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Gonzaga Is The Dominant Story — And The Smart Pick

When circumstances suggest anything is possible in this NCAA tournament, including COVID-19 forfeitures, it’s wise to go with the chalk — the Zags and their quest for perfection.

Jay Mariotti

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It wasn’t long ago, remember, when America was clanking both free throws. Was the upstart pronounced Gon-ZAH-ga or Gon-ZAG-uh? From Spo-KANE or Spo-KAN? And who were these interlopers, not far removed from sharing a practice court with intramural leagues and volleyball teams while renting a band to play at games?

Could they really escape a mid-major existence somewhere in the Great Northwest, where the team bus used to break down on the same hill at the start of road trips? Hell, didn’t the Gonzaga administration almost downsize the program in the late-1990s, recommending a Division III reset amid severe enrollment declines and near-bankruptcy? When Mark Few was promoted from assistant to head coach, didn’t the school president at the time, Father Robert Spitzer, ask athletic director Mike Roth, “OK, good … which one is he?”

Marcy Laca, Mark Few's Wife: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know | Heavy.com

Looking back, as the university’s resources and reputation thrive amid new national prestige and Nike fortunes, it’s not a stretch to draw two conclusions in 2021: Just as big-time college basketball saved Gonzaga, Gonzaga might save big-time college basketball. This inspiring tale, a made-for-Rinaldi epic if there ever was one, cannot be told enough. In a sport where bluebloods have lorded like an organized crime family, Gonzaga — firm emphasis on the ZAG, as in Zags — gradually blazed a Lewis-and-Clark trail through privileged hoops territories. While behemoth programs cheated and cut deals with corruption snakes, Gonzaga was assembling a culture rooted in values and methods. While broadcast networks embraced traditional power conferences, Gonzaga was comfortable growing its brand in relative obscurity, mixing non-league litmus tests with West Coast Conference games in Moraga and Malibu, where cozy gyms have brick walls behind the baskets.

And the one-and-done NBA hopscotchers? They generally weren’t all that welcome in Spokane, as in CAN.

What began as a charming oddity just in time for a new millennium, with the Zags’ first NCAA tournament berth and a shocking Elite Eight run, became an annual March Madness storyline. Familiarity led to expectations, the same that accompany Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. Suddenly, Gonzaga was a self-made, tried-and-true blueblood. And now, two decades after the program’s introduction to the sporting masses, Few has taken his masterpiece to a place few have reached — as only the fifth team in 45 years to enter the tournament with an unbeaten record, six wins from the first perfect national championship season since 1976.

Some coaches would run from the hype, especially when continued spring failure will begin to hinder everything that has been accomplished. Few, after a title game loss in 2017 and other near-misses, is only happy to embrace the commotion ahead, six years after an unbeaten Kentucky team departed March a loser. “We just talked about it in there. We finally, finally acknowledged, like, look, this is a big deal,” Few said after Gonzaga clinched its 23rd consecutive NCAA berth. “It puts us in some incredible company. That Kentucky team … it’s a heck of an accomplishment. And it’s really a heck of accomplishment in lieu of these atmospheres that have been so stale.”

I’m glad he pointed that out. At 26-0, Gonzaga not only is the best team and predominant story but the wisest pick to win, in a pandemic scenario fraught with unpredictability and potential bracket chaos. The champion will be the team that navigates COVID-19 responsibly, meaning we all should be taking notes on which groups have avoided disruptions this season and which have succumbed to COVID-iocy. Duke, for all its royalty, will be remembered for the positive test that ended the Blue Devils’ season, proving Mike Krzyzewski is no Dr. K. Kansas and Virginia had to bow out of conference tournaments because of positive tests. Baylor, once considered prime championship material, hasn’t been the same since a February outbreak that infected nine players. Who knows which programs are next in the coming days and weeks?

Gonzaga learned quickly from a late November issue — a player and staff member testing positive — and, remarkably, zagged through the landmines in an unlikely march toward perfection. Never has a flawless run been so quiet, without cheering worshippers at home and hostile crowds on the road; yet, the lack of hullabaloo didn’t slow the mission or blunt the joy. Internally, the team’s performance director kept close watch on the mental health of young men in their early 20s and teens. With the 34-member travel party ensconsed in the tournament’s Indiana bubble, after producing a required seven negative tests over seven straight days, it’s possible the most vulnerable period will pass quickly for a mature team that has been conscientious and focused for months. The Zags know the lowdown, as do anxious gamblers and bracket holders: Once the tournament starts, any team hit by an outbreak will forfeit and go home if at least five players can’t suit up. If RPI once was a quantity used in the selection and seed process, now it stands for Responsible Pandemic Index.

And as we gather for this new form of Madness, we must weigh RPI savvy and accountability within a bubble environment — young people isolated for weeks until a winner is declared April 5 — as much as basketball skill and coaching acumen. Illinois is primed for a lengthy run and possible title game showdown with Gonzaga, behind Ayo Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, but this must be asked: With campus an easy drive from Indianapolis, will players be conveniently tempted to meet on the sly with family and friends? Gonzaga doesn’t have those issues, setting up shop 2,000 miles from home. Everyone is raving about Cade Cunningham, the world’s next great playmaker, but is he really ready to bunker down and contend with Oklahoma State when NBA franchises already are playing Fade For Cade and multiple millions await him?

Also, look at the competition in the West Regional. See any? Creighton might have been a chore, but the program is embroiled in a racial scandal involving coach Greg McDermott, he of the “plantation” references, and the players looked weary in their weekend no-show against Georgetown. Virginia, the last national champion, has its COVID issues and might not survive the Ohio University Bobcats and Jason Preston. Kansas has its COVID issues and might not survive USC and 7-footer Evan Mobley. The likely opponent in the regional final is Iowa, featuring the nation’s top player, Luka Garza.

