Gonzaga's Mark Few a Hall of Fame coach despite losing 2017 NCAA Championship

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Hall of Famer Roy Williams got his third championship on Monday night. It is his redemptive one, a crown earned 364 days after a championship was ripped from him in the most epic ending in college basketball history. Williams has three titles to his increasingly incredible legacy now. He’s one of six men’s college basketball coaches in history to accomplish that.

Once Theo Pinson grabbed the game’s final rebound and UNC’s 71-65 victory was secured, Williams spread his arms parallel, cracked his jaw open and flexed into a cathartic hug with C.B. McGrath, a Tar Heels assistant. Mark Few stood 35 feet down the sideline. With hands on hips and accepting the reality of only his second loss this season, Few waited while Williams got in his few seconds of jubilation. It’s the hardest, most courteous moment in college basketball.

Let the other guy have his joy. You get to stand there, in the openness, slim-lipped and silent.

This was the pain Jim Boeheim warned him about.

The Hall of Famer from Syracuse, a man who has lost in a national title game, told Few before the title game that losing to UNC would tear a hole in his stomach. Few’s as level-headed and balanced as any coach in the sport. But now he knows. This loss, the 112th of his career, is different. 

“He told me it will crush you if you don’t win it,” Few said. “And I guess I didn’t understand it, but the cagey old veteran is right. Man, it crushes you.”

Few took his first title-game loss to a Hall of Famer and was advised in the lead-up by another. One day, he should join Williams and Boeheim in that club. Gonzaga making a national title game with a 37-1 record was outrageous. I still don’t believe enough was made of the fact that Gonzaga was this good and built up such a gaudy record. Few shouldn’t need a national title to one day make the Hall of Fame, though that would surely be the clincher.

But if this is as far as he ever gets, it should be enough. This is Gonzaga. Gonzaga just lost in the national title game and finished the season 37-2. There are only nine schools in history to get to 37 victories in a season. He also has more than 500 victories and one of the best win percentages in college basketball. We can now officially start having this discussion. 

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“I think to be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now,” Few said. “But I’m hoping and knowing that perspective will come with time. And these guys will realize just what an amazing accomplishment they had. And what an amazing effect they had. I mean, the basketball community was really stale on the Zags. And these guys ignited it and got everybody back to believing that this program was capable of doing this, and more than capable of winning a national championship. And they absolutely ignited the whole world to that. So couldn’t be prouder of a group.”

Few is almost two decades into an unparalleled career. There has never been a coach who has taken a program at a lower level, historically, and turned it into a more powerful entity than what he has done. The school hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament game before 1995. Now it has annual NCAA Tournament expectations and a horde of memorable alumni, led by Adam Morrison, who most certainly enjoyed his time in the Arizona sun this week. 

A national championship would have been the dream capper, but this tournament exists to reward only one team, one coach, and uppercuts the other 67 into their offseason. Few has had some disappointing endings in years past, but it’s hard to say this absolutely qualifies as that. The loss hurts, but there is a greater victory at play it. Gonzaga making the title game has brought the program to a new level of awareness, respect and viability. Few has coached Gonzaga to 18 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, one of the longest streaks ever and by far the best among any program from a non-power conference.

“And we were right there, good enough to win a national championship,” Nigel Williams-Goss accurately said. “So it just kind of just left the door open for the next group of Zags to come in and do something that we were not able to do.”

The shots of Williams-Goss’ on-court emotional breakdown are as indelible as UNC’s celebration. Williams-Goss played through injury, kept Gonzaga in the game late. Then he let the compression of this season exit through his eyes.

He had a hobble to his gait as he walked back to the locker room after the postgame press conference. His cheeks had dried by then. His right ankle swelling. 

Gonzaga didn’t get a great whistle, but neither did Carolina. This is Hall of Fame stuff right here: Few refusing to take any bait and giving total credit to the officiating crew. His team got hosed on a call that should have given them the ball back in a critical spot late, but Few took the highest road possible in the postgame press conference.

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“Those were three of the best officials in the entire country -- NBA, college or anything,” Few said. “I thought they did a great job. I mean, these are two heavyweight teams going at it, inside, playing really, really physical basketball. You still have to officiate the game of basketball and that’s what they did. I had no issue whatsoever. I thought they did a fabulous job. And I’m on the losing end. And it’s just not an easy game to ref. And we’re throwing the ball inside. They’re throwing the ball inside. Our guards go downhill. Their guards go downhill. So, I thought they were great.”

