- Darren Balch
Dan Fitzgerald wears his many hats comfortably. He’s Gonzaga University’s head men’s basketball coach and the school’s athletic director. If you’re one of his players, he’s your mentor, your role model and your worst nightmare…
“You won’t be in the goddamn game long enough to get five fouls if you don’t play defense!” Fitzgerald bellows, as he prowls the sideline observing his team run a one-on-one drill in the third official practice of the 1996-97 season — his last as head coach. Yet it’s not all sailor-style tongue lashings. Like any good motivational speaker worth his adjectives, he has a decibel level for every occasion. A few minutes after his verbal scorching, he takes the skinny, walk-on freshman aside to give him some tips.
These are tips from a man who has been intimately involved with the game of basketball for about 44 of his 54 years. The freshman listens intently, then it’s a slap on the back and he’s back into the fray — very likely to be vociferously carved up in the next practice by the man known in basketball circles throughout the Western hemisphere simply as “Fitz.”
It hasn’t always been that way. When Fitz came to Spokane from an assistant coaching job at Santa Clara University in 1978, he was as unknown as the school’s basketball program. All that would change (of course, it didn’t hurt that a guy named John Stockton played there from 1979-83), but not for a while.
After a mere four months on the job as the new basketball head coach, then-athletic director Larry Koentopp abruptly left, and the job was offered to Fitzgerald.
“They said I could do both, and I said ‘There’s no way.’ Things were just a mess; we didn’t have this building [Martin Centre], we had $2,400 for women’s athletics and financial aid,” remembers Fitz, who will stay on as full-time athletic director after this season. “Our players got only $4 a day for meal money — I’m not exaggerating — and they said we’re a lot better trying to straighten this out ourselves than trying to bring somebody in. We were going seven days a week, 16-18 hours a day. It was incredible.”
So in his first years as GU’s athletic director, Fitz was almost exclusively working damage control. He remembers some particularly colorful advice he received from Washington State University’s AD, Sam Jankovich, who was at WSU from 1976-83.
“One time Sam told me, ‘I want to show you what an AD is,’” Fitz recalls with a laugh. “He draws this circle with a dot in the middle, and he points to the dot and says, ‘Fitz, you’re in the middle here and there are a bunch of ropes all tied to your balls,’ and he draws lines to the outside of the circle. This is who has the ropes — the coaches, the alumni and the faculty — and they’re all pulling.’”
Being tossed into the AD frying pan was hard enough during those first years, so it was a virtual miracle (something a small Catholic school can appreciate) that the team was successful in those early years.
“Twenty-five years ago, the AD was a former coach who was a good alumni guy who had put in a lot of time and then probably had a few beers and smoked cigars with the guys downtown — and that was the extent of what the hell he did,” says Fitz, who is one of only four men in the NCAA to handle both AD and head coaching duties. “At that time [‘78], we didn’t have time to define what the position was, we had too much work to do. Now you’re just the lifeline of a million things — everything from AIDS education of your athletes to insurance to fundraising.”
The toll of getting GU’s athletic ship in shape was too much even for the energetic Fitz, so for a three-year period, from 1982-85, he concentrated solely on his AD duties, turning over the basketball helm to Jay Hillock. But when Hillock wanted out, there was Fitz.
Those days seem far away as Fitz talks to Nada Stockton; John’s wife, about her new baby girl on his office phone. Fitz’s office looks like that of anybody who holds two jobs. His desk is in disarray, awash in a sea of paper; articles of clothing are scuttled off into nooks and crannies, there’s a couch for sleeping and assorted awards of recognition plastered on the walls. Since one of his jobs is basketball coach, he also gets a window overlooking the gymnasium floor.
There are now five little Stocktons — a starting five — running around Salt Lake City. Fitzgerald is quickly on the phone to tell Darleen — his wife of 34 years. He is able to communicate all the details in about 40 seconds, along with squeezing in approximately 15 excited sentences — some of them complete, some not. Stockton’s kid is “healthy,” Fitz stresses, a fact not lost between the two since Darleen lost two pregnancies before having their only child, Kelly, 27 years ago.
Then it’s out of the office and off on the whirlwind “John Stockton’s New Baby Announcement Tour.” Fitz is all smiles and laughter as he tells everybody in the office, hallways and adjacent parking lots. Finally, the members of the current team, just before practice is scheduled to begin, are informed that the school’s most famous living grad has spawned more offspring. Some of the older team members have comments: “Another one?”
“What’s that make, 27?”
Fitz keeps track of a lot of people. The road from 1978 to now (which has led him into the National Invitation Tournament twice and to the “Big Dance” — the NCAA Tournament — once in 1995) has brought him into contact with lots of “basketball people.” Seattle Supersonics Coach George Karl dines with him, Nike founder Phil Knight has installed him in his company’s Hall of Fame (some guy named “Mike” is in there, too), Bobby Cremins, head coach of perennial powerhouse Georgia Tech, sends him personal notes. And the list goes on.
So it’s a wonder that he’s stayed here in little old Spokane, right? Ask his daughter, Kelly Fitzgerald, now a law clerk in Tacoma.
“There was a chance for him to go to Loyola Marymount [in L.A.],” reveals Kelly, “but it was my senior year in high school, and I was not going to move.”
