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?”
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.”
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.
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.
Asking The Right Questions Helps Create Interesting Content
Asking questions that can get a subject to talk about their feelings is a much better way to get an interesting answer.
When ESPN’s Mike Greenberg interviewed Paolo Banchero in the lead-up to the NBA lottery on Tuesday, he asked what I’ve concluded is the single most maddening question that can be asked of any athlete preparing for any draft.
“Why do you believe you should be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft?” Greenberg said.
Before I point out exactly why I have such a visceral reaction to such a harmless question, I want to point out the positives because Greenberg’s question avoids some of the most common pitfalls:
1) It is an actual question. That’s not as automatic as you think given the number of poor souls who are handed a microphone and say to their subject, “Talk about (whatever issue they want a quote or a sound bite on).” This is the mark of an amateur, creating the opening for an uncooperative subject to slam the door by saying, “What do you want me to say?”
2) Greenberg’s question can not be answered with a yes or a no. Questions that start with the word “Can you …” or “Did you …” may sound like they’re tough questions for the subject, but they’re actually fairly easy if the subject wants to offer an answer. Now, most interview subjects won’t take that one-word exit, but some will in a touchy situation.
The problem with Greenberg’s question has to do with the result. Why do we ask questions of the athletes we cover? Seriously. That’s not rhetorical. What’s the goal? It’s to get interesting answers. At least that’s the hope whether it’s for a quote that will be included in a story, a sound bite to be replayed later or — like in this situation — during an interview that is airing live. The question should be engineered to elicit interesting content, and there was very little chance that the question Greenberg asked Banchero was going to produce anything close to that.
I know that because I have heard some version of this question asked hundreds of times. That’s not an exaggeration. I attended the NFL scouting combine annually for a number of years, and if a player wasn’t asked why he should be the first overall pick, he’d get asked why he should be a first-round pick or why he should be one of the first players chosen at his position. Never — in all that time — have I ever heard what would be considered an interesting or informative answer. In my experience, players tend to talk in incredibly general terms about their own abilities and then seek to compliment their peers in an effort to avoid coming off as cocky.
Here’s how Banchero answered Greenberg’s question: “Yeah, thank you all for having me, first off., I feel like I’m the number one pick in the draft because I’m the best overall player. I feel like I check all the boxes whether it’s being a great teammate, being the star player or doing whatever the coach needs. I’ve been a winner my whole life. Won everywhere I’ve went, and when I get to the NBA, that’s going to be the same goal for me. So just combining all those things, and knowing what I have to work on to be better is a formula for me.”
There’s nothing wrong with answer just as there was nothing wrong with the question. It’s just that both are really, really forgettable. ESPN did put a clip on YouTube with the headline “Paolo Banchero: I’m the best overall player in the NBA Draft | NBA Countdown” but I think I’m the only who will remember it and that’s only because I’m flapping my arms and squawking not because there was anything bad per se, but because there was nothing really good, either.
First of all, I’m not sure why it matters if Banchero thinks he should be the number one overall pick. He’s not going to be making that decision. The team that holds the top draft pick — in this case Orlando — is. Here’s a much better question: “How important is it for you to be the number one overall pick?” This would actually give an idea of the stakes for Banchero. What does this actually mean to him? Asking him why he should go number one is asking Banchero to tell us how others should see him. Asking Banchero how important it would be go number one is asking him to tell us about his feelings, something that’s much more likely to produce an interesting answer.
The point here isn’t to question Greenberg’s overall competence because I don’t. He’s as versatile a host as there is in the game, and anyone else in the industry has something to learn from the way he teases ahead to content. What I want to point out not just how we fail to maximize opportunities to generate interesting content, but why. Interviews are a staple of the sports-media industry. We rely on these interviews as both primary content that will be consumed directly, and as the genesis for our own opinions and reaction yet for all that importance we spend very little time thinking about the kind of answer this question is likely to produce.
The Client Just Said YES, Now What?
We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES.
One of the most significant moments in radio sales is when the client agrees to your proposal and says YES. But, when they do say YES, do you know what’s next? We better have an answer!
We spend a lot of time getting ready for clients with research, spec spots (thank you, radio sales trainer Chris Lytle-go to 22:30), proposals, and meetings. All of our focus is on getting the client to say YES. We should spend as much time on what we will do after the client says YES. For example, getting newer sales reps to sell annual advertising contracts would be ideal for building a list. They would have less pressure, more job security, and could spend more time making the advertising work for their clients. But, since most newer reps don’t know the business yet, they don’t bite off more than they can chew and sell a package of the month.
When a client says yes to the weight loss promotion, it’s pretty clear how to write the ads, what the promos will say, etc. BUT, if a newer sales rep starts selling annual contracts to a direct local client who needs a resource, how will that work? Let’s make sure we paint the picture right upfront. More experienced reps know that they need to assume the client will say YES to the weight loss promo and have a plan accordingly.
They have the next steps to building copy and promos, a credit app or credit card payment form, and any other detail the client must provide. But, when we ask a direct local client for an annual advertising contract, watch out! You have just made a partnership. Why not lay out, upfront, what that will look like. And I understand not every local client needs the same level of service.
A car dealer has the factories pushing quarterly promotions, agencies producing ads, and in-house marketing directors pulling it all together sometimes. Other clients need your help in promotions, copywriting, or idea generation. Make a plan upfront with your client about when you will meet to discuss the next quarter’s ad program. Include your station’s promotions or inventory for football and basketball season, a summer NTR event, digital testimonials with on-air talent, etc., in your annual proposal. Go out as far as you can and show what you have to offer to the client and how you can execute it. This exercise is good for you and, once mastered, guides the client on how you will take care of them after the sale. It also opens your eyes to what it takes to have a successful client partnership inside and outside the station.
Media Noise – Episode 74
This week, Demetri is joined by Ian Casselberry and Ryan Brown. Demetri talks about the NBA Draft getting an ABC simulcast, Ian talks about Patrick Beverley’s breakout week on TV, and Ryan reminds us that Tom Brady may be the star, but Kevin Burkhardt is the story we shouldn’t forget.