Tuesday, March 25, 2008 | Ah, the beauty and power of March Madness games broadcast on television.
Only in men’s college basketball could a school like the University of San Diego win one NCAA tournament game, lose the next game (that it could have won), and everyone — boosters, students, alumni and fans — judges the season a resounding success.
And that’s as it should be in sports.
If it were that way in more corners of American sports, we wouldn’t have so many athletes ingesting steroids like a pack of East Germans huddled at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.
Now the question is how far can Bill Grier take Gonzaga South? And how long will the former Gonzaga assistant stay here?
USD athletic director Ky Snyder was proactive in signing Grier to a contract extension in the days between the Toreros winning the West Coast Conference Tournament and their NCAA opener.
Snyder made a similar move last fall with baseball coach Rich Hill after he guided the Toreros to the NCAA Tournament and his name surfaced as candidate for the vacant Cal State Fullerton job.
If Grier follows the Gonzaga model with off-court moves as closely as he did with on-court moves, he could be turning down jobs for at least a few years before he considers more money at a bigger school.
Gonzaga’s Mark Few is annually mentioned as a candidate for openings at big schools around the county, but nine years later he’s still at the small, Spokane, Wash., school.
In the coaching profession, it’s known as “don’t screw with happy.” But not all coaches live by it.
Compare Few to his predecessor, Dan Monson. He was the hot name after he took Gonzaga to the Elite Eight in 1999 and left for Minnesota. Monson was fired seven games into his eighth season with only one NCAA trip that ended with a first-round loss.
Now he’s at Long Beach State. Where would you rather be coaching: Long Beach State or Gonzaga?
Grier had a chance to follow Monson to Minnesota as his No. 1 assistant, but he remained at Gonzaga with Few. He later had it written into his contract that he would be named head coach should Few ever leave.
In all, Grier was a Gonzaga assistant for 16 years. He’s rumored to have turned down a couple of head coaching jobs before taking the USD position.
Someone with insight into what Grier is thinking for a career path is Jud Heathcote, the retired Michigan State coach. Heathcote settled in Spokane to be near children and grandchildren, and it wasn’t long before he struck up a relationship with Few and Grier.
When Few was a young head coach, he and Heathcote would meet weekly for lunch at Jack and Dan’s Bar and Grille. That’s the pub near Gonzaga that basketball legend John Stockton’s father, Jack, part-owned.
Few called the mentoring sessions “Tuesdays with Jud,” borrowing from Mitch Albom’s popular book title, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
“The way the college coaching carousel operates, anyone who is successful in the NCAA tournament is going to have opportunities to move on,” Heathcote said. “But I know Bill and his lovely wife, Nicole, are excited and happy to be where they are now. Whether they’re just as excited in a few years, I don’t know.”
No one does, probably not even Grier, Heathcote added.
Heathcote said he was happy at Montana with no plans to leave until Michigan State lured him to the Big Ten for the 1976-77 season. Two years later he won an NCAA title with Magic Johnson.
One factor will be Grier’s ability to recruit talent to USD, including local players. Heathcote remembers when his Montana assistant, Jim Brandenburg, took the job at San Diego State for the 1987-88 season.
Brandenburg thought he would match his Wyoming success at SDSU. As Aztecs fans painfully know, it didn’t happen.
“I remember when Jim came to the realization that it would be hard to get the top recruits that wanted to go to Duke, UCLA, Arizona and Stanford,” Heathcote said. “But he was sure he could get the next group of recruits until he found out they were going to Long Beach State and other schools like that. He was appalled at the lack of interest in San Diego State.”
Grier’s USD team featured one local talent in Gyno Pomare, the All-West Coast Conference junior from El Camino High. He has a local recruit on the way in Christian High junior Vander Joaquim, although he came here last year from Brazil.
Can he get future interest from San Diego High sophomore Jeremy Tyler, Hoover High freshman Angelo Chol or others whose names we don’t yet know? We’ll see.
But there is no question Grier has already stamped his mark on USD basketball. Heathcote, who has seen many of his assistants go on to head jobs, was impressed but not surprised by Grier’s quick success.
“I always told assistants take what you learned from a good or great coach, but be your own coach,” Heathcote said. “Don’t try to be a Bobby Knight, John Wooden, Jud Heathcote or Mark Few. Hopefully you’ve learned from the people you’ve been associated with, but then you have to have your own personality as a coach. I think Billy has done that.”
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at email@example.com. Or send a letter to the editor.