How Gonzaga became a powerhouse basketball school

Coach Fitzgerald family ties to Bay Area

When it comes to Gonzaga basketball, the big question is simply “how?”

How did a small school from Eastern Washington become a powerhouse in collegiate basketball?

The answer, many say, can be traced back to one man: Dan Fitzgerald.

Before Mark Few and before Dan Monson, both of them worked tirelessly under “Fitz” – a fiery, blue collar coach.

"We had a great team back in 1971 with coach Fitzgerald leading the charge and getting us our first league championship," Tim Kennedy, the current head coach of Archbishop Mitty, a high school in San Jose where Fitzgerald paid his dues. Kennedy was once recruited by Fitz. 

Fitz wouldn't have to move too far for his next gig as longtime Santa Clara head coach Carroll Williams helped get the young man started as a college basketball coach

"I used to watch his teams not only play, but summer league practice and got to know him in that area and liked his enthusiasm,” said Williams.

Fitz would bounce around between San Jose and Spokane from 1971-1978 until he finally earned his chance to be a head coach at Gonzaga.

"I knew that he would build a program. I just didn't know the success Gonzaga would reach,” remembered Williams. "Dan, in my opinion now, is the architect of this whole Gonzaga dream."

And how could you? Fitz was as charming as he was chatty and that was a good thing, because many of his stories can be told by the people who knew him the best, including his brother Jim.

"Dan said to me when they were very early, 'you don't recruit for Gonzaga,'” Jim Fitzgerald recalled. “'You recruit for Duke, North Carolina and UCLA.' You better evaluate and get the guys other people miss."

Fitz had inherited a struggling program at Gonzaga.

Jim, once a high school counselor, knew his brother had his work cut out for him.

"One morning I hear, ‘the representative from Gonzales University in Spokanie Warshington,’ so I call my brother and said, ‘you need a public relations guy,’” Jim laughed.

Dan Fitzgerald would be that guy. He took the Zags out of the Big Sky and into the current West Coast conference and went on to recruit Gonzaga's most notable alum, John Stockton.

"I think a lot of people now say he was born to go to GU, but I don't really believe that,” Dan Fitzgerald said in 2009.

And for a school that once threatened to drop to Division II, he brought in young coaches like Dan Monson, Mark Few and Bill Grier to help the program grow beyond his wildest dreams.

"Not only are they recruiting nationally, but internationally as well,” said Jim Fitzgerald.

Though Fitz stepped down from Gonzaga in 1997 under murky circumstances, his mark was left on the program and the communities he touched. At Archbishop Mitty High School, his name is still attached to a substantial fund in his honor.

"The last I heard the Mitty Endowment is the largest grassroots endowment in the 50-year history of the school,” his brother said.

In Spokane, the annual Fitz Tournament is held at Lewis & Clark in Spokane to bring in team's from all over to help raise money for various causes in the Lilac City and beyond. Archbishop Mitty High School even planning to return next season.

"We also do service work when we're up there too,” said Williams. “So, it's kind of what coach Fitzgerald stood for, not just being a good person, but a good person off the court as well.”

So, let's go back to the question at hand: how did a small school out of Eastern Washington become a college basketball powerhouse?

The answer is fairly complicated, but the foundation starts with Fitz.

"Believe it or not, it's probably hard for new people around here to fathom but there were a lot of times people didn't know Gonzaga was playing,” said Mark Few said in 2009. “Just his essence in the community created a lot of attention and brought people out.”

With the Zags playing on Fitz's former turf, Mark Few's squad is hoping to complete the dream, a dream Fitz help create.

"I know he's up there rooting them on...he's rooting them on,” Jim Fitzgerald said. 

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