“Just put a quarter in me,” Mike Roth would say self-deprecatingly, in reference to his facility for waxing long in answer to media questions.
Well, Roth just announced his retirement after 24 years as Gonzaga athletic director, and it would take a lot of quarters to describe properly how GU has changed since he came to campus.
If 24 years sounds like a long time, it actually shorts Roth. He’s been at the school in various athletic capacities since the mid-‘80s, and he pretty much knows every paver on every walkway around every athletic facility in the place.
The continuity at Gonzaga – unparalleled nationally for the combination of athletic administration and men’s basketball – is slowly being chipped away, victim both of its own excellence and the years that brought it about. First, Tommy Lloyd, a 20-year basketball assistant, to Arizona, and now Roth, who did three and a half decades at Gonzaga. But nothing is forever, not Roth’s vision, high standards or simple willingness to call you back.
Born in Easton, Pa., he grew up in Moses Lake and followed a sister to Gonzaga, where he played JV basketball briefly when Adrian Buoncristiani was varsity head coach.
“I went in and sat down with Adrian at my request,” Roth told me several years ago as I researched for my Gonzaga book, “Glory Hounds.” I said, ‘Adrian, I want to play. What are my chances? Am I going to get to play?’ “
“No,” Buoncristiani replied.
That set Roth toward Willamette University and a college experience he relished. He would end up back at Gonzaga to get a master’s degree in athletic administration before a short stint as a grad assistant to basketball coach Jay Hillock. But his first real apprenticeship to his current job was director of the newly refurbished Martin Centre in 1986.
One can only marvel at the GU landscape then. The school played at the NAIA level in all but basketball and baseball. Only a couple of sports even had full-time assistant coaches – baseball and women’s hoops not among them.
Roth came to wear a number of different hats in athletics. One of those was compliance, and in that role, he assumed a tortured position when Dan Fitzgerald, the basketball coach and athletic director, was whacked for NCAA violations over mismanagement of department funds. Fitz was a dynamic figure with diehard supporters, and some of them were convinced Roth, initially replacing him as interim A.D., had to be complicit in Fitzgerald’s demise.
“There was a very, very small, vocal and aggressive group,” Roth told me. “I took some heat, more than I would have liked, to be quite honest. There were some personal attacks that were really painful.”
At basketball games, Roth would sometimes try to start a conversation with one of those Fitz loyalists and be met with stony silence.
Summer of ‘98, he and athletics survived a financial crisis at the school, during which there was a push to de-emphasize sports to NCAA Division III.
(Yeah, this is the same program that in the past five years, played in two NCAA basketball championship games.)
Basketball hit the mother lode in 1999, stayed steady and – unlike other one-hit wonders – found a way to build on it, brick by brick. Mark Few’s perseverance was paramount, but Roth proved an able steward of the enterprise, even if sometimes you wondered if he could be fully simpatico with a train roaring downhill. If ever that was the case, Roth could point to GU’s routine department-wide APR success in the classroom.
Around Roth, the landscape evolved dramatically in program advancements and facilities upgrades. GU has constructed two basketball-related buildings in the last 17 years and a top-of-the-line baseball park.
If some of the glory fell to Roth, it also became his purview to rationalize the athletics boom to wary Gonzaga trustees; you could almost feel the eye-rolls over the phone when Roth would reference such meetings on his calendar. Imagine the crossfire at one of those the weekend in 2007 when Josh Heytvelt got busted for drug possession.
Roth had another role as well. Few guards his privacy zealously and slips into a bunker, not to be rousted even during some basketball-related issues. In those times, it was frequently the Tommy Lloyds or Mike Roths offering up Gonzaga’s public face.
The Zags’ “hunt” for Roth’s replacement was a short one. If ever there was a no-brainer, this was it. Chris Standiford has been at the school since the early ‘90s, starting with his time as an undergrad. He’s been a low-key, behind-the-scenes stalwart.
About that Gonzaga continuity: There’s a fine line between the value of institutional knowledge and the danger of becoming stale. The Zags, with Mike Roth having overseen their transformation, seem to get that as well as anybody.