Gonzaga enters tourney humble

March 14, 1995|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, Gonzaga University GAME DATA Game: Maryland (24-7) vs. Gonzaga (21-8). What: First round, NCAA tournament West Regional. Where: Salt Lake City. When: Thursday, approximately 10:30 p.m.Sun Staff Writer

Bing Crosby played second base there in 1926 and did a little crooning on the side. Tom Foley was the national collegiate debate champion there in 1950. And John Stockton was the team's point guard during the early 1980s.

But Crosby went on the road to Hollywood before getting his degree, Foley went off to Washington before doing any television commercials and Stockton found a lot more fame in Salt Lake City than he ever did in Spokane.

None of them ever did for little Gonzaga University what John Rillie did last week by putting the Bulldogs -- or the 'Zags as the locals call them -- into this year's NCAA tournament, where they'll play Maryland on Thursday night in Stockton's adopted hometown.

"It's great to be involved in something like this, but we won't have a full feeling of what we've accomplished until we get together in a few years and reminisce about the old days," Rillie, a 6-foot-5 senior guard from Toowoomba, Australia, said yesterday.

If making the 64-team field for the second straight year is old news for the Terrapins, the third seed in the West Regional, making it for the first time in school history is pretty heady stuff for the little Jesuit institution of 4,790 students.

There was a rally on campus before the students took off for spring break and an NCAA selection show party for the team at one of the downtown hotels. Not bad for a team that started its West Coast Conference season with six straight losses, then finished with 10 wins in 11 games, which included beating Portland in the tournament final a week ago yesterday.

"When we were 0-6 in the league, I was glad I was also an administrator," said Dan Fitzgerald, Gonzaga's coach for 13 of the past 17 seasons as well as its athletic director for the past eight.

If patience is rewarded, then Fitzgerald has been paid in full. He might not be Jim Phelan, but he has been at Gonzaga for almost two decades in near anonymity. Fitzgerald, 53, is a West Coast guy who grew up in San Francisco watching the Bill Russell-K.C. Jones teams dominate college basketball in the mid-1950s. He was later a high school coach and English teacher in Los Angeles during the beginning of UCLA's run.

"It was a great time to be growing up in California in terms of basketball," said Fitzgerald. "The San Francisco teams used to practice in our high school gym. There were the great Cal teams of Pete Newell. My first Final Four was at the Cow Palace in 1960. When I moved to L.A., I used to go see UCLA practice because Gary Cunningham [an assistant under John Wooden and later Bruins coach] was a good friend of mine. It all had a great influence on me as a coach."

Not that Fitzgerald is expecting to go to this year's Final Four in Seattle as anything more than a spectator. Though he would love the Bulldogs to become one of this year's Cinderella stories, he and his players are pretty realistic. Fitzgerald isn't confusing the WCC with the ACC or his 6-11, 220-pound center, Aussie Paul Rogers, with All-American Joe Smith.

What are his team's chances?

"It's not David against Goliath," said Fitzgerald, "but it might be the prelim."

Fitzgerald, in fact, might be a poor man's Gary Williams. He's proud that he didn't get a technical foul this season despite riding the officials pretty hard. ("They're used to me by now," he said.) In fact, he and Williams got to know each other on a Nike coaches' tour a couple of years ago.

"When I heard he was sick, I sent him a note saying, 'Try Irish whiskey,' " said Fitzgerald. "Now, I hope he listened to me."

Of the teams he has coached at Gonzaga, only one had a losing season. His four-year sabbatical came after Stockton's freshman year, when former assistant and current Washington Bullets assistant Jay Hillock took over. When Hillock went to Loyola Marymount, Fitzgerald went back into coaching.

"This team isn't in the top seven I've coached here," said Fitzgerald. "Four of the starters hadn't played a game of Division I before this year. But the reality is that we haven't been in this position before. This validates what we've done in the past. My friends say, 'Now people will know you because you'll be on TV.' "

Fitzgerald compares his school to Loyola College and his league to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Rillie spent two years working as a meat cutter in Toowoomba to save up enough money to come to the United States, where he began his career at Tacoma Junior College. Rogers came on the recommendation of former Oregon coach Don Monson, the father of one of Fitzgerald's assistants.

Rillie leads Gonzaga in scoring with a little more than 16 a game, but he's coming off a Randolph Childress-like performance in the conference tournament, where he averaged 33 and hit a school-record eight three-pointers in one game.

"He's more like 6-3, and he looks like he's been in the Outback for a long stay," Fitzgerald said of Rillie.

As for Rogers, "He's 19 going on 12. He needs a few more pounds and a little more heart. I'm working on the heart."

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