USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach says you’re sorely mistaken if you think this won’t be an entertaining Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
They met halfway, almost. Mark Few climbed into his car and drove south and then west. Pat Kilkenny drove east. They pulled off the road in tiny Arlington, Ore. As the traffic on Interstate 84 rumbled by on an overpass overhead, friends talked. Then they argued. Then they parted ways, unhappy.
This was March 2009. Kilkenny was the athletic director at Oregon. He wanted Few to leave Gonzaga. They’d circled the topic for years, but now, with questions swirling about the trajectory of the Ducks’ basketball program, Kilkenny made his best pitch. It did not go well.
“It’s kind of like trying to date your best friend,” Kilkenny said, adding that one point, he told Few: “You will never ever get to the Final Four at Gonzaga.”
Few did not like that at all — or this next part, either:
“You’d have a great opportunity to get to the Final Four,” Kilkenny told him, “given your abilities and our resources at Oregon.”
“He did not agree with that, either,” Kilkenny said.
Saturday night, after Oregon beat Kansas, clinching the Ducks’ first trip to the Final Four since 1939, Kilkenny’s phone dinged with a text message from Few. They went back and forth a while, two old friends congratulating each other. But the essential message was:
“We were both wrong,” Kilkenny said, laughing.
A year after that meeting, Kilkenny hired Dana Altman. But the difficult conversation with Few was the first indication of what he would learn more fully after Ernie Kent was finally let go. Kilkenny, one of Oregon’s most influential boosters, was no longer athletic director. But after the resignation of Mike Bellotti from that post, he returned to conduct the search for a new coach. For 39 days, he crisscrossed the country — and learned the job was not as attractive as he’d thought.
“It’s like your own kids,” Kilkenny said. “You’re never objective about your own family, or when you’re trying to promote something you really care about.”
USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach thinks you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t keep an eye on these players in the Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
Kilkenny met one Power Five coach — name withheld to protect the oblivious — sometime after midnight after flying into a city. The meeting didn’t last long. The coach wanted to talk money first — and he thought the University of Oregon was located in Corvallis, Ore. There were other conversations like that during the search, which to some degree or another included contact with perhaps as many as 10 coaches. Kilkenny talked terms with Tom Izzo and Jamie Dixon. He spent two days waiting to meet with Brad Stevens (then at Butler) but never did.
But when Kilkenny tried and failed to pry Lon Kruger, then at UNLV, out of Las Vegas, he got an unsolicited suggestion and recommendation. Have you thought about Dana Altman? Altman had been Kruger’s protégé at Kansas State. They remained close — and had similar personalities and styles.
“He’s as good a coach as there is in the country,” Kruger told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday, “and an outstanding person and family, and principled — all those things you’d hope people are looking for in a coach.”
Other coaches and basketball insiders said similar things. Altman’s name kept popping up.
“Everybody in the coaching community said he’s one of those guys you don’t want to play,” Kilkenny said.
A look at the paths taken by the remaining teams in this year’s mens NCAA basketball tournament.
By Jim Sergent and Ramon Padilla, USA TODAY.
Kilkenny finally met with Altman and realized he was in important ways a lot like Few. Altman had also built a powerhouse program at a small Jesuit school, this one in Omaha. Unlike Few, though, after 16 years Altman was ready to leave for the right opportunity. (Three years earlier, he’d taken the Arkansas job, only to back out a day later.)
When Kilkenny asked Altman why he would leave Omaha — noting both the Arkansas reversal and how similar Altman’s situation was to Few’s — Altman responded with an anecdote. Over a couple of years, Creighton’s coaches had built a very good relationship with a player in Florida. He was a perfect fit for Creighton. And then a Power Five school jumped in late and signed him.
“He said, ‘How do we compete?’ ” Kilkenny said, adding that Altman said Oregon provided a platform to compete at the highest levels. It was a very different message than he’d heard from so many others — including a close friend the year before.
Kilkenny’s and Few’s friendship stretched back years and had its roots in Kilkenny’s ties with Don Monson, at one time Oregon’s basketball coach, and Dan Monson, his son who was Gonzaga’s coach when the Zags made their first big breakthrough. Few took over in 1999, after Dan Monson went to Minnesota, and built the program from a March Madness surprise into a consistent power.
In the 1990s, Kilkenny, who’d made millions in the insurance business, had donated money for a Gonzaga locker room refurbishment. Over the years, he’d given “a fair amount” to the Bulldogs’ program, including annual contributions to help pay Few’s salary. Until a couple of years ago, he had courtside seats at the McCarthey Athletic Center, Gonzaga’s home arena.
In 2009, Gonzaga had played in the NCAA tournament in Portland. Oregon was the host institution, which meant Kilkenny’s official duties provided him a seat on the scorer’s table right next to the Gonzaga bench, fueling the whispers and making for an uncomfortable situation on both ends. After Gonzaga was eliminated the next weekend, the friends decided it was finally time to talk. According to Kilkenny, neither really looked forward to it.
“We decided in deference to our friendship that we should get together and lay it all out, provide some perspective on both sides,” Kilkenny said. “We decided he would leave Spokane, I would leave Portland and we would meet wherever we meet.”
They pulled up next to each other in a roadside park in a small community hard by the banks of the Columbia River and best known, if at all, as the hometown of Doc Severinsen, the leader of the Tonight Show Band. With a diet soda and a bag of chips, Kilkenny climbed into Few’s car.
They talked — eventually, they argued — for several hours. Kilkenny laid out all the reasons the Oregon job made sense for Few, including the fact that it was his alma mater and an emotional appeal to the proximity to his parents, Norm and Barbara Few, in his hometown of Creswell, Ore., only 11 miles south of the Oregon campus. (When Kilkenny was the athletic director, Barbara Few regularly brought homemade cookies by his office.)
A new arena was under construction to replace the ancient McArthur Court. The Ducks were ready to pour resources into hoops like they had in football. That program was in the process of morphing from irrelevant to elite, and Kilkenny pitched basketball on the same trajectory.
None of it resonated.
“I just wasn’t feeling it,” Few told journalist Bud Withers, as detailed in Withers’ book, Glory Hounds. “I never, ever felt that job was better than (Gonzaga).”
Said Kilkenny: “He felt he had a better job. Then it got a little bit aggressive,” and he added, “I got a little obnoxious.”
They parted still friends, but with bruised feelings. A year later, while searching for Kent’s replacement, Kilkenny met with Few again, but never directly broached the topic.
“I just didn’t cross the line,” Kilkenny said. “He clearly wasn’t interested. The friendship thing, it strains it. I didn’t want to strain it anymore.”
Seven years after that, they’ll reunite in Glendale, Ariz., for the Final Four. Saturday night, Kilkenny says his head “started to explode” when Gonzaga won — “and then my head did explode” when Oregon won. Just before the end of the postgame celebration, when Altman called Kilkenny to the ladder and asked him to cut down a strand of the net, Kilkenny called it one of his “top two or three all-time moments.”
A little while later, Few’s text clattered into his phone, suggesting God had a plan for all of them — that he was supposed to stay put and Oregon was supposed to hire Altman. Kilkenny agreed.
“How great is it,” he said, “that it worked out for everybody?”
MEET THE FINAL FOUR TEAMS