating is higher. It's been all across the university
Mark Few: Exactly. And so, I think it's just a great example of everybody being on the same page and moving forward. That's the one thing I think that fuels me a lot of times. It's weird, Willy. I would say it's part eagerness and it's a healthy dose of paranoia that if we're not growing, we're going to get passed
Willy Walker: I have no idea what that feels like. (Laughs)
Let me open it up for some questions. I got one right there
Audience Question: It's on the portal and what's going to happen to graduation rates as people transfer from school to school
Mark Few: And what is happening with graduation rates as we've opened up all these floodgates of transfers? We had the graduation rates on such an unbelievable upward trajectory, especially with people of color. And they were really, really the best they had ever been in years because we'd really had some hard-line things put on our programs like if you didn't have certain what's called APR, if you weren't moving your guys along and keeping them eligible, you would lose scholarships. And so, people were doing a great job of graduating their athletes. Now, with this transferring from school to school to school, those rates are going to plummet. They just are. I think it's our lone hope that we can hang through statistical analysis, show that to people that there's probably nothing wrong with spending a year at school without playing in games. It helps you academically, unbelievably, gives you that extra year to graduate and all that. So that's the message we're trying to get out, actually
Susan Weber: If you want to raise your hand, I can get to the mic real quick
Willy Walker: There's one over there from Stuart. While we're waiting for Susan to get over there. Coach, you mentioned that you are ankle to shin deep on analytics. Will you talk for two seconds about I think it's Coach Jacus who runs analytics for you?
Mark Few: Well, no, John Jacus, he introduced me to him back in 2015 and it kind of changed. He was able to do it in a manner that finally pushed me over the edge. So, we began to use analytics and nothing like some people use them. We use them as a kind of show our guys and get our guys to absorb them. But they've been a big piece of us and just basically it's using efficiency. How efficient are we on the offensive end and how efficient are we on the defensive end? And what can we do strategically to change that? I think you brought up our ball screen coverage, our defensive coverage when we had Chet Holmgren. I did something that I've never done before, and I was really, really swung by the analytics that the staff presented to me. And then obviously when you have a special talent like Chet, you've got to, you know, you can't be stuck in your ways
Willy Walker: Got a lot of ball
Mark Few: Yeah
Stuart Wernick: You played college baseball somewhere, throw you a little curveball. 50 years of Title IX have been around. Just want to get your thoughts on it and if it's still beneficial in today's world.
Mark Few: I mean, it's been incredibly beneficial if you've seen the growth in all the sports and the opportunities, I think is the biggest thing that's out there and certainly, I mean, there's still room for growth there. I personally think the next step is to get a lot of these programs to stand on their own and start seeing if they can develop their own followings, media wise, and generate their own income and things like that. And I think when they do that, then the sky's the limit, you know. But it's been just in the time that I've been in college athletics, it's changed dramatically. They've been very beneficial with not only the amount of scholarships offered, but usually whatever the men are doing, for instance, our women's team charters now and has access to all the same facilities that my team has
Audience Question: I assume that you've many times been offered jobs at other schools or in the pros. What have you thought about it? And have you ever come close to doing it? And what is your advice to other coaches if they call you? Because I know they have
Mark Few: Yes, and yes, to the first two and there's been a couple in there that yeah I wrestled around with a little bit and, and looked at and whether they were heartstrings or the power of the brand or power of the program. But what I always come back to is I'm super, super competitive. I guess I'm at the point where I can finally admit that I didn't used to admit that to my wife or anybody. And I'm at a place now that I think is the best job in college basketball with just the type of guys we're able to get and coach, the type of lifestyle that I have. I'm a huge fly fisherman. I love to get out in the outdoors and monkey around, whether it's mountain biking or playing pickleball or wake surfing or whatever. I've been a Northwest kid, guy, man my whole life, and Gonzaga just works for me at this point. It's been my adult life's work, and I'm very proud of it. And I'm still challenged and happy. And I guess what I usually tell other coaches is just don't mess with happy if you're in a good place. You know, sometimes that grass isn't quite as green once you get over on that other side of the fence
Willy Walker: There are only two coaches in NCAA basketball history who've gotten to 500 wins and 600 wins faster than Coach Few, Adolph Rupp and Jerry Tarkanian
Ted Patch: I wanted to ask, what is admittedly an unfair question.
Willy Walker: He's a Maryland alum, so careful
Mark Few: Well, then, I must add, I'm really close personal friends with Mark Turgeon.
Ted Patch: So that's yeah, that didn't work out so good for us. (Audience laughs) Great recruiter, don’t get me wrong.
Mark Few: Depends on what perspective you come from.
Ted Patch: So, this is so this is an unfair question given where Chet is in his career. Yeah, but if you had to compare him to other players, who would you compare him to skillset wise at this point in his career?
Mark Few: Obviously, you're talking NBA type level players then? Yeah. I think what's so polarizing about Chet is he's you know, that's how I think initially the media came with the unicorn. He's hard to draw comparisons for. I don't think we've had somebody obviously people want to compare his body to Porzingis or whatever, but Porzingis never blocked shots and has a defensive impact that Chet has shown he can do on the collegiate level. And I'm no question it'll show up on the NBA level. So, I think it's hard. And the other thing is even I was going through it when I was just down in Vegas, dealing with people making judgments after his first or second summer league game, you know, and everybody gets caught up sometimes in the scoring.
