Early in the year 2000, I met a Canadian. He was obsessed with Tombstone, Arizona, and Wyatt Earp, and had even visited the site of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
He also had a major gripe about the United States’ culture: The Dallas Cowboys
“What makes them America’s Team?” he said with irritation.
I’m not old enough to know why the Cowboys are called “America’s Team.” And I guess we all might have slightly different ideas about what it means to be America’s Team. But I think we’d all agree that to be America’s Team requires unwavering dedication, perseverance through ups and downs. And it has to be at least a bit of an underdog. Bonus points for being self-made and coming from outside the established power structure.
The Dallas Cowboys are not America’s Team, not with their usually unmet expectations and that gaudy, spacious building they call home.
If any team deserves the title of America’s Team, it’s Gonzaga.
From about 1985 through 1999, Gonzaga University was probably primarily known as the school that John Stockton attended. It was also a where-is-that type of place (answer: Spokane, Washington).
Then, in March of 1999, Gonzaga, as a 10-seed, made a miraculous run to the Elite 8.
After that, instead of returning to their spot in the background of the college basketball scene, the Bulldogs kept coming back. They made the Sweet 16 the next two years, and they haven’t missed an NCAA Tournament since ’99.
Rather than continue its gradual climb to the top, Gonzaga instead developed staying power. There have been more Sweet 16 appearances, but also a few first-round exits.
Gonzaga finally returned to the Elite 8 in 2015, but was ousted by eventual national champion Duke.
The Bulldogs finally reached the Final Four this year, and, thanks to a win over South Carolina on Saturday, they will play in the national championship game against North Carolina on Monday night.
After their three Cinderella runs from 1999-2001, the Bulldogs made it to the Sweet 16 only twice in the next 14 years. Though often maligned for not taking the next step, not to mention their small conference, they did not waver.
Head coach Mark Few, who took over the program after that 1999 season, has had opportunities to leave for several more high-profile jobs, but he’s stuck around.
Gonzaga has sent several players to the NBA, and has been able to replace them with others capable of continuing the program’s success.
However, Spokane still is not a common destination for McDonald’s All-Americans, not like its opponent Monday, North Carolina. And not like the school on the other side of the state, the University of Washington.
Sometimes McDonald’s All-Americans find their way to Spokane, eventually.
Nigel Williams-Goss was once one of those high-profile University of Washington recruits. But after two solid seasons with the Huskies, he decided to play elsewhere. To where did Williams-Goss choose to transfer? Gonzaga; good old, reliable Gonzaga.
In his first season with the Bulldogs, the junior guard leads the team in scoring. He put up a team-high 23 points Saturday against South Carolina.
At Gonzaga, transfers such as Williams-Goss and Jordan Mathews (who came over from Cal for his senior season) are offered a stable, winning program.
That program is now playing for a national championship in Phoenix, Arizona.
It has been a slow, steady process to reach college basketball’s biggest game. The Bulldogs have been Cinderella and been upset by other Cinderellas. They’ve gone from darlings to disappointments.
But they’ve always been winners, and they’ve kept themselves on the college basketball map. They’ve become fixtures in the NCAA Tournament and in the polls, and also in the minds of college basketball fans. They’ll be there again next season.
Whether or not it wins Monday, Gonzaga is a true American sports success story.