Zag Fans Are Uniquely Lucky — And For That I’m Grateful
This last weekend was surreal in many ways. The mighty North Carolina Tarheels were facing off against my small school Gonzaga Bulldogs.
The Zags had shown their talent and abilities all year, and proved their muster in the game (leading for much of it) with a chance to win in the final 2 minutes. The game became choppy with the excessive 2nd half whistles, but overall, the experience was thrilling.
During the season, and in the lead up to the game, lots of things were said about the Zags. They had some talent, but not as much as the premier programs. They had been to 18 straight NCAA tourneys, but their WCC conference is too easy. They have been to the Elite 8 two out of the last three years, and the Sweet 16 all three, but the fact they haven’t gone further shows the are still not elite.
As a fan you get caught up in all of it. Defending, endorsing, pleading, preaching, exhorting, debating.
But I realized something this weekend. None of that matters. At all.
I was struck by the extent of Zag alum that I reconnected with at this Final Four. Friends from years past. Familiar faces, mostly familiar names (sorry folks, but it has been almost 20 years! :) ), and a rekindling of a shared history and experience of being a Zag. Phone numbers were being shared around, text messages flying, and gatherings being whipped up on the fly.
It was incredible.
People were high-fiving while crossing paths in the walkways at University of Phoenix Stadium. Hugs were being shared with people who hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. It was a reunion. Our basketball team acted as the lightning rod bringing it all together and adding electricity to the moment.
I found myself considering all of this as we were buzzing around on Monday in preparation for the game. As new friends, and old, gathered in the parking lot to share beers, and chips, high fives and stories, ex-players roamed the lot riling up the crowd, sharing their excitement and generating more.
Gonzaga, the school, the experience, isn’t about whether the basketball team goes down in history as the next North Carolina or Duke. It isn’t about counting national titles to qualify a place in history. Those are the considerations of people outside of the experience.
What we as Zag alum and fans have is something that cannot be validated by public opinion. There is a connection across generations of Zags that is stronger than purely the results on the court.
And it is something that is entirely unique exactly because our school is so small.
I was telling some good friends that I feel like we got incredibly lucky. Our Gonzaga experience was amazing without the success of the basketball team (we graduated the year before this NCAA run began). During our time, we forged friendships grounded in our shared college experience, and the closeness of a small college and campus, that have stood the test of time.
But the success of the basketball program has had the remarkable effect of taking that foundational experience we had, and that goes back decades, and amplifying it. All of us find our lives enriched by the success.
We maintain our contact with the school. We keep closely connected with friends and family as we track the games and teams. We share emotional ups and downs, and come together to share in those emotions in the seats of a football stadium in Arizona, or basketball arena in Salt Lake City, or any number of Zag friendly bars and homes across America.
Now, perhaps for those identifying and selecting Gonzaga for their studies in the last 10+ years, basketball was a big driver. And I guess that’s why I consider those of us who pre-dated that success extremely lucky. We weren’t picking Gonzaga because of the program, or the national notoriety. We picked it for reasons altogether separate from sports.
We picked a school, made life-long connections, and then have had those connections enhanced because of what Mark Few, the administration and the players at Gonzaga have built.
And because of that, I consider all of these seasons a success. The outcome may not always achieve our expectations, but the road we travel together, and the culture that road supports, provide a result much richer than the outcome of a single game.
We will eventually miss the NCAAs. We will eventually struggle.
It is inevitable.
But one thing that is also inevitable is that Zag nation, and the Gonzaga experience, will transcend the outcomes and continue to bring fans, alum and the school together for reasons much larger than sport.
And for that I consider myself lucky, and eternally thankful.