The Zags in the era of free agency

A longtime friend has expressed to me his angst over the here-today-gone-tomorrow nature of college athletes, compared to, you know, the good old days. He’s a Cal guy who long ago appreciated the stability of a program that won the Bears an NCAA basketball championship in 1959.

Guys came, they stayed, they were there long enough to be part of the fabric of the university. Freshmen were ineligible, the process was measured, guys paid their dues, they stuck together to form unbreakable bonds. No transfer portal then. And mostly, no transfers.

My old friend squirmed when Jordan Mathews opted out of Cal for Gonzaga in 2016-17, and no doubt was further unnerved when Mathews hit, what, maybe the most important shot (at least No. 2, anyway) in GU history to beat West Virginia in the NCAAs.

I feel his pain. As a kid, my team was the Cincinnati Reds, and back then, rosters usually changed only slightly year-to-year. But you held out hope doggedly, and when one season it all came together, the joy was unmatched.

So there were the Zags, in April adrift without proven guards for 2019-20. And two months later, here came grad transfers Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, from Texas A&M and North Texas, respectively. Magically, a new backcourt.

Is this what James Naismith intended? Phog Allen? Henry Iba?

One of the side benefits – a massive one – in Gonzaga’s rise over a generation is that it flipped its station in life from college basketball have-not to “have.” So instead of being the victimized mid-major seeing its best players walk out the door, it’s been scoring major pieces for its roster in players like Byron Wesley, Mathews and Geno Crandall.

It’s occurred to me: What if the grad transfer rule had been in effect when Gonzaga began turning the ship 20 years ago? Might we have seen Matt Santangelo bolt the program for, say, a Pac-10 school? Could the whole Gonzaga aria have been muted before it ever broke out in song?

“Personally, I was trying to play in the NBA,” Santangelo told me. “I probably would have reflected on that: Hey, this is my last year, these are the knocks on me, and if I go to a bigger school, this is a way (to increase visibility).”

Still, he concedes, “There weren’t very many schools doing much better than what we were doing. Looking back, I would never ever think to trade that experience.”

I reached out to Santangelo and Dan Dickau, a couple of Gonzaga's best guards, to pick their brains on the grad-transfer phenomenon. Dickau admits to being conflicted over it, seeing the damage it causes lower-level programs.

“You look at Geno Crandall’s situation, and he was their everything at North Dakota for three years,” he says. “You take him off and all of a sudden, they’re not that good anymore. I do like it because it’s helped Gonzaga – absolutely, without a doubt.

“The rule is what it is. If these student-athletes buckle down and graduate early, why not make the most of it? I see both sides.”

As GU’s opening salvo toward renown played out a generation ago, it seems unlikely that either Santangelo or Dickau would have left Gonzaga early.
Santangelo was a junior on the 1999 team that crashed the Elite Eight. Having pushed Connecticut in the game to get to a Final Four, with key pieces returning, the Zags were in get-back-here mode the next season. Santangelo might have perceived a greater individual showcase out there, but suddenly, Gonzaga had carved out a platform of its own.

By the time Dickau came along from Washington, GU was established. Or at least, the foundation was in. His junior year was the third straight Sweet 16 season, so there was ample motivation to stay and see how far Gonzaga might take this thing.

Santangelo mentions Quentin Hall, the sparkplug senior on the 1999 team, but adds, “It would have been hard to fathom a better situation somewhere (after 1998). For us, we were such under-the-radar overachievers. We could barely describe what was happening to us, let alone dream bigger. We were all shocked.”

It’s possible that Gonzaga’s noted chemistry, then and now, has curbed egress to other programs. GU has been a good reason to be careful what you wish for.

Back to the bigger picture: The grad transfer rule was imperiled in the spring, when a proposed NCAA rule change would have required schools to commit a scholarship to such players for two years unless the player completed the graduate program in one year (which isn’t happening very often). The proposed change fell flat.

It’s the way of the world, folks. It’s a form of free agency, and in case you hadn’t noticed, NBA players are conspiring to form future champions, and Bryce Harper gets signed for $330 million by the Phillies (why, I’m not sure, but that’s another story).

Yes, it was wonderful to pull for the Reds in the days of Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson and Gus Bell, and as a fan, you fought the good fight, learning to live with the valleys while savoring the peaks. It was all a noble exercise, until you realized those guys were earning eight or 10 grand a year and it was the owners making out while the players were chained to their franchises.

At the college level, increased freedom is the watchword these days. Seemingly every decision made is a nod to the student-athlete, and it’s hard to say that’s a bad thing.

Santangelo can even rationalize the hurt that comes to mid-majors when they lose a player like Crandall.

“What’s the expression? He gave at the office,” Santangelo says. “He did a lot to build that program up. There’s a sense of fair trade, even. He left the program in a better place than where he found it.”

As good as the grad transfer trend has been to GU, you can easily make the case it kept Gonzaga out of a second Final Four a few months ago.

When the Zags met Texas Tech in the Elite Eight, Matt Mooney had 17 points and five assists for the Red Raiders, who advanced. He was a grad transfer from South Dakota. Tariq Owens, a grad transfer from St. John’s, had nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks.

Meanwhile, Crandall played eight scoreless minutes. He never quite seemed to be what he might have been at Gonzaga, probably owing to his late arrival.

Now come Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, the insta-backcourt, a major part of Gonzaga’s makeover.

“It is a makeover,” agreed Dickau. “But you know what? Coach (Mark) Few has done a masterful job remaking rosters. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.”

And these days, the remaking comes fast and furious.