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Is He UCLA's Chosen Few?

Lure of the big time is intriguing to Gonzaga coach, but he might not be ready to leave what he's built in the Northwest

March 27, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

SPOKANE, Wash. — That soaring, wrenching double-overtime loss to Arizona still eating a hole in his gut, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few sits in his modest office pondering the future.

Does he dig in or step away?

A 10-acre pine-strewn parcel Few purchased last fall is ready for his dream home. Two rustic granite pillars mark the entrance and a spectacular view of this pleasant city of 200,000 graces the rear, reminding Few why he loves the Northwest, the great fishing, safe streets, comfortable familiarity and rabid support of his program.

Construction of a new $23-million on-campus arena set to open in time for the 2004-05 season was green-lighted by administrators while the team was in Salt Lake City for the NCAA tournament. Nearly all of the 6,000 seats are already sold or promised to students.

Yet he appears willing to trade everything he has built -- and everything on the drawing table -- to fill the opening at UCLA. Few has not heard from the Bruins, but he is considered a top candidate and is ready to listen.

"It's flattering and humbling," he said. "UCLA is a high-quality educational institution. You aren't sacrificing values there. It has tradition. It's a school that has a chance to go after any recruit in the country and be on his short list."

So, does he break ground or change turf?

UCLA tantalizes Few, 40, for the same reason he can't quiet his stomach. He has tasted big-time basketball -- had several tastes, really -- and developed an appetite for more.

"I'm at the point in my career where I want to be at a place where you have a shot at the Final Four and can win a national championship," he said. "A lot goes into that."

Gonzaga has been to the NCAA tournament in each of his four seasons, getting to the Sweet 16 twice. In Few's last season as an assistant, the Bulldogs made a run to the Elite Eight.

He says he genuinely believes an NCAA title can be won at Gonzaga but understands the odds are better at UCLA.

"Draw a circle around a 50-mile radius of that campus and look at all the talent," he said.

A surfboard hangs above Few's desk like the sword of Damocles, a gift from the Maui Invitational and a reminder that he might be a fish out of water in Los Angeles. His wife, Marcy, busy with two sons under age 4, is from the Northwest, and most of Few's life has been spent in Spokane and a clone of Spokane -- Eugene, Ore., where he grew up the son of a Presbyterian minister.

He found a second home at the Catholic university named after Aloysius Gonzaga, a 16th century Italian noble and the patron saint of Jesuit students. The unassuming Few could be the patron saint of regular guys, a poster boy for Pendleton. His phone number is listed, he drives a dust-caked four-wheeler and leans toward plaids and wool.

"Gonzaga is one big happy family," he said. "It's like a mom-and-pop orientation that can compete at the highest level. To caustic people out there I would assume they probably scoff at that. But it's true."

Yet UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero is intrigued by Few for precisely those reasons. Steve Lavin was a media magnet even when waters roiled around him. Few's seeming absence of ego and tight focus on basketball would be as refreshing as a mountain stream.

It bothered Guerrero that on the day Lavin was fired UCLA players expressed a desire to have a coach with NBA experience. It's likely he'll go in the opposite direction to send a message that Bruin basketball is more than a steppingstone to the next level. The qualities he desires in a coach are the antithesis of the NBA.

"Fundamentals, defense, discipline," Guerrero said. "It starts with integrity. We want someone who has experience, who can build and develop a program that can complete at a high level nationally, and who can recruit student-athletes who succeed on the court and in the classroom."

Ben Howland of Pittsburgh, Tom Crean of Marquette and Rick Majerus of Utah are among those fitting the description along with Few, who is 105-29 and whose players generally graduate.

His teams are like a Formula One driver, fundamentally sound while operating at a high rate of speed. Gonzaga's teamwork, ruggedness and flair for the dramatic are unsurpassed.

All of which makes Few the desire of many. He turned down an offer from Washington a year ago, and schools have inquired about him every year.

"Every spring is the Mark Few sweepstakes," Gonzaga Athletic Director Mike Roth said. "I don't blame schools for asking. If I was an athletic director somewhere else and I was looking for a coach, I'd call him too.

"If he leaves, I want everybody here to know Mark made a decision that was right for him. Nobody should fault him for that."

Just as Pittsburgh is doing with Howland, Gonzaga is sweetening Few's compensation before UCLA makes an offer.

Roth met with Few on Monday, went to the Gonzaga president Tuesday and parameters of a new contract were agreed upon.

Not that it's easy for Gonzaga to come up with money.

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