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Thursday, March 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Blaine Newnham / Times associate editor

Few stays at Gonzaga because he wants to win

The intermediaries for Texas A&M apparently made it clear to Mark Few that the school was prepared to pay its next coach $1 million a year.

Few apparently made it clear he would be staying at Gonzaga.

Perhaps we've reached critical mass in sensibility. A coach willing to work for less while enjoying it more.

But, for Few, it goes beyond blind loyalty.

When you get right down to it, will he have any better chance elsewhere to win an NCAA championship than he has right now, coaching at Gonzaga where he fits like a pair of John Stockton shorts?

While he continues to be mentioned for just about every job that comes available, he builds a beautiful lodge-style home south of Spokane — prompting his wife to ask, "Does this mean we're staying?"

Sure he will lose three starters off this team — and a fourth if Ronny Turiaf opts for the NBA — but Adam Morrison, Erroll Knight, Derek Raivio and Sean Mallon return and, according to Few, the recruiting is better than it has ever been.

The Zags have two of the best five players in the state of Washington signed — Josh Heytvelt and David Pendergraft. They also have Pierre Marie Altidor-Cespedes, a shooting guard from Montreal recruited by many schools in the East.

They also have a transfer in the wings: guard Nathan Doudney, who scored 25 points for Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament a year ago in an upset of Texas.

Students camp out for tickets, and a new Kennel, seating 6,000, is scheduled to open next season. Most of the games Gonzaga plays are now televised. Life is good, yet the Zags still play in the West Coast Conference, and Few — at $500,000 — is making half what he could at a place like Texas A&M.

But with Texas A&M comes Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. And the realization that jobs generally open up because those trying to fill them have failed.

"I've watched what has happened to some of my closest friends," said Few, 41. "Money has never meant that much to me. What I want is to win."

Dan Monson left Gonzaga for more money and a better chance to win at Minnesota. And while he got more money, he hasn't had a better chance to win.

He could be fired the way Bob Bender was fired at Washington, the way so many coaches climbing frantically up the coaching ladder are — brought into fix something they can't in the time they have.

Few is where he belongs, which is not to suggest that he isn't good enough for a higher-profile school or that he won't someday replace Lute Olson at Arizona.

But why be in a hurry? When is enough money enough?

"You know, I could have been happy being a high-school coach," he said yesterday before his team was to play in today's first-round NCAA game against Valparaiso at KeyArena.

The truth is that Few was never a head coach in high school, just an assistant. His portfolio is so lacking as to be comical, and yet here is a coach who has won 132 games in his five years at Gonzaga.

Only Duke has won more during that time.

Like the school he coaches, Few has gained his credibility the old-fashioned way — recruiting and improving talent while winning games.

"I don't take myself too seriously," he said. "I'm the son of a Presbyterian minister, a guy who worked construction in the summers."

Few didn't play basketball in college. Neither did his assistants, Bill Grier and Leon Rice.

"I was just a basketball junkie who went to every coaching clinic he could, sleeping on the floors of friends if I had to," he said. "I just love the game."

Few grew up in Creswell, Ore., south of Eugene. He played on a team ranked No. 1 in the state, but his future was coaching, not playing. He watched intently during the 1970s as Dick Harter coached at Oregon and Ralph Miller at Oregon State.

"I was the biggest Ronnie Lee (the Oregon star) fan in the world," said Few, who graduated from Oregon, "and I marveled at Ralph Miller's teams, the way they passed the ball, and the way they played."

Few was an assistant coach at Creswell High even before he graduated college. Then he moved to another assistant's job at Sheldon High in Eugene. Nearby, Grier, now his No. 1 assistant, was coaching at Cottage Grove High.

The big break came when Monson, then an assistant at Gonzaga, talked coach Dan Fitzgerald into hiring Few in 1990 as a graduate assistant.

Two years later, he was a full-fledged assistant, seven years later the coach.

He studies the rebounding of Michigan State, the defense of Utah, the transition game of Kansas. He lunches once a week with coaching guru Jud Heathcote. He continues to sop up the game he loves.

He has built a family at Gonzaga, where players are sometimes judged more by how they'll fit the family than by how well they can play.

On the other hand, Few hasn't limited himself in the teams he plays or the players he recruits.

"We've got a system the kids really like," said Mark Few, a coach they would really like to keep.

Blaine Newnham: 206-464-2364 or bnewnham@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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