So I was rooting through a disorganized bookcase recently and happened upon a Seattle newspaper from October, 2009. A piece had to do with the then-truncated Gonzaga-Washington basketball series, and the UW’s proposal to renew it over three seasons at KeyArena.
I got wistful. The column detailed how – after the series was tabled by Washington with the 2006-07 game – the Huskies were offering up the idea to play three games at the Key in Seattle, with an equal split of gate receipts. Washington, then under athletic director Scott Woodward, leaked the proposal to a local radio guy and it was all the talk that afternoon, and the e-mail detailing it hit the inbox of GU athletic director Mike Roth at about 5 p.m. that day, so late he didn’t get to it until the next morning.
A decade later, as the Husky-Zag series continues Sunday afternoon at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, I’m left to wonder: Where’s the snark? Where’s the shade? What happened to snide and petty? What kind of rivalry is this?
If you’re just tuning in, as they like to say on television, for decades Gonzaga-Washington was the typical big-school-versus-compliant-little-neighbor series. They began playing back in 1910, and the Huskies impressed bracketologists everywhere with a 23-14 victory. They won 16 of the first 18 games back when GU played at a lower level, then lost three straight during World War II. There may be a war story hidden therein, but today isn’t the day to try to unearth it.
Washington then won 12 of 13, and there was a 26-year hiatus in the series (1945-71), something that, years later, likely would have pleased Washington coach Lorenzo Romar.
It all changed on an early-December night in 1998 at Spokane Arena, when Gonzaga won, 82-71. That would be Gonzaga’s liftoff year, and it was a UW team that had gone to the Sweet 16 the previous season. Jeremy Eaton had 25 points and Richie Frahm 21 for Gonzaga. For the Huskies, Todd MacCulloch had 28, but they were without injured guard Donald Watts.
Suddenly, the Zags were in control, winning against Washington, and winning by double digits. Then came the bombshell in the fall of 2002. The Zags were among a handful of schools that turned Washington in to the NCAA for recruiting violations by Romar assistant Cameron Dollar, chiefly in the wooing of Clarkston product Josh Heytvelt. Dollar was eventually busted for 23 instances of NCAA violations, also including Bremerton prospect Marvin Williams.
Relations turned Arctic-icy between the two schools. Washington was miffed that Gonzaga didn’t try to work out the Dollar indiscretions with the Huskies instead of taking the issue public.
The teams played one of the great games in the series 14 years ago, which is Washington’s sole victory in the previous 13 games – a 99-95 screamer in which the Huskies, at home, had to survive Adam Morrison’s career-high-tying 43 points. The Zags, meanwhile, might very well have a clean slate against the UW this millennium but for a back injury that took out point guard Derek Raivio midway through the first half.
A year later, the Huskies announced they were taking a timeout. They ended the series. They said they wanted to pursue a more national schedule – you know, Gonzaga not being national enough for UW tastes. A TV station caught Zags coach Mark Few on camera, saying, “If I’d lost seven of eight, I’d want to cancel the series, too.”
With the break in the series still relatively a front-burner topic, the Huskies then floated their KeyArena trial balloon. If possible, that inflamed Gonzaga as much as the cessation announcement three years earlier – the mechanics of the announcement, the chutzpah the Zags felt it took to propose a “neutral court” four miles from the UW, 290 miles from Spokane. That’s when Few made the memorable observation that Bigfoot would have his baby before Gonzaga agreed to that.
Oh, for those days of those quotes.
Years passed. The Zags got stronger in this decade and the long Romar regime gradually went bust. So it wasn’t great timing for Washington, but the two sides got back together and renewed the series. First, they met in a Thanksgiving tournament in 2015, and Gonzaga breezed. Then the Zags blitzed Washington by 27 points the next two years. The Huskies scared the compression shorts off GU last year before Rui Hachimura’s last-second jumper won it by two.
Now the series is at an odd juncture. By all appearances, Few and third-year UW coach like each other. Of all the turns. On ESPN 710 radio in Seattle Friday morning, Hopkins called Gonzaga “one of the top programs in the country. They’ve kind of set the bar in West Coast basketball.” Few, Hopkins said, “has built one of the strongest basketball cultures in the country.”
Beyond that, the two teams are vastly different from a year ago, erasing the prospect of institutional knowledge from players’ minds, and in Washington’s case, perhaps even a strong revenge motive.
Meanwhile, west-side media interest in the series seemed to fizzle with Gonzaga’s dominance. If the rivalry wasn’t going to be hot, well, there were other things to obsess over, like Pete Carroll’s record in 10 a.m. games against AFC teams coached by guys named Kirk, when the moon is in the seventh house and Kevin Burkhardt is announcing for Fox.
Like they say, it can’t be a rivalry when one team wins all the time. Except for that 2005 thriller at Washington, Gonzaga has won everything – the public-relations war and the games. No doubt Hopkins will try to persuade his young guys this is turf worth reclaiming.