INDIANAPOLIS — Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has turned them all down when they came calling about a potential job: Indiana, Arizona, UCLA, Virginia and Michigan. There were others that also had swings and misses, but only one school truly made him even contemplate leaving Spokane.
It was back in March of 2009 and Gonzaga had just been knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by eventual national champion North Carolina in the Sweet 16. Few knew the call originating from his good friend Pat Kilkenny, who also happened to be Oregon’s interim athletic director at the time, was inevitable.
They had never discussed the job in the past, despite the fact that Few had graduated from Oregon back in 1987. But Ducks head coach Ernie Kent had just completed a season with a 2-16 league record, and Kilkenny — with the help of Nike boss and Oregon booster Phil Knight — was going to make a run at the guy who had begun to turn Gonzaga into a West Coast powerhouse.
Few was a decade into his tenure, with 10 consecutive trips to the Big Dance. The Zags hadn’t yet gotten past the Sweet 16, but Kilkenny — from his 18-year friendship with Few dating back to when he was a graduate assistant in Spokane — knew that Few was his guy.
And he felt like he had more than just a puncher’s chance.
“I’m not going to say I thought it was a given, but I had a high confidence level for a lot of reasons,” Kilkenny told me. “He went to Oregon, his mom and dad lived there, we’re in the Pac-10 at the time, Phil Knight, Nike. Pretty darn compelling argument. I thought he’d say, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
They talked and decided they would each start driving, Few from Spokane and Kilkenny from Eugene. They’d call each other after a few hours and figure out where to meet when their paths got closer.
It wound up being at a rest stop right on the Columbia River in tiny Arlington, Oregon (population: 591).
They pulled up next to one another, Few with his sunglasses on to go incognito, and Kilkenny jumped into Few’s SUV with some diet soda and potato chips. Then he proceeded to try and convince Few to take the Oregon job for the next two hours.
“We had our little shindig and hashed it out,” Few said. “Pat’s a great guy, one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever known.”
“[Kilkenny’s] super-smart, super-fun,” he added. “There were some good opportunities over the years, but that was the hardest one by far. I grew up 10 minutes from Oregon, my family was still there.”
But from Kilkenny’s perspective, the pitch didn’t go all that well.
“It was a little contentious for the two hours,” Kilkenny remembered. “I believed strongly Mark would be making a huge mistake not leaving a place that didn’t have the resources that Oregon could avail him. Mark said, ‘Oregon’s never gonna get it done, I’m at a better place.’ The conversation was polarizing.”
And it ended with Few deciding to spurn his alma mater, the endless resources, Nike’s backing and a new arena that was inevitable.
“We’re so happy,” Few said looking back at the decision. “This is what fits the Few family so well. The Northwest lifestyle, fly fishing, getting out to the lake — [it] is almost a spiritual experience for part of the summer. One of the coolest things when you stay at a place as long as I have, it’s about the relationships you develop. Those guys come back and they are your guys. If you start bouncing around, you don’t have your guys anymore.”
Then Kilkenny, the man who became extremely wealthy from an insurance business and only took the AD job on an interim basis to help his alma mater, had to make that call.
“Phil wasn’t happy,” Kilkenny said of when he informed Knight that Few wasn’t coming back home. “This is Phil’s baby, and to be rejected — Phil Knight doesn’t get rejected that often.”
Few and Kilkenny’s relationship is better than ever now, but during the year following their Arlington meeting they didn’t talk much at all. Kilkenny still blamed himself for letting Knight and the university down, but after hiring Dana Altman a year later, it got a little easier.
“All is well that ends well,” Kilkenny said. “It was a circuitous route for all of us.”
Kilkenny said he’s spent more time this season with Few than he has in a long time. His plan is to fly out Monday night to Indianapolis and hopefully watch his good friend win a national title. No, it won’t be for the Oregon Ducks, as was the hope a little more than a decade ago, but it’ll be almost as sweet if Few could pull it off from little old Gonzaga.
“For him to win a national championship, it doesn’t surprise me. But it does surprise me he was able to do it at Gonzaga,” Kilkenny said. “Mark is on his way to the Hall of Fame and maybe gonna do something people are going to talk about generations from now,” Kilkenny said. “A movie will be made of it, and it’ll probably be a Disney movie because it’s that wholesome and people will watch that movie 50 years from now and they’ll think, ‘That’ll be made up.’ But it’s true.”
Few took this small, private, Catholic university in Spokane, Washington and didn’t just build it into a WCC power, or even a West Coast power, but a national powerhouse. And instead of bolting for more money or exposure, he turned David into Goliath.
“I always thought we could build this into a national program,” Few said. “And it’s what’s worked for me.”