Editor’s Note: When Gonzaga University reached the 2017 Final Four, Sports Capital Journalism Program graduate student Mark Alewine explored the process that elevated the program to a national championship contender. He discovered the dramatic rise could be traced to a commitment made years earlier by a university president with a bold vision.
By Mark Alewine | @MR_Alewine
Sports Capital Journalism Program
GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Rev. Robert Spitzer sat at his desk, staring at an invoice. The invoice stared back at him.
The plan to build a new campus basketball arena at Gonzaga University had been discussed to death. Every resource had been exhausted. Time was running out to get it built in time and Spitzer thought he had to pull the trigger and pray.
However, the former Gonzaga president is comfortable walking where risk becomes a leap of faith. Believing a new arena was the key to building the entire university, Spitzer ordered to begin construction of what would eventually become the McCarthey Athletic Center even before he had the necessary funds raised.
“At the time I ordered the steel, I didn’t want to wait another season,” Spitzer said. “I signed the line with complete belief that we were going to get it.”
It was 2003, the year Gonzaga began its rise to college basketball’s final weekend. The road that would eventually lead Przemek Karnowski, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Matthews, and the rest of the Bulldogs to Phoenix began when Spitzer, head coach Mark Few, and the Gonzaga administration chose to go on all in and build the university through basketball.
“I think everybody was giving me a signal that this program, with this man and this arena, is going to be pretty good for a long time,” Spitzer remembered. “To me, that risk seemed to be reasonable and mitigated.”
Spitzer, the Gonzaga president from 1998 to 2009, is president of the California-based Magis Center and the Spitzer Center. In 2001, Gonzaga was coming off a third consecutive appearance in the NCAA tournament, including a trip to the Elite Eight and loss to eventual champion Connecticut in 1999. Spitzer and Few had a meeting planned with Salt Lake City Tribune publishers and Gonzaga alumni Philip and Thomas McCarthey in Salt Lake City to discuss a contribution to the athletics department.
Spitzer and Few met at a coffee house outside the McCarthey’s office to lay out the details for the meeting.
“Okay, Mark,” Spitzer remembered saying. “What we’re asking for is a million dollars for this athletic endowment…”
Spitzer heard a response he did not expect.
“I’m not so sure about the athletic endowment,” he remembered hearing Few say.
“Well, what do you want?”
“An arena? Like a brand new arena?”
“Well, that could cost like $30 million. Why do you need that?”
Few, understanding the enormity of his request, shared his vision for Gonzaga basketball.
“I need it for recruiting,” Spitzer remembered hearing him say. “We need something that’s really special. We need something that’s going put our program on the map. We need someplace that’s worthy of our team that we can keep bringing back again and again to the NCAA.”
Spitzer describes Few with reverence. Trusting his coach’s vision, Spitzer changed course. Gonzaga was coming out of a precarious financial period, and Spitzer believed he could address the school’s struggling economic reality through a nationally-competitive basketball program.
As he hit the fund-raising trail, his pitch for investing in basketball focused on four key areas: Success on the court translating to an increase in student applications, an increase in the number of male applicants, enhanced capital campaign funding, and an increase in funds for other athletic teams.
Everything, however, hinged on Mark Few staying in Spokane.
“I knew Mark Few was going to be our Knute Rockne,” Spitzer said. “I had no way to be certain but I just knew. I just felt like he was a part of the Gonzaga family.”
Few replaced Dan Monson in 1999. After the magical Elite Eight run, Monson accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota, and Few, an assistant at the time, was promoted to replace him.
His wife, Marcy, was a Spokane and Gonzaga lifer, and he had developed a trusting relationship with the Gonzaga administration. Still, the offers increased year after year for Few to leave for a bigger job with a bigger university and a bigger contract.
But year after year, Few chose to invest in Gonzaga.
“Gonzaga has been amazing in how they’ve treated us,” Few said earlier this week. “Most importantly, they’ve continued to grow. If we didn’t feel that they shared the same vision as us to make it into a national program and continue to build it, then I’m sure we probably would’ve left.”
Armed with his conviction, his “Knute Rockne” and his determination to make this work, Spitzer continued fund raising. He knew in order to bring the arena to life, he would need to raise the funds to build it through cash, pledges, and ticket sales. He also knew he needed to capitalize on the team’s success, and he’d have to do it fast. Knowing that additional delays could threaten the project for another year, he chose to bet big.
Spitzer signed off on the steel to begin the project, and waited for the remaining funds to come in.
As he had done during the first meeting in Salt Lake City two years earlier, Spitzer relied on the McCarthey brothers for support to complete the project. And as they had done before, they delivered. The McCarthey Athletic Center became the new Kennel.
Sixteen years after that initial meeting in Salt Lake City, the Gonzaga Bulldogs are playing in their first Final Four. Spitzer’s big gamble has paid off so well that Few can now sell recruits with another facility. The brand new Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement, a $24 million state of the art athletic facility south of the Martin Centre – the original Kennel — is opening this fall.
But even after all the success on the court, Spitzer is most proud of the team’s impact on the university.
“I am elated that not only is the team doing well,” he said, “but Gonzaga as a whole academic student life organization and university is doing well because of the team.”