The Day That Pointed Zags, Oregon to Final Four

Saturday was the most momentous day for Northwest college basketball since, well, when? The afternoon in 1958 at Louisville’s Freedom Hall when Kentucky won the national title over Elgin Baylor-led Seattle University? Maybe March 27, 1939, when Oregon’s Tall Firs claimed the first NCAA championship over Ohio State?

When first Gonzaga marched to its initial Final Four, and then Oregon waylaid Kansas, I couldn’t help but recall what provided the foundation for the entire improbable Saturday. In 2009, the Ducks’ pursuit of Gonzaga coach Mark Few came up empty, Oregon decided to keep struggling coach Ernie Kent (for the time being) and a year later, after a protracted search, the Ducks hired Dana Altman.

“They ratcheted up the pressure hard on that,” Brad Williams, Few’s attorney/agent, told me in “Glory Hounds.” “They had Phil Knight calling. Mark had been on their radar for a long time.”

It’s unlikely either of the 2017 Northwest Final Fours would have come about without Few’s decision to stay put after a meeting with then-Oregon AD Pat Kilkenny at a rather bizarre location. For those who don’t know the story (what, you haven’t bought your copy of “Glory Hounds?” For shame … ), below is the excerpt of the whole scenario:

On an early-spring day in 2009, Mark Few had a mission. He had an important business meeting at an unlikely venue. In fact, it’s safe to say it’s the only time in the history of a nondescript rest stop off Interstate 84 in north-central Oregon that the place has hosted a negotiation that would materially affect the trajectory of two college athletic programs in the Northwest.

Few’s Gonzaga basketball team had just lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and now the routine of postseason housekeeping was upon him. For Few, that frequently has meant entertaining inquiries about vacant jobs. They seem to be nothing he cultivates; the approaches are made to him, by athletic directors – in recent times, more commonly by middlemen – interested in seeing if they could pry Few from his comfortable roost at Gonzaga.

More than half a dozen times, Few has been romanced by programs that have hung national-championship banners. It’s difficult to know definitively how many times he has been those suitors’ No. 1 candidate, but those occasions have been multiple.

By 2009, a decade into Few’s head-coaching tenure, this had become a rite of spring. Front men for Arizona, Indiana, Stanford and UCLA had nosed around, and somehow, Few had rationalized staying at Gonzaga. But now a different force loomed, one with assets unequaled by the others, and this might just be the one to shake Few loose.

The University of Oregon had been trying for some time to uncouple itself from Ernie Kent, in a relationship that reflects the fragile nature of coaching. Kent had been a beloved Oregon player in the Dick Harter era of the 1970s. In 2007, Kent had taken Oregon, a school with a sparse basketball history, to a second Elite Eight in five years. But he had surrounded that latter burst with some fruitless seasons, capped by a last-place, 2-16 finish in the Pac-10 in 2009, and the wolves were baying ominously in Eugene. Through those uneven years, Kent had exhausted capital with boosters in the lingering innuendo related to some personal issues off the floor.

To the northeast, there was another Oregon alumnus who looked like a prime candidate to replace Kent. Few grew up in Creswell, just 10 miles south of Eugene, he had graduated from Oregon, playing pickup games on the courts and ballfields on the UO campus. His parents, Barbara and Norm, had lived in Creswell for half a century.

And then there was the Pat Kilkenny factor. Kilkenny, who made himself a millionaire in the insurance industry in San Diego, was the Oregon athletic director. But he had taken a booster’s route to that chair, and by chance, he had also formed along the way great friendships at Gonzaga, owing to its several coaches with Oregon connections. Kilkenny was sufficiently beneficent to donate to their salaries, and so steadfast that when Zag assistant coaches departed the program to begin their own head-coaching careers, he donated significantly to them, too.

“He’s just an unbelievably benevolent guy,” Few says. “If he didn’t have a cent, he’d be a great friend.”

Behind the scenes, of course, there was Phil Knight, the Nike founder, who had long since befriended Few, and of whom Few says, “Phil, and Nike, really propped this program up. They’ve treated us like the national program it was long before other people came around.”

Even head-slapping happenstance seemed to argue for Few to be headed to Oregon. His Gonzaga team, a No. 4 seed in the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament, was sent to Portland for first- and second-round games, where the host school was none other than Oregon. So as the Zags were toppling Akron in their first game, there at one end of the scorer’s table as one of the regional’s hosts was Kilkenny, stationed close enough to the Gonzaga bench to hear Few mapping instructions during timeouts.

It all seemed perfect, too perfect not to happen.

Until it didn’t.

This wasn’t like many of the advances on Few by other schools, which don’t get past Brad Williams, the Spokane attorney who acts as his agent. This was Kilkenny, and he deserved a more personal hearing.

So they drove, Kilkenny and Few, to meet at a predetermined spot. For Few, it was a four-hour haul, west on I-90, down State Route 395 and then west on I-84. It was as clandestine as clandestine gets – “sunglasses and hats on,” Few says.

At a turnout off the freeway, Few had his come-to-Jesus meeting with Kilkenny. They talked and they talked some more – three hours’ worth, as Few recalls. In front of them, the Columbia River surged to the sea, flush with the winter’s record snowpack.

Kilkenny tried. Oh, how he tried. But in the end, what seemed so right . . . just wasn’t right.

The Fews’ fourth child, Colt, was only three months old. The other kids were settled in their schools. Marcy Few, his wife, was busy with a prominent role in the local Coaches Versus Cancer campaign. But more than anything, the way Mark Few viewed Oregon was the same as he viewed all those other opportunities. He had a better gig.

“I just wasn’t feeling it,” Few says.

Few couldn’t pull the trigger. In his mind, it just never lined up. Yes, there was a new arena on the way at Oregon, but it was going to be a 12,000-seat-plus hulk difficult to fill to capacity, a factor with its own pressures.

Yes, Oregon was fueled heavily by Knight’s largesse. But as a basketball force, it could get lost among other Pac-10 schools like Arizona and UCLA. There was no consistent talent pool in the lightly populated state.

“I never, ever felt that job was better than this one,” Few says, sitting behind his desk at the McCarthey Athletic Center. “Still don’t.”

In the end, Oregon, the place that was finally going to lure Few, became like all the other schools that approached him. In the end, Few made the decision to live in a place where his rustic home on 10 acres has mountain views to the northeast; where the drive to work is a skosh over 10 minutes; where rivers and lakes abound for his fishing jones; where, every year, you go to the NCAA tournament; and where your public obligations to boosters are under control.

The money could be greater elsewhere. But what can you do with four million dollars that you can’t do with two?

It seems inescapable: Dude’s got it figured out.