Unfortunately for the Hawkeyes, Gonzaga is the first team ever to have four players named as Naismith Award finalists.

Then consider the chaos, non-COVID-related, that is sure to clog all logic. Please explain how Georgetown — after coach Patrick Ewing was hassled by security in the building he trademarked, Madison Square Garden — won the Big East tournament. And how Oregon State won the Pac-12. And how Georgia Tech won the ACC. And how 68-year-old Rick Pitino, left for dead in a European pro league after too many scandals to count, made Iona the fifth team he’s led to the tournament in an unimaginably madcap career. Call him what you’d like — he has heard it all — but do not say he can’t coach. For that reason, Iona’s matchup against Alabama is among the best of the first round.

“If we don’t go to a Final Four, I’m quitting, and I’ll be very disappointed and going back to Greece,” Pitino cracked.

Now more than ever, we’re looking for sensibility. Chalk, in this case, works two ways. Gonzaga is the smartest basketball prediction. And Gonzaga is the smartest pandemic prediction. If the Zags pass two additional PCR testing rounds before resuming practice in the heartland, America safely can begin to ask if we’re watching one of the special stories in college sports history. Few took note of Duke’s situation and paused in dread, telling radio host Dan Patrick after hearing the news that the unknown still scares him.

“That’s what we all fear,” Few said. “The tough thing is, we’re all doing our protocols and sitting away from each other and spacing in meetings. Literally, we’ve been doing it all year. It’s tough when one player tests positive and that the whole group goes out. That’s our worst nightmare. I just wait to get the text from the trainer that everybody is OK and we passed the tests.

“We’re doing everything that we possibly can.”

Unlike Duke. Krzyzewski handled matters poorly last week, preferring to endure 100-mile round-trip commutes to the ACC tournament so his team could stay overnight on campus when — gulp — the student population was having an outbreak uptick. Not that the Blue Devils were worthy of a bid, having gone 11-11 in the regular season, but had we envisioned leaders who might be airtight in a crisis, Coach K would have come to mind. “We are disappointed we cannot keep fighting together,” he said. “This season was a challenge for every team across the country and as we have seen over and over, this global pandemic is very cruel — and is not yet over. As many safeguards as we implemented, no one is immune to this terrible virus.”

Duke basketball withdraws from ACC tournament due to COVID | Raleigh News &  Observer

All of which feels like a sea change, a passing of the standard-bearer torch. If Krzyzewski once kickstarted a dead-horse program and created a dynasty, now that visionary is Few. All he lacks is the first championship. The son of a Presbyterian pastor from a small Oregon town, he’s the poised antithesis of the bully coach who once owned the state where Gonzaga is attempting to make history — the scowling, chair-throwing, player-choking Bob Knight, who led 32-0 Indiana to the last unbeaten championship season. Sports fans don’t know much about Few, but corporate CEOs do, venturing to the private Jesuit school to poke his brain for success secrets.

If the evolution of Gonzaga basketball was fascinating, the finished product is no miracle. This is a powerhouse that only can be described as progressive and state-of-the-art, a double-digit-victory machine featuring an NBA-style offense that averages 92 points a game and shoots 55 percent from the field. If Jalen Suggs can find Spokane, any five-star recruit can. Now, everybody knows who Gonzaga is, where Gonzaga is and what Gonzaga is. And there’s no reason one title, if it finally happens, can’t becomes two or three. Think about it. While elite programs beat up each other in the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and SEC, the Zags can keep cruising through a breezy WCC, polishing their annual pedigree for March while most of their starters stick around for three, even four years. College basketball, if you haven’t noticed, is in some deep doo-doo, with one-and-done mania soon to be crushed by a monumental NBA policy change — the best high school players will be allowed to jump directly to the league as teens. The likes of Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari, who just finished a miserable season, will have to consider The Gonzaga Way.

A perfect season would only magnify what already is clear.

“It’s hard not to think about it,” Suggs said. “But I think we’ve all done a good job of staying focused. At some point, you kind of have to acknowledge how special of a thing and how special of a ride we’re on right now. I think the best part about it is that we’re all excited. We’re all excited to keep it going.”

Some think this is the year when a newbie emerges from the periphery to reach the Final Four while throwing an elbow at COVID. Alabama or Texas, anyone? Houston or Arkansas? “Regardless of what you’re doing, you’ve got to be a little lucky,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Regardless of how much you’re washing your hands, wearing masks, practicing all the safety measures and regulations that we’ve been practicing all year long — and then you come up here at the end and something unfortunately happens. You really don’t even know where it came from and how it happened. That’s just the nature of what we’re dealing with.”

This is what I know: The pandemic champions of sports have a common component. Seasoned by years of obstacles, they’ve had a better idea of how to approach an unprecedented challenge. LeBron James, Tom Brady, Nick Saban, the Dodgers, the Lightning, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic — the best prevailed.

So why deny the obvious now?

“It’s time,” said guard Andrew Nembhard, per Sports Illustrated.

Back to School: N.C.A.A. Tournament Bracket Won't Be Built as Usual - The  New York Times

Besides, wasn’t Aloysius Gonzaga known as the patron saint who helped Romans through the plagues of the late 1500s? In a global pandemic, we’re really going to pick against a team named for a saint honored by a Spokane statue — of Aloysius carrying a sick man to a hospital? If we consider how the students have made a connection to modern-day basketball prominence — they call him “Alo-swish-us” — well, this is more than symbolism.

It’s chalk.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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