When Gonzaga tips off Saturday against South Carolina in the school’s first appearance at the Final Four, there will be one Carson City resident watching with a vested interest.
Adrian Buoncristiani, 77, served six years as Gonzaga head coach (1972-78), posting a record of 78-82 before being fired, a move that drew plenty of criticism around the Spokane, Wash., community at the time.
Buoncristiani admits he took his firing hard, but he’s still a Gonzaga fan through and through.
“I have no problem with Gonzaga itself, just a few of the people that were there at the end,” he said while sipping coffee at a local eatery Wednesday morning. “It’s a great school. Back when I was coaching there, the teachers took an interest in (my) kids. It’s an unbelievable school.
“It is mind boggling what has transpired there; playing in the Final Four, playing for a championship. I think they have a chance against South Carolina. I’m awed. I’m flabbergasted.”
Ditto for former Utah State head coach Stew Morrill, a former Gonzaga star and assistant coach under Buoncristiani.
“I don’t think anybody that played at Gonzaga before the modern era can’t be a little stunned about what the school has been able to accomplish,” Morrill said in a telephone interview.
Lapsing into coach-speak, Buoncristiani believes the Zags can at least reach the championship game against the North Carolina-Oregon winner.
“For the first time, I think they have a strong inside-outside game,” he said. “(Przemek) Karnowski creates opportunities for the players outside. If they double-team him in the post, he can kick it out and they have good shooters. The West Virginia game helped them because of the pressure they got. West Virginia went nose-to-nose with them.”
Buoncristiani got the bug to coach while playing for Bob Ferrick at Santa Clara, a member of the West Coast Athletic Conference. Santa Clara finished two games away from going to the Final Four.
“Back then the NCAA was just 16 teams, four from each region, “ he said. “We lost to Pete Newell and a good Cal team that had won the national title the year before. That is what got me interested in coaching. That, and Rene Herrerias (former Cal coach).”
Buoncristiani started his coaching career at Mission High in San Luis Obispo and then moved on to Righetti High in Santa Maria. In 1970, he was hired by Ralph Barkey to be an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara, and two years later got his big break.
“I was at the Final Four having dinner with Bud Pressley,” Buoncristiani said. “Bud tells me ‘Kid, there is an opening at Gonzaga for a head coach. You are a Jesuit product, they will love you.’”
Buoncristiani said Pressley talked him into applying for the job. A total of 75 coaches applied, and Buoncristiani, 32 at the time, got it over two other assistant coaches, including a holdover from coach Hank Anderson’s staff.
“I get there and find out I have no recruiting budget,” Buoncristiani said. “I was so anxious about getting the head job, I never checked out the circumstances.
“They had no money. They were poor. Development was down and enrollment was down.”
Recruiting is difficult, but not having much money makes it even tougher. Jim Mansfield was director of admissions at Gonzaga, and he turned out to be a Godsend, Buoncristiani said. The pair became good friends during his tenure at GU.
“He told me he had a little money, and we’d go recruit,” remembers Buoncristiani. “I had been recruiting Stew Morrill for UCSB. Barkey had also left to be head coach at UOP.
“It wouldn’t have been right to recruit Morrill if Barkey had stayed at UCSB because I owed him loyalty. In the mean time, I recruited Stew (all-Big Sky performer).”
When Buoncristiani got on the road, he got another shock.
“When I went there people didn’t know where it (Gonzaga or Spokane) was,” said the Carson City resident. “They pronounced it four or five different ways. I was trying to sell an unknown commodity.”
Buoncristiani had to be inventive when it came to raising money. He partnered with local eateries and sold 2-for-1 coupons which raised $20,000. He also got 100 free tickets to every game and started the Hoop Club.
Facility use also was an issue. Buoncristiani’s teams had to share gym time and space with the general student body. Not exactly what you would expect at any Division I school, albeit a small one.
“We had one facility and I had to share the gym,” he said. “I didn’t like to yell at practice, but I had to make myself heard over the students using the gym at the same time. They have three facilities now, and I heard they are getting a fourth.”
Buoncristiani, the fiery Italian he was, got people excited about the team. His first four years produced records of 14-12 and three 13-13 seasons. He was 11-16 and 14-15 in his last two seasons, but posted 7-7 conference record in each of the last two seasons.
“There was a guy in the Hoop Club (Mike Shields) who gave me the most beat-up truck ever,” Buoncristiani said. “On game day, we’d put a megaphone on there and that’s how we let people know about the games on campus.”
It wasn’t good enough. When he was let go, and it was right before signing day, the media and many of the boosters were solidly in his corner. Many of the boosters, according to articles in the Spokesman-Review, vowed not to support the school financially any more.
“I was devastated,” Buoncristiani said. “I had been a success whatever I had done in my life. We had some good wins, but we never got over the hump.”
“It left a bad feeling in my mouth on how it was handled,” Morrill said. “We had our best recruiting class ever. I don’t think Adrian got the credit he deserved. He got people excited about the program.”
Buoncristiani said Dan Monson started the Gonzaga ball rolling in the 1990s, and Mark Few has done an excellent job since taking over.
Few could probably run for mayor, no make that governor, if he wanted to go into politics.
“Monson laid the groundwork,” Buoncristiani said. “He made a mistake when he left. They don’t want to lose Few. They will make sure he’s happy. I told him the best thing he was doing is just to stay there. I told him he could be there forever as long as he doesn’t break any rules.”
Morrill said it may have started when Danny Fitzgerald, who took Buoncristiani’s place, brought his Gonzaga team to Colorado State where Morrill had taken over as head coach.
“Afterward, (Dan) Monson and Few sat down and talked about their vision for the program,” Morrill said. “Knowing the issues, I thought it was a pipe dream and they were being unrealistic.”
The basketball success has revitalized Gonzaga.
According to published reports, Gonzaga had about 500 students in the mid-90s. In 1999, the enrollment reportedly jumped to 701 five months after Monson took the team to the Elite 8. In 2001, the freshman class swelled to nearly 800. The success on the hardwood was responsible for the school receiving $23 million, mostly in major gifts, which allowed the McCarthey Athletic Center to be built, according to reports.