Roth leaves the headaches -- and Gonzaga's stunning history -- behind

When Mike Roth walks out of his Gonzaga athletic director’s office for the last time Aug. 31, he’ll graduate to a lengthy, personal, to-do list.

At least he can mark another list “don’t-bother” – the 2021 athletic administrator’s mountain of challenges, including the thorny Covid crisis, the newly implemented name-image-likeness world, realignment and the more global issue of whether – and how – the NCAA will even exist.

“The timing of being an AD right now is not great,” Roth told me Thursday, a day after he had begun attacking bookshelves and a file cabinet to get the digs ready for his successor, longtime deputy AD Chris Standiford.

For a short while, Roth, with 24 years in the chair, has been the most senior AD in the country. He’s got Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione by a year. Yet it’s not the years, but Gonzaga’s dizzying advancement, that has marked Roth’s tenure. It’s hard to imagine any more head-spinning quarter-century than the one to which Roth has borne witness and helped orchestrate.

For most of us, it’s almost as difficult to remember the flavor of Gonzaga of the late ‘90s as it is to recall the campus layout. You know, the one without the McCarthey Athletic Center, and the Patterson Baseball Complex, and the Hemmingson Center, and the Integrated Science and Engineering building, and the Volkar Center, and the new bookstore, and . . .

None of those things were even on the outskirts of imagination when Roth took over as interim AD back in 1997. Years later, he could say he and basketball coach Mark Few began to share a vision that the program – yes, Gonzaga – could win a national championship. But it was a troubled university and a scandal-scarred athletic department when he slid into his role in ’97, and the beliefs were slightly more modest.

“I believe I hoped I’d have a job the next day,” Roth joked.

Yes, it’s true that Roth’s timing was fortuitous; for 22 years, he was boss of a coach who went against the grain and didn’t seek out the next big job. Alone, that might have greatly altered the narrative of Roth’s career.

But there was considerable foresight at work, too. A little before the earth-moving Elite Eight run of 1999, the Zags had changed colors, changed logo, subsidized TV time on Fox and tipped season-ticket holders to the reality they were going to have to pay for seat licensing. Gonzaga was entering the 21st century, and it couldn’t be accused of rank opportunism when the product on the floor caught fire in ’99.

“We were crazy-lucky,” Roth concedes. “But you define luck as when preparation meets opportunity.”

The rest is happy history – the new arena, the brick-by-brick improvement and the prodigious effect of basketball on the university at large. Now Gonzaga attracts the top-rated player in the nation, Chet Holmgren, and the belief nationally is that, yes, one of these first Monday nights in April is going to belong to the Zags.

“I do believe we’re gonna win the national championship,” Roth said. “I think it might be this year.”

It hasn’t been easy, and Roth talks about leaving the manifold stresses of the job behind. One was the Josh Heytvelt affair of 2007, when the GU big man was busted for drugs and the whole Gonzaga story seemed in peril. Roth flew to Phoenix to explain himself to the board of trustees, a hell of a way to celebrate a 50th birthday.

But GU’s handling of the mess was adroit – discipline, yet a path forward for the player. Roth says that when the late mega-donor Myrtle Woldson bequeathed millions to the school, she cited its treatment of the incident as a factor in her generosity.

“You never know how the decisions we make or the things we do over our careers impact other people,” he says.

Yes, college athletics is fraught with abuse and excess and misplaced priorities, from cheating programs to overpaid coaches. But like a lot of us, Roth believes that at the core, there’s a fundamental goodness in the enterprise.

“I completely buy into changes that have to be made, I completely support NIL,” he says. “I just want us to make sure we don’t make so many wholesale changes that we lose college athletics, and instead of it, we just have some version of the G League. Or just some version of minor-league baseball or minor-league soccer.”

Roth, 64, decided on retirement about a year and a half ago, and it was kept quiet until an announcement in June, surviving an attempt by GU president Thayne McCulloh to talk him out of it.

That to-do list? Roth and his wife Linda love the outdoors and have a place up on Lake Pend Oreille. There’s bird-hunting in his future, an archery pastime introduced to them by a son, snow sports, woodworking, maybe even a return to trying to play piano, something he gave up as a kid when an exasperated instructor “fired” him.

Few long ago surpassed him as a fly fisherman, but Roth aims to make up ground. Referring to the extended, Covid-caused precautions at the 2021 NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, Roth says, “When I was sitting in a hotel room for 24 straight days, I sat there and tied dozens and dozens and dozens of flies.”

Of course, that stay ended in crashing disappointment for Gonzaga, and what a storybook ending it would have been for Roth if the Zags had overcome Baylor. Instead, swingman Joel Ayayi, one of the few who knew of Roth’s impending departure, threw himself into Roth’s arms leaving the floor and kept saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

No apologies needed, either that night or for Mike Roth’s 24 years.