How the basketball program helped Gonzaga University flourish

With a net in his hands and a Final Four cap on his head, coach Mark Few tried to disembark elegantly from the ladder standing beneath the basket.

Out from the crowd of celebrating Gonzaga players came Przemek Karnowski, the 300-pound bear of a player spreading his arms wide to catch his coach.

It was, considering time, place and event, a perfect metaphor for coach and university. Standing quite literally at the highest point of his coaching career, Few finally needed someone from Gonzaga to rescue him.

For 19 years, he’d been doing the saving, his Bulldogs not only growing a basketball team from nothing but also helping to save a university in the process.

“The school was in real trouble" was the assessment of longtime benefactor Jack McCann in 1998.

Asked to join the board of trustees that year, the Gonzaga graduate discovered his alma mater was falling apart, operating at a deficit for several years, the school’s credit rating plummeting, the endowment slipping and administrators forced to slash budgets simply to pay the bills.

The small, Catholic, private and enrollment-reliant school welcomed a bottoming-out freshman class of 550 students, continuing a dismal trend of shrinking enrollment that saw the school’s undergraduate population dip from 4,176 in 1990 to 2,791 just eight years later.

Staring at a $1 million deficit -- no small sum for a school of its size -- university administrators eliminated 30 positions and laid off five more employees. There was even talk of reducing the basketball staff, the board discussing eliminating one full-time position that would have cost Bill Grier his job. A small group of faculty went so far as to suggest the university consider abandoning Division I athletics altogether.

If things weren’t entirely dire, they were certainly heading that way, Gonzaga in danger of becoming “just another middling, struggling university at best,” in MCann’s opinion, with perhaps an even more ominous future.

Eight months later, and in what at the time seemed little more than a happy and temporary diversion, Gonzaga’s basketball team rolled from its 10th-seeded spot in the West Region of the NCAA tournament all the way to an improbable berth in the Elite Eight.

That August, more than 700 freshmen enrolled at Gonzaga.

The following year, Few’s first as head coach, Gonzaga made it to the Sweet 16.

The next semester, a freshman class of more than 900 arrived on campus.

Seventeen years later, the student population keeps rolling in lockstep with the basketball team’s success. No one considers the Bulldogs a mere happy diversion anymore.

The pairing of better enrollment and a raised basketball profile is known as the Flutie Effect. It’s named for former Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, whose Hail Mary touchdown pass against Miami in 1984 and subsequent Heisman Trophy campaign gave rise to a 16 percent enrollment bump at Boston College.

Plenty of other schools have enjoyed the one-year injection thanks to sports fame since -- after Ali Farokhmanesh hit a 3-pointer to beat Kansas, Northern Iowa saw a 30 percent increase in admission calls and nearly quadrupled its page views online; after its 2010 Final Four run, Butler’s applications rose 40 percent.

What has happened at Gonzaga is a lot more than the Flutie Effect.

“This isn’t like we had two years of success and dropped off the scene," university president Thayne McCulloh said. “We’re celebrating almost two decades of continued success for a little school from Spokane, and I know there are people who have been very generous to this university in many ways -- with their resources, their time and their support -- and I know there are students who would never have become part of all of this without the success of our basketball team."

Really, the entire place is different.

Since 2004 seven new buildings have sprouted up on the Gonzaga campus, including a state-of-the-art student center. In the fall, the school broke ground on a new basketball practice facility that also will house a Hall of Fame, and in the spring a new performing arts center will begin to take form.

Donations are at an all-time high -- a capital campaign launched just last year already has received $226 million of its $250 million -- as are both applications and the school’s student profile. With more people seeking entry into Gonzaga, the school changed its admissions process in 2003, abandoning the less selective rolling admissions plan and going to a pooling program in which students are given a hard deadline to apply and are considered collectively.

In large part due to that shift, students today come to campus with an average 3.71 GPA and 1290 SAT score, up from 3.54 and 1159 in 1998.

When the Bulldogs first made the NCAA tournament, people debated how to pronounce the school name -- you say Gone-ZAH-ga, I say Gone-ZAG-uh -- while Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth scrounged up $125,000 to buy local TV rights for five whopping games. The Bulldogs today are a national program, with a lucrative Nike contract as well as a 10-year deal with sports marketing firm IMG to manage multimedia rights.

This week an undergraduate population of 5,160, including more than 1,200 freshmen, will cheer as their beloved Zags head to Phoenix.

“We weren’t going to shut the doors [at that moment], but you can only do what we were doing for so long and survive," said former president Father Robert Spitzer, who held the position from July 1998 to 2008. “We weren’t at that point yet, but to get to the heart of it, let’s just say, ‘Thank God for the basketball team.’”

Put simply, the Bulldogs helped save Gonzaga.