The thing with Chet that's so fascinating is he impacts the game in every single way. I mean, he's a great passer. He can bring the ball up the floor, help you break pressure, and lead the fast break. He can stretch the floor. He provides great space on the floor because he can shoot the three. He's a very good shooter from out there. You can initiate and initiate offense with him. He's obviously an elite rim protector, so there's just all this stuff that goes into it, you know? But I mean, the big question I think that everybody has is: How’s his body going to hold up? And again, Willy tells me you guys all follow it, but he's 7’1”, he's now up to I think he guaranteed me he was at 197 lbs. the other night, but I wasn't buying it. But he works really, really hard. It's just hard for him to put on weight. So, I just think he's just going to be Chet, you know? I don't know that there is going to be a comparison for him
Willy Walker: Coach, just one thing on that as one of the things that a lot of people ask: Is being in the WCC an advantage or disadvantage as it relates to recruiting a player like Chet? Because you say there's a question about him at the next level of being beat up, given that you all dominate the WCC and always get to the tournament and also, as you said previously, you're able to play a duke out in Maui and so you've got a great schedule. It's not like they're not getting up against the best schools. But is it actually an advantage to say, come play here, not get beat up all season long like you would in the Big East or the ACC? And then we'll go to the tournament, and we'll have glory days versus going and being in, if you will, beat up every single day.
Mark Few: Well, like initially it was something that was always used against us was, “Well, they don't play in this league.” And then we were able to combat that with “Well, we've been five of the last six years, the number one seed.” So, I mean, that's based on performance scheduling and all that. So that didn't really fly and then once we were able to start putting kids in the pros, that didn't fly, you know, the development type you got to play against these guys. And we just say, well, instead of playing one game a week, how about if you play against pros every day in practice? So that should help more than anything. But you bring up a good point. I don't know about the banging part. What we try to share is our pace that we play and how fast we play. And it's kind of in some ways kind of a West Coast style, I guess. The challenge here again, for a lot of these guys is do you want to play that way, or do you want to just go grind it out in the Big Ten and play? You know, it's 22 to 21 at halftime, you know, and is that servicing you as well as playing here? And so, we kind of presented in that way
Colin Atkinson: Hey coach, you guys in 2021 lived in the bubble for about a month, if not a little bit longer. Can you tell us about that experience?
Mark Few: Oh, my gosh. The bubble
Willy Walker: A lot of video games?
Mark Few: Uh, yeah. There is a lot.
Willy Walker: Not for you, for your players
Mark Few: Yeah, there was a lot of stuff going on in there. So, the bubble, the NCAA came up with this idea that every team we would stay basically on our own floor in a hotel for the entire time you're in the tournament to stay COVID clean, which became quite a challenge. So, it was based on the frat house, that was Gonzaga, was the third floor of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Indianapolis. And initially it was kind of strange to open up your door and be right there as Drew Timme, and right down the hall is Jalen Suggs and all of that. At the end of the hall, it's Corey Kispert.
But in a strange way, we made it all the way to the end. But by the way, we're testing, I think, twice every day, which I mean, if we're sequestered, I have no idea why we're still testing every day when we're just locked in our hotel room. We would be allowed out for two hours a day outside the fenced off area. We'd go to this minor league baseball park and my family was there to watch the tournament. So, I was able to stand inside the fence at the Major League ballpark and talk to my family. You had to be 25 feet away outside the Major League ballpark. And so, yeah, it was a little bit, I'm sure, you know, similar to a prison term in some ways. But the crazy thing was when we got done with the Baylor game, we got to that point that Willy's talking about where the season's over. And I mean, we're undefeated and we lose our last game. So, it was just devastating.
We get home and you think I would assume it's kind of like coming back from, war or something. You think you're going to be all fired up and you are for your house and your dogs and the freedom and all this. But I got to tell you, I miss the camaraderie of the third floor of the Marriott. It was great. It was just so much fun. I mean, the guys are playing Settlers of the Catan and playing all day. We have games, you know, at night. Off the record, the staff had set up the Northern Lights Brewery in the weight room at the end of the floor. At 6:00 pm we had an awesome happy hour that you weren't supposed to fraternize with other coaches, but I did invite other coaches to come up the stairs and they'd show up and we kind of have chalk talks and hang out. I was a total rebel in this deal. I organized a speakeasy pickleball tournament because we had these enormous, enormous team rooms in the convention center. They were huge. You could put courts in them and stuff, and we taped out pickleball courts. So actually, Scott Drew and I were partners in Pickleball the whole time we were there. Just kind of schooled on everybody. But Jay Wright came down and there were other coaches who would sneak in there. We had a special knock and everything, and yeah, we had to do something, man. I mean, you just go crazy. You just get so nervous and uptight you have to do something. So, there was a lot going on in the bubble, but it was fun. But man, seeing the family across the fence was the most bizarre thing ever
Willy Walker: Coach Few, what a pleasure. Thank you for joining us today
Mark Few: Thank you. It was fun.