The Loyola job in 1987 was just one of dozens that have been offered up to the Fitz altar. Just this year, he received a call from Cal-Berkeley to gauge his interest in the vacancy left by Todd Bozeman. Fitz has said it would be foolish to say “never” to any future offers, but he would only consider a situation if it was “special.” The Cal situation he termed only “interesting.”
But Kelly thinks he’s done the right thing in staying. “I see people all the time with GU shirts on, and it makes me laugh because when we moved there, it just didn’t happen. I think that epitomizes his success at GU.”
There have also been pro assistant jobs. “I had a hard time turning down one pro job,” Fitz confesses. “We flew there, and my daughter was of an age where I could’ve gone. They wanted a college guy. I had dinner with the owner, and I had the deal.
“So we started walking back to the hotel, and my wife says, ‘I really like it here,’ and I said, ‘Hey, hold it a minute, we aren’t getting a house — we’re going to get an apartment and hope six months from now we’re not in another place.’”
As with most families, it’s always been a Fitzgerald family decision when it comes to considering a professional career move.
“From the day I moved here, I just fell in love with Spokane and really did consider it to be my home,” says Darleen Fitzgerald. “So when something would come up, I think I was probably the one who would say ‘no’ right away — that I wanted to stay.”
“You’d have to be an absolute moron to think that you’re not going to get fired in the pros,” says Dan Fitzgerald. “But if you talk to basketball people, they would tell you that [GU] is one of the toughest jobs in the West. I think I’ve stayed because of how tough it is.”
Fitz also credits his relationship with former GU President Bernard Coughlin as an incentive to stay. Coughlin’s longevity and integrity were “the reasons I knew I could stay and be myself,” he says.
In practice, Fitz is 100 percent himself as he presides over drills that resemble playground games, except that instead of laughing children, the games are played by tired, sweaty young adults. In the “21” drill, Fitz intentionally misses a shot at the basket and commands the three players to fight for the rebound, then sink the shot. Uh-oh, a sophomore takes an outside shot.
“The only time we want to see your pretty jump shot is in the alumni game three years from now,” hollers Fitz before the ball even has time to reach the hoop.
Next year, assistant coach Dan Monson will be the drill sergeant as he will succeed Fitz. Since the program chose to make a preemptive strike and disclose the decision two years early, this news carries as much impact as the weather report in Tahiti. But this transition, orchestrated by Fitz, couldn’t have been made any smoother for Monson.
“As I have progressed as a coach, he’s given me more and more responsibility with the program,” says Monson, whose father, Don, was the head coach at both Idaho and Oregon.
In fact, Monson’s biggest challenge next year will probably be knowing what to do with all the free advice he’s bound to receive from his AD, his dad and one of his dad’s best friends, Jud Heathcote, retired Michigan State head coach and a GU season ticket holder.
“Once I get Fitz up there, it’s gonna be the Grumpy Old Men. I’m going to have more suggestions than I’m going to know what to do with,” quips Monson.
Monson will have to be ready, because after 16 years on the bench, Fitz will be looking for ways to spend his extra energy. What will he miss most about coaching? Chewing out players? Arguing with officials? Making recruiting trips in the pouring rain out in the middle of nowhere? He says he’ll miss working with the kids.
“It goes further than basketball,” he says, “because if all a kid gets here is an education and he plays basketball, then we haven’t done a good job. To not evolve socially, to not develop a friendship outside of basketball, if we haven’t helped them do that, especially at this crucial stage of their lives, then we haven’t done what we should. For me, when it all comes down to it, what I do for a living is teach school.”
Chances are he’ll be able to continue to interact with the students as athletic director, but the job will require his full attention. The responsibilities of being the AD are just as significant now as they were in 1978, only now they are more numerous and more complex.
“We’re a lot different institution than in 1978. We were kind of the place over by the river that opened in September and closed in May, and we were a little bit that way athletically. Now we are a factor in the community, and we should be,” Fitz says, in what sounds like a sound bite from a future fundraising speech.
Where there used to be mainly basketball and money for Fitz to worry about, there will be basketball and money, baseball and money, volleyball and money and soccer and money. Each carries its own specific set of requirements to be met, and the AD is responsible for all of them and all of the people involved with them. No more beers and cigars with the boys downtown.
It is late Monday on an October evening in Martin Centre, and roving bands of college students are everywhere. Some are in lines to hop into a small boxing ring and box with comically oversized gloves; others encase themselves in a Velcro suit and fling themselves against a Velcro-padded wall; some submerge their bodies into mock sumo wrestling costumes for, what else, mock sumo wrestling.
It’s Midnight Madness for the 1996-97 basketball season, an event celebrating the first official practice sanctioned by the NCAA. It’s Fitz’s last Midnight Madness as head coach, and he makes periodic appearances in the gym.
The human wheelbarrow race begins and ends, the pizza contest and the tug-o-war conclude, and Fitz observes each with a big smile — there is no pressure to win these games. He is clearly relaxed as he walks the gym; this is Fitz unplugged.
Finally, the much-anticipated Fitz lookalike contest, featuring one male Fitz and one female Fitz. The female Fitz has the mannerisms down, but the male Fitz has the booming voice and the signature frosted tip of gray hair. Who better than Darleen to cast the deciding vote — it looks like the male Fitz in a nailbiter.
The real Fitz smiles, looks around in the stands, points and laughs to friends.
“Isn’t this great?” he bellows to one of them, his voice carrying across the court.