Nobody Circles the Wagons Like Mark Few Supporters
“Oh, Judge. I don’t keep score.”
“Then how do you measure yourself against other golfers?”
“By height.” –Caddyshack
Almost entirely, milestones in sports are meaningless. The idea that a player or a team getting to point x or point y actually matters was invented by sports writers who, as is their nature, needed something about which to talk. Because sports fans are forever all too willing to talk about whatever sports writers tell them to, those made-up milestones (also referred to as “plateaus,” as in, “Congrats, Jimmy! You’ve finally made it to the top of the plateau!”) get talked about and talked about until pretty soon, they morph into actual ways of measuring an athlete. Don’t have 300 career wins, Mr. Baseball Pitcher? Good luck making the Hall of Fame any time soon. Fell just short of 1,000 yards rushing for the season, Mr. Football Running Back? You’ll have to forgive us if we laugh at your terribleness. Of course none of these arbitrary plateaus actually determine an athlete’s worth, but we keep talking about them as if they do. And like every milestone, Mark Few’s 300 career wins (a number he reached just last week) is totally meaningless as anything other than a talking point for Joe Zag Fan in all his forms. Then again, because it is Joe Zag Fan doing the talking, those 300 wins, and the way Joe believes in their validity as a measuring stick, mean everything.
Make no mistake: Joe Zag Fan loves Mark Few. Like, a lot. I’m certainly not going to begrudge him for that (even if I find his love totally creepy in a bordering-on-cultish kind of way); Few’s teams have won a lot of games, and if Nuke LaLoosh has taught us anything, it’s that winning is better than losing. The fact that Joe bases his opinion that Mark Few’s one of the country’s greatest coaches (with some Joes going so far as to proclaim that they wouldn’t trade Few for any other coach in the country, which is completely bat-poop crazy, considering “other coaches in the country” also includes Mike Krzyzewski) on his win total is bothersome, though, for two reasons. First, I’d argue that if there is a way to statistically measure a coach’s greatness, the amount of games his team wins is not it. It probably sounds silly considering the point of a basketball game is to win it, but there are way too many other forces that come into play in a basketball game to say that the winning coach is the one who coached the game better. Besides the facts that in any given game, a star player could be injured, an entire team could catch ebola, or little rain drops could fall from the arena’s ceiling onto a free throw shooter’s head mid-shot, there are referees who can change a game late or a lucky bounce one way or the other or one team just being flat out way better. Much like a starting baseball pitcher and his win totals, a head coach has no control over the outside forces. All he can do is put his team in the best position to win and hope for the best.
Secondly, after looking deeper at Few’s 300 wins, it’s apparent that the number is not only an arbitrary milestone in a meaningless stat category, but also pretty wildly inflated. If a basketball coach’s job is to win games, then Few has obviously done well for himself. But how are we to argue that all wins are created equal when they are so clearly not? Consider Ken Pomeroy’s RPI rankings, generally considered to be one of the most accurate and fair way to ranking teams. For the uninitiated, Pomeroy takes a range of statistics from each college basketball team and enters them into a formula “to show to how strong a team would be if it played tonight, independent of injuries or emotional factors.” For all its flaws (among them the fact that teams still have to actually play, and no formula in the world can judge exactly what will happen in a game), when extended over the course of a full season the system is pretty fair and definitely more valid than the traditional poling systems. And according to Pomeroy’s system, since the 2002-2003 season (the archives only go back that far), almost 90% of Mark Few’s wins have come against teams with sub-50 RPI. What’s more, about 80% have come against sub-100 teams. Considering the general weakness of the WCC teams on Gonzaga’s yearly schedule, this is not necessarily Few’s fault, but over 200 of the teams he has beat were in the weakest two-thirds of all teams in the country at the time he beat them. That he won a bunch of games against teams Gonzaga was better than, and many times much better than, is hardly an indicator of Few’s coaching greatness. For my money, the only number of wins that matter is six, as in, it takes six wins in a row to win a national title, and the only coaches who are truly great are the ones who’ve done so. These are the ones who get the great players on their respective teams to buy into their system and navigate them through an incredibly difficult tournament in which anything can happen and even one poor decision from a coach can mean elimination. I’ve already acknowledged that I think it will be next to impossible for Gonzaga to ever win one, but consider that in his career, Mark Few is 4-10 against coaches who have won a national title. (He’s also 0-3 against those who’ve won Olympic gold medals, for what it’s worth.) Given these new insights, I’m not sure how we can just blindly assume that Few is a great coach, let alone one of the best in the country.
But blindly assume we do. I have no idea what quirk of psychology makes Joe Zag Fan feel the need to fight to the death for Mark Few’s honor. Maybe it’s the fact that as the undisputed face of the program, Few’s very presence on the bench makes Gonzaga (and Joe) relevant, but either way, Joe gets incredibly defensive whenever anyone questions Few’s greatness. As is his nature, though, he never backs up his belief with anything, offering instead only the same tired groupthink. John Blanchette, sports columnist for the Spokesman-Review, tweeted after the Baylor win that the Few skeptics should check themselves, and that the game was “superbly managed.” Nothing in the way of analysis, just a smug “I told you so.” (Apparently, Blanchette’s journalism degree was awarded by the John Wooden School of Basketball.) Likewise, after the Wake Forest win one of the headmen at the GUBoards message board called the Few skeptics “morons” for daring to question the head coach. (The post was promptly locked, which is a time-honored move by the rest of the headmen when they realize one of them writes something that will shortly be attacked.) What was moronic about the skeptics? Who knows. But they were definitely moronic. And if they weren’t such morons, well, they’d know how much MARK FEW RULES! Or something. At least the Few skeptics can point to vaguely analytical arguments like the daffy and predictable end-of-half plays Few always calls or the blown 17-point second half lead against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. The only thing close to analyzing the supporters do is blaming the players when things go wrong and praising Few when they seem to go right again. The whole thing makes people forget about even the most basic lessons of Philosophy 101 (aka, Critical Thinking), and what’s crazier is that even some of my own friends like to get in on the act. After last season’s game against Colorado in Maui, a game which the Zags won but also looked dreadfully unprepared against a below-average team, I emailed around my belief that Mark Few was outcoached by Steve McClain (who, if you’re scoring at home, is a journeyman currently working as an assistant at Indiana). These friends of mine are universally and across the board smarter than me, but their reply emails only cited Few’s winning percentage and number of overall wins before eventually settling on the falsehood that I wanted Few fired. Oh, Joe! You’re so crazy and you so refuse to cite anything except that which is easily at your fingertips to make your arguments. I don’t want Mark Few fired, you crazy idiot! I just think he’s not as good of a coach as you think he is. Sue me!
In the end, the way Joe Zag Fan treats Mark Few is the way he treats his entire fandom. Because Joe’s only been around since the late 90s, he doesn’t know any other Gonzaga head coach besides Mark Few, and because Gonzaga has known nothing but success under Few, Joe figures all of that is because Few is a great coach. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, who knows. I don’t even like basketball as a sport, truth be told, so I’m far from the best person to break down film to illustrate the fundamental greatness of an offensive set. But if Joe wants me to take him seriously when he rambles about how superbly managed a Mark Few-coached game was, I’m going to need to see some evidence. Show me that Mark Few’s teams execute better on offense than, say, Jim Calhoun’s. Show me that his teams have better defensive fundamentals than, say, Lute Olson’s. Show me one of his practices to prove that he’s a better teacher than, say, Mike Krzyzewski. All those coaches have won national championships, you see, and Mark Few’s got a losing record against each of them.