Zag logistics this week: A labor (a lot of it) of love
03-29-17

If you’re the average Gonzaga basketball fan, this Final Four is either about preparing for that long-awaited trip to Phoenix, or perhaps just figuring out where the TV is that you’ll be wedded to Saturday at 3:09 p.m.

And you figure the team . . . well, the team will go on the road, like it always goes on the road, and everything will be per usual, save for the momentousness of the surroundings.

Chris Standiford will tell you it’s not quite like that. He, and other operatives in the Gonzaga athletic department, have the bags under their eyes to prove it.

“I don’t think anybody on our staff has probably gotten more than six hours of sleep in any interval,” he told me Tuesday morning. “You’re living on adrenalin and loving every minute of it.”

Simply put, when a school makes the Final Four, the logistical crush is immense with things you’d never think about -- especially for a non-football-playing school with a smaller athletic staff. At power-five schools, more people can be diverted from their regular gigs to address the demands of a Final Four.

Here’s how it works: The day after teams make the Elite Eight, there’s an hour-long “transition meeting” staged by the NCAA for staffs of the two regional finalists. It’s essentially a primer for what to expect if your team wins the next day.

In “Glory Hounds,” the book I recently released on Gonzaga basketball, GU athletic director Mike Roth laughingly recalled his first of those, when the Zags had upset Florida in 1999 and were about to face Connecticut. The Huskies showed up at that meeting en masse, represented by about a dozen suits.

The Zags, well, you were supposed to bring an AD, sports-information director, travel coordinator and a ticket manager.

“Well, guess what?” Roth said. “We had two of those.”

It was different last week in San Jose. This was GU’s third such transition meeting and GU was ready. Except, Standiford says, if you believe at all in omens, you don’t want to be too invested, too presumptuous. So it’s hard to be all-in.

All-in happened just about the time Standiford had finished hugging a couple of coaches on the floor after GU’s 83-59 victory over Xavier the next day.

“As soon as I turned around,” says Standiford, Roth’s long-time wingman as deputy AD and a Zag alum, “a couple of the NCAA staff were there, saying, ‘Here’s some things to work on right away.’ They know what we don’t know.”

What they don’t know is contained in a “giant binder,” Standiford said, and that’s the staff playbook for this week.

After a 6 a.m. rise Sunday, the work began for Standiford and others in the GU athletic department, people like Kim Vore, associate AD for business operations, whom Standiford calls “a rock star that holds us together.” They christened the week with a 16-hour work day.

Gonzaga serviced about 750 boosters for the regional in San Jose. For this weekend, there are more than 3,000, all taken care of via the athletic department’s priority-points system based on annual giving. Hotel space for boosters is partly funneled through travel packages, but the athletic department has a finger on that pulse and must provide continual updates to hotels to hold or release rooms.

Players’ families also score this weekend. For the third straight year, the NCAA has in place a pilot program that allows for $3,000 per player family to attend the Final Four, $4,000 for the teams making the final game.

Gonzaga compliance staff is administering those parent/family logistics, including credentialing them for a salute event Thursday night, a brunch Saturday, and a slick system whereby they get choice seats for their team’s half of the Saturday doubleheader, then swapping with the other two teams’ family seats.

Coordinating for the band and cheer units is Chris Johnson, associate AD for external operations. Todd Zeidler and Barrett Henderson are heading up media requests, and trust me, there are a ton of them. Friday on site, there are podium interviews with head coach Mark Few and players, and a period of open locker room. Teams have a scheduled “workout” at University of Phoenix Stadium, but it’s not much more than a shootaround; they’ll go off to a gym someplace and do the hard, private business of preparation.

Then there are university-related events, socials, pre-game events. In keeping with Few’s hosanna to the guys who built Gonzaga, there’s a Thursday-night get-together for ex-players.

Standiford sees Few as establishing a businesslike mindset in advance of South Carolina. But at the same time, he says, “He has put a lot of thought and effort into being inclusive and making it a family event.”

Over the years, Standiford has had multiple opportunities to go to a Final Four. But, with the Zags annually in the thing since 1999, and occasionally playing the second weekend, he’s never had a yearning to get on another plane to attend one.

“I’m gonna go as a participant,” he always told friends.

It took a lot of years, but he was as good as his word.


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