GLENDALE, Ariz. -- On Saturday, when South Carolina and Gonzaga face each other in each program’s first Final Four appearance, they will owe a deep and lasting level of gratitude to men behind the scenes who made it possible.
For Gonzaga fans, a good portion of love and respect should be extended to the program’s hidden hand: Mike Roth, Gonzaga’s athletic director, who for 20 deliberate years has built a basketball powerhouse through patience, ingenuity and -- most important -- loyalty.
For South Carolina fans, send some special thoughts and deeply felt thank yous to another, albeit different, hidden hand: That of John Currie.
Don’t know who John Currie is?
He’s the man -- through a lack of loyalty and a catastrophic mistake of arrogance and short-sightedness that could damage Kansas State athletics for a very long time -- most responsible for it being South Carolina here at the Final Four.
Because Frank Martin, the Gamecocks head coach, should have been up at the dais representing Kansas State on Thursday in front of the national media. Or some Thursday like it in the years before now. K-State was the school that gave him his big break, the place he took to an Elite Eight in 2010, the program that he carved with the same will and defensive excellence and unique infusion of his unique personality.
And with all respect to South Carolina, nobody -- nobody -- leaves a program they’ve built the way Martin did at Kansas State for South Carolina.
Unless some pedantic AD like Currie wreaks havoc.
Which is just what happened five years ago, when Currie, at the time Kansas State’s athletic director, did everything in his power to make Martin miserable and force the coach out of Manhattan, Kan. It didn’t matter Martin was one of the few coaches capable of giving that phenomenal fan base the basketball tradition they deserve. Currie got his way, and South Carolina got a miracle maker now two wins from cutting down the nets.
I get it if you don’t give two hoots about Kansas State, its troubles or its missed opportunity. I care because I wrote about that program extensively when I was a newspaper reporter in Kansas City, and I think it deserves better. But more than that, there’s this: In sports we are so quick to go over-the-top with our rage toward referees (especially you, Kentucky fans), toward the players on the floor, and toward the head coaches we want fired if they haven’t brought nearly immediate salvation.
Yet we rarely if ever focus on the administrators -- the, you know, actual decision makers -- who may not be on TV but control the fates of the athletic departments they lead.
Currie’s brazen mismanagement of that athletic department and self-interested decision he was more important than his basketball coach was so obvious that, when it happened, I wrote a column that reads like a roadmap of what was to come. Not because I was some far-seeing seer. Because any person on Earth -- except John Currie -- should have known the score.
And while that disaster was unfolding -- or, from South Carolina’s perspective, a gift was being given -- Gonzaga was quietly and successfully building the anti-Currie approach to turning a program into a powerhouse: Through trust, loyalty and an understanding that you build greatness not through the shiny things but thorough the reliable ones.
By knowing how good you have it when it’s right in front of your face.
Mike Roth, Gonzaga’s AD, has been in that position since 1997. A year later, in 1998, the Zags made an improbable run to the Elite Eight, the program’s first. When Dan Monson, who was with the program for 11 years, left as head coach a short time later, Roth did what Currie couldn’t: He had the guts and vision to give the job to a supposed no-name assistant coach.
That guy? Mark Few, who turned the Zags from a nothing-school to a new-age blue blood.
The assistant coach Currie passed over after he forced out Martin? Brad Underwood, now the coach at Illinois.
It’s not the shiny things. It’s the reliable ones. Roth got it. Currie just got it all wrong.
So Few was installed and Roth and Gonzaga tripled-down on their belief and loyalty in a coach many thought would be another anonymous mid-major coach. They changed the team’s logo to a fierce bulldog, believing young recruits would prefer it. They changed the school’s colors to a darker, cooler blue. They started scheduling difficult opponents most mid-majors shied away from. They paid their own money -- rather than the other way around -- to get on national television.
Loyalty. Belief. Patience. Investment. And an allure to the solid things around you rather than the shiny things across the way, where the grass is greener.
Two cases in point here.
For Gonzaga, and Roth: Tommy Lloyd is the new Few, the coach-in-waiting who’s been at the school since just after that Elite Eight run, starting as an unpaid part of the staff. He’s a walking reminder of what this program is about, and that how the Zags got here is still the very DNA of where they’re going.
For Kansas State, unfortunately, it’s this: John Currie left recently to be the AD at Tennessee -- but not until after he’d forced out Martin and, just us unacceptable, maintained a poisoned relationship with football coach Bill Snyder, according to multiple sources. Snyder just happens to be the man who built that program from scratch and whose name is literally on the stadium there.
Loyalty, competence and some perspective matter.
Roth had it, and that means Gonzaga is in the Final Four.
Currie didn’t, and that means South Carolina is here, too.
Names like Roth and Currie aren’t sexy or shiny or often held accountable one way or the other. But they matter. They shape the programs that thrive, and those that will never be the same.
Good luck, Tennessee.