Inside the Zags' secret sauce . . .
03-22-17

A few days before Christmas, on a mostly deserted Gonzaga campus, I ran into Ken Bone, the former Seattle Pacific, Portland State and Washington State head coach. In a brief chat having to do with his special assistant’s role to GU coach Mark Few, Bone stopped me with an observation about the Gonzaga program.

He talked about chemistry and cohesiveness and camaraderie.

But it didn’t have to do with the players.

Most such discussions deal with the roster -- whether players get along, whether they’re unselfish, whether they’re focused first on getting their allotment of shots, whether they’re apt to want to be together off the floor.
Those are vitally important questions. But Bone -- essentially observing and advising in his year with the GU program -- was talking about something entirely different: Chemistry among the coaches.

“From what I’ve seen at Gonzaga, you have a group of coaches that know and accept each other’s roles,” he said, volunteering the thought without prompting. “There are different roles that need to be played, whether it’s on the practice court, or in a timeout, or in recruiting. They support each other. You can see the respect they have for each other. It’s really critical.”

Interesting thought. And no doubt an underrated one. There’s a natural inclination to examine closely the relationship players have with each other, and with their head coach, but we tend to accept as a given that the coaching staff has no hidden agendas -- that it naturally purrs along like a Ferrari.

To hear Bone tell it, we shouldn’t take it for granted.

“I don’t see any competition between staff members,” he said. “That can easily creep in there, too, sometimes.”

Makes sense. Assistants might be trying to carve out their own territory, bent on buffing their resume for their own head-coaching future. They might be trying to curry favor with the head coach to wedge out a more favorable position for a job recommendation.

The dynamics may be subtle, but the effect can be profound. Bone talked about the ways a fragile staff chemistry can infiltrate the team culture.

A given assistant usually has primary responsibility on a particular recruit. Once those players are infused into the program, an upwardly mobile assistant might try to argue for his player against that of another assistant “and try to manipulate certain conversations,” Bone says. “I’ve seen it happen.

“For example, we might be sitting with the staff before a game, talking about individuals, who might start, who might get X amount of minutes, do we need to get the ball inside. There’s opportunities for guys to manipulate those conversations.

“It appears to me there’s absolutely no hidden agenda. I just feel it’s all about what they need to do to win the game. I know that sounds simple, but I’ve seen the other side of it, and heard many stories -- like in any business. Certain people have their own agenda.”

When those agendas take hold, says Bone, the schism becomes apparent to players. If they sense that one assistant’s voice resonates more loudly and another’s isn’t respected, they pick up on it.

“That’s something that can splinter teams,” Bone says.

I remember something Tommy Lloyd, the longtime Zag assistant, told me while I was interviewing him for “Glory Hounds.” In the course of asking him about how involved he was recruiting specific players on the roster, he said, “We don’t keep score.”

Bone views the coaching collegiality as a natural extension -- or perhaps the progenitor -- of the player chemistry for which Gonzaga has been renowned.
“I feel it’s Mark’s decision in hiring the right type of people,” Bone said.

Referring to recruiting, he adds, “I’ve heard them talk about certain kids: ‘We’re not going to touch that kid; he doesn’t fit our culture.’ Or, ‘He’s a Zag.’ “

A couple of other components in the shaping of Gonzaga culture have become obvious to Bone. Few, he says, is deft at keeping a finger on the pulse of player emotions and feelings, knowing how to keep them engaged. Sometimes, that means just telling them to stay away from social media, which might be obsessing with the player’s recent shooting slump.

“They’re in continual communication with these players,” said Bone.

Another element that plays into the tightness of the enterprise is the sheer proximity of players to the nerve center of their existence. The campus is small, and just about every player lives within walking distance. There’s not a lot of need for a vehicle. They can usually get into the gym when they want. By contrast, Bone has been around programs where some players actually lived in different cities.

It calls to mind a conversation I had with Dan Dickau when he decided to leave Washington. Everything was so stretched out, every trip to Hec Edmundson Pavilion a production. He couldn’t get there on a whim. And because of that, basketball couldn’t be as important as it needed to be for him.

None of this, of course, will help the Zags bring the ball up the floor safety Thursday night against West Virginia in the Sweet 16. Still, it’s part of the formula, and it’s hard to argue Gonzaga hasn’t made it work.


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