Mark Few is fine outside the spotlight

SPOKANE, Wash. -- It's clear he's a winner, although he's stoic in a room that's crowded with the 15 West Coast Conference regular-season championship trophies he's earned.

The scattered jewelry boxes on a shelf behind him; rings come with those WCC titles. The plaques. An office the size of a comfortable West Coast condo. They're all proof of his prosperity.

Gonzaga is 26-1 overall and 14-0 in the West Coast Conference. Coach Mark Few has led the program to the Sweet 16 four times, but the Zags haven't surpassed their 1999 Elite Eight run. They've been the preeminent mid-major for nearly 20 years. But other non-Power 5 schools such as Wichita State, VCU, George Mason and Butler have all reached the Final Four while Gonzaga still hopes for another deep run in the Big Dance. In 2013, Gonzaga secured a No. 1 seed but suffered a loss to Wichita State in the second round. North Carolina topped Gonzaga on its way to the 2009 national title. The program has been perceived by many as a quality unit that has struggled to justify the hype when the games count most in the postseason.

"We're in the middle of February, and two of the last three years, we've been in the running for a No. 1 seed," Few said. "What job is better than that? You want to win, and we've been able to win. Winning is fun."

But he would rather not discuss his legacy.

Talk to Gary Bell Jr., he says. That's a better story.

The exploits of a man with the highest winning percentage (81 percent) among active Division I coaches? Nothing to see here.

Few doesn't just flee attention. He puts on a fake mustache, sunglasses and a trench coat, and then he skips town until it passes. It's easier to avoid that spotlight in this nugget of a city stuffed into the mountains of eastern Washington than it is in Los Angeles or Seattle. And that's ideal for Few, who guides one of two top-10 teams that hail from non-Power 5 leagues.

"We do his radio show in his office," said Mike Roth, the school's athletic director. "Most places in the top 20, they're doing their radio show downtown someplace, get the crowd to come in. That's not Mark's style. Mark doesn't like that. He doesn't want that. ... He can be really good with the public. But why put him there if he doesn't want to be there, if we don't have to be there. So we're careful with that."

He's not always reserved.

He'll gush about that photo on his office wall that shows him holding a salmon the length of a Louisville Slugger. He fell in love with fly-fishing years ago. It's a method of fishing that entails the use of a heavier line and a lightweight, artificial "fly" that resembles a bug or insect and sits just below the surface to lure salmon, trout, bass and other fish.

As Few tells the story of this memorable catch, he's back in Alaska wrestling with the monster in the photo during one of his annual fly-fishing trips to The Last Frontier. He raced 300 yards to snag him. Took 30 minutes to grab the sucker.

"I was running," Few said. "You're running on the side of the river. I'm not gonna lie to you: I tripped and went down a couple times, kept the rod up. You turn into kind of a stumbling, bumbling idiot when you're chasing a big fish like that. It doesn't always go perfect. It's like a basketball game. It's not always as planned."

He's sculpted his career on the principles that all coaches preach but few achieve. He chases balance. He needs it. And popularity often complicates that pursuit.

So he turns to the fishing rod, even midseason when necessary. He's usually alone or with a close friend. But brief fly-fishing excursions provide relief and reflection. The hobby helps him keep it all together.

He's aware power coaches' lucrative salaries come with clauses their contracts never mention. Coaching sometimes swallows marriages. It can turn husbands into houseguests. Fathers become strangers. Some coaches meet their families only after they've retired.

"Mark has an amazing ability to have balance and peace in his life that I think very few guys in this profession have," said Bill Grier, San Diego's coach and a former Gonzaga assistant. "I think [fly-fishing] is a therapeutic thing for him."

So Few's championships matter. And he wants more of them, just not as much as he desires the peace of mind he enjoys. That's his greatest accomplishment. It's not easy to maintain, even in a city of 210,000 positioned just 20 miles from the Idaho border. Gonzaga is still the biggest show in the region, the best team on the West Coast.

He's still running a top-10 program that's recruited some of the top players in America -- and the world -- for more than a decade. He's still facing the pressure of reaching the Final Four for the first time in school history. He's still dealing with the media requests and the daily grind of the coaching profession. He's still focused on his marriage and fatherhood.

Fly-fishing, believe it or not, helps Few find harmony within the hustle.

"It just brings it down," Few said. "I walk out the next day at practice in a much better place. Even come home in a much better place. My wife will tell you, [I'm] a much better parent, a much better husband. Everything. These seasons and the job can become all-encompassing sometimes. And so it's good. It's a great time to think and think about your team and plan and do things in that area because you have a lot of time just standing there in the river. I think [fly-fishing] is probably the biggest thing that I've always tried to do."


t surprises you. You fly over ragged shacks, spruce trees and barren fields on your way into Spokane, a city that's difficult to reach from most major metros with a direct flight.

And then you land and realize you've been tricked. You step outside to walk along the sun-kissed Spokane River during an unseasonably warm afternoon -- past Riverfront Park -- and then you're enthralled by the glory of the Spokane Falls. The Native American tribes that discovered this plot called it "Stluputqu," which means "swift water." You stand on a bridge above the bubbling falls and its mist tickles your eyebrows and your fancy. The snow-capped peaks of Mount Spokane wink at you from afar as the cloud cover wallows above.

Who knew Spokane, Washington, packed this splendor?

Somewhere within this region's rivers, lakes and tributaries -- perhaps even Montana, Idaho or Canada -- Few escaped a few weeks ago, as his Bulldogs continued their push for their 17th WCC crown and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

He had to reset, so he called a buddy and they ventured to one of Few's hidden hot spots -- he won't reveal locations -- and they relaxed during one of his team's days off. They arrived around 10 a.m., returned home around 4:30 p.m. They caught five or six steelhead with egg-fly and stone-fly patterns, distinct lures used in fly-fishing.