He also called not getting that defensive rebound the “backbreaker.” And it was. Gonzaga was swallowed up by a wave in those final 30 seconds, those turnovers and Kennedy Meeks appearing as if he popped up through a trap door to take the ball and the game. First his rejection, then his steal. Few might see Meeks in his sleep for months to come. The coaching was as good as it could have been, given the circumstances. A tight whistle and Gonzaga facing, for the first time this season, its three bigs (Przemek Karnowski, Zach Collins, Johnathan Williams) in second-half foul trouble.

Few went to lineups he hadn’t used all season. Still took the lead on UNC with less than two minutes to go. Still almost beat the Tar Heels despite 1-of-8 shooting from Karnowski, who had one of the worst games of his career.

“They made some big plays down the stretch,” Jordan Mathews said. “But it could very well be us out there celebrating right now. So hats off to them. And this is for the future Zags coming up. … How many teams would take 37-2, league champs, national runner-up? We broke that glass ceiling everybody said we couldn’t get over.”

Gonzaga can get back here. Final Fours are promised to no one, even if it seems that way given how often a blueblood breaks through. For Gonzaga, maybe this winds up being a once-in-a-lifetime run. But with Few on the sideline, I would doubt it. This team is going to be really good again next season, arguably top 15 in the country.

“Next is a breath, and then recruiting,” Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd said. “There’s going to be naysayers but they’re going to have a leg to stand on. … We did it and we plan to do it again.”

Pun intended here, but few guys are better than the one who has turned Gonzaga into a national power, a huge college basketball brand and one of the most reliable teams in the sport. People don’t know too much about Few behind the scenes, the guy texting his friends to make sure everyone’s taken care of with tickets the day before the game. 

The guy who started as a high school assistant coach and didn’t need to play Division I basketball in order to master the art of coaching it.

“Where it came from to be in this championship game, as a program, you look 25 years ago we were driving there, sleeping on floors,” Boise coach and former Gonzaga assistant Leon Rice said. “So now to be at the pinnacle of college basketball, it’s really something.”

“I think to be so close for us is a temporarily crushing blow right now. But I’m hoping and knowing that perspective will come with time.” Mark Few

Few, Rice and others used to go to Final Fours as high school coaches and grad assistants. They would watch as the team buses rolled by, thought, Wouldn’t it be something to be on those buses? They would climb up to the nosebleeds and watch the games from afar, thinking what it must be like to walk out at the start of a national title game as a coach on the court. 

Now, Few has lived it. If he keeps Gonzaga apace, he’ll live it again.

He’ll return home to Spokane on Tuesday to a hero’s welcome. Eventually, the river will be calling. Fly fishing, his favorite hobby, awaits. He’ll have time to think, reflect, find serenity in the accomplishment of his staff and players. He won’t take credit for himself, though he deserves so much of it.

In the locker room afterward, as Williams-Goss was still crying and the team was recovering from a wham-bam style loss, Few told the team they needed to have their heads high. If someone told him he could be in a one-possession game with less than a minute to go, he would take it every time. 

“It proved to the nation that we’re capable of winning the national title,” Lloyd said. “And I don’t think anyone who watched the game could think otherwise.” 

At 9:48 p.m. local time, Few was the last coach or player out of Gonzaga’s locker room. An Arizona state trooper was waiting for him and walked him back to the team bus. Few tapped the trooper’s back in a gesture of thanks as they made conversation. Just before Few left University of Phoenix Stadium, he and Lloyd spoke with Domantas Sabonis, the former Bulldog who’s now in the NBA. There are more and more of those: Bulldogs in the NBA. Few has made a Final Four, turned Gonzaga into a program for pro prospects and changed the course of that school’s history.

College basketball’s had a lot of great coaches, and still does. But no one has done what Few has done, the way he has done it, all while at the same small school in the same small conference. April 3, 2017, ends in disappointment but also serves as a symbolic achievement. The Gonzaga path reflects Few’s path. That’s a Hall of Fame story. He’s a Hall of Fame coach.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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