You couldn't reach him on his cell phone. Can't get a signal in god's country.

There, wherever he was, Few exhaled.

He's not the only college basketball coach in America who loves fly-fishing. But he's certainly one of a handful blessed with access to rich streams and an accommodating administration that permits these midseason getaways.

"He loves to fish," Gary Bell Jr. said. "Sometimes we get the worst end of the stick. He might want to practice early in the morning because he wants to get out and fish later in the day. He loves that. And he also loves this team."

He's not selfish. Few will flip practice times if it helps an assistant get to his child's football game. Their children come to practices. And they're usually on the bench handing out towels to players during home games. Serenity is a priority within his program.

Mike Roth, the school's athletic director, not only encourages Few's fly-fishing trips, he offers tips. He taught Few some of the nuances of fly-fishing years ago. Those early tutorials required patience. Roth and Few went to a place called Dry Falls on their first fly-fishing trip together.

"My brother and I caught a lot of fish," said Roth, giggling. He never mentioned how many -- if any -- Few grabbed that day.

"He'd come to me and say, 'Show me again how to tie that knot,'" said Roth, who once taught a fly-fishing course. "It's something that I can understand because I do it, too. ... We're unique in a lot of ways. Strange in a lot of ways."

Roth has been at Gonzaga for nearly 30 years. Few arrived in 1992 as a graduate assistant making $1,500 a month and living cheap with Grier and former Gonzaga head coach and assistant Dan Monson in the same apartment. Few met his wife, Marcy, while she was a freshman checking IDs at the rec center.

He and Roth are tied to the program via history and recreation. They remember when Gonzaga had to pay $25,000 a pop to buy TV time and broadcast its games on regional cable networks. Everything changed with Monson's run to the Elite Eight in 1999. Few was hired after Monson left for Minnesota later that year.

Few has sent nine players to the NBA, produced three first-team All-Americans and a national player of the year (Adam Morrison). Two of his players, Dan Dickau and Kelly Olynk, secured slots as first-team athletic and academic All-Americans in the same seasons. Only one player in Few's tenure has exhausted his eligibility without graduating from the school. Gonzaga has made 15 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances under Few.

Domantas Sabonis, the son of former NBA star Arvydas Sabonis, could be a first-round pick if he decides to enter this summer's NBA draft. And Gonzaga would earn a 1-seed if Selection Sunday were held today.

Few is still driven by the results, which have always favored his program. And he's still hunting for that Final Four bid and national championship.

That's the constant knock against Gonzaga. All of that WCC dominance and no Final Four.

"For sure, we [need a Final Four], without a doubt," Roth said. "If we don't get one, will that be a tarnished legacy? Will that be Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, John Stockton without a championship ring? Somebody without a World Series ring? Not everybody can get to a Final Four. It is so hard."

But Few hopes the Zags will get to Indianapolis in early April because he believes his players deserve it, not because he feels incomplete without a Final Four berth.

"Taking these guys as far as possible is the goal every year," Few said. "You want it to end with a Final Four and national championship, but there's also enough perspective to know that, hey, we've had a great run here."

He's more proud of the order that surrounds his program. He's ignored offers to coach at bigger schools with bigger budgets because he's smart enough to understand the value and rarity of what he's constructed in Spokane.

Plus, he might not find good fly-fishing in a major market.

Few was widely rumored to be a candidate for vacancies at USC and UCLA in recent years. Roth never bought it.

"Years ago, there was a job opening that happened to be in Los Angeles," Roth said. "People were saying that's a big-time job and Mark's going to take it. But somebody said, 'But there are no good trout streams in Los Angeles.'"


ew's "find your Chi "attitude impacts his players, too. They're all focused on their goals, just not intoxicated by them. There's more to life than basketball. And Few brings his team fresh salmon from his fishing trips to prove it.

"It wasn't even in my top five until I came here, and when I came here, I knew this was the place," said former star Robert Sacre, a Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native. "It was a small school where I could focus. I graduated. Everything I wanted, basically, happened. Coach Few listened to everything I asked for."

After Gonzaga defeated overmatched Loyola Marymount, 80-51, on Thursday night, Few could concentrate on the other events of his life. Marcy's family is coming to town this weekend. He has to prep for that. There's a birthday party to attend. His teenage boys, 14-year-old A.J. and 12-year-old Joseph, both have basketball practice on Friday.

When the four children -- he also has an 8-year-old daugther Juila and a 4-year-old son Colt -- are all in bed, he'll watch film of Gonzaga's next opponent, Pepperdine, on his iPad. Maybe he'll contact a recruit from his patio, too. The extended office hours are unnecessary. He's embraced Thoreau's idea that "there is no more fatal blunderer than he who consumes the greater part of his life getting a living."

"[I remember] those days when you think it's a badge of courage to be in the office for 20 hours and blah, blah, blah," Few said, remembering his younger self. "Now I look at that and I think it's a sign of weakness, because I think you can be efficient in what you do and how you work, and I see too many people sacrificing their families with these jobs. And I think that's one of the biggest tragedies in our profession and probably all professions."

So he might leave again. To preserve this.

A brief jaunt into eastern Washington's rivers and lakes might salve any angst he encounters as the NCAA tournament approaches. Maybe he'll go "hardcore" and fish from sunrise to sunset.

It wouldn't surprise Bill Grier. The day Gonzaga earned the first No. 1 ranking in school history, late in the 2012-13 season, he called Few to congratulate him.

But he got Few's voicemail. Few was out fishing.

"It works for him," Grier said, "and that's all that matters."

It's been working for everyone else at Gonzaga, too.