Around Spokane, or in the national basketball community, the name Dan Fitzgerald was almost never spoken.
It was always just “Fitz.”
The abbreviation was enough because there was only one Fitz – unique and unmistakable. Besides, the single syllable saved a lot of time because there were so many stories to be told about him.
Once the stories started, one would lead to another in a lengthy series because Fitz lived his life in the plural form.
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Just as there was nothing singular about his going for “a sandwich and a beer” after the game; there was never just one tale about his humble background, his comical experiences, or his unwavering philosophies on life and basketball.
And after his death Tuesday evening, of an apparent heart attack at age 67, the eulogies will correctly identify his efforts as being at the very taproot of the basketball success that sprouted at Gonzaga University.
But Fitz was bigger than that. His passing seems to mark the extinction of a species.
I interviewed coach George Raveling in the mid-90s for a story about Fitz being added to the college basketball rules committee. The NCAA overlords wanted him in the group because of his widely held reputation for integrity.
“I see Dan as the last of the basketball cowboys,” Raveling said at the time. “His word is his bond; he’s a coach with impeccable integrity who has always, always done it the right way. He’s not going to go down with John Wooden and Adolph Rupp as the greatest coaches of all time, but I guarantee you he has done every bit as much to influence kids’ lives as John Wooden or Adolph Rupp ever did.”
Fitz was never shy about embroidering his own creation myth, telling at length the stories of his hard-scrabble life as a kid in San Francisco.
“The guys used to love it when Fitz would tell them the stories about growing up in the park, getting a six pack of beer and a pack of cigarettes and going down to the park to beat the crap out of each other just for something to do,” said Bill Grier, the University of San Diego coach who broke into the game as an assistant to Fitz at GU.
Like many of the stories and quotes I’m retelling here, that one from Grier came from interviews for a 2004 book I wrote on Gonzaga hoops history.
Longtime athletic trainer Steve DeLong was at GU from the start with Fitz, 30 years ago, and he saw how today’s national basketball power was built from the ground up by Fitz’s 20-hour-a-day dedication.
“When he got here, it was in shambles, an unbelievable mess,” DeLong said. “No one can imagine how bad it was, and he righted that ship and created some avenues that led to what we’re doing now. It was the framework of why this works so well. It’s a shame it ended up the way it did.”
Ah, yes, the shame of it. We’ll get to that.
But from the start, Fitz found tough guys and challenged them to play smart and physical basketball. He did it on a shoestring budget that was always the smallest in the conference.
And if players wanted an example of toughness, Fitz was there to provide it.
Zags player Jarrod Davis recalled a game at Idaho State in 1991 when a rowdy fan tossed something at the GU bench. It hit Fitz, who turned around to the stands and cut loose: “You ... bring it down here, right here, right now.”
As a man in steady search of an audience, Fitz always had one at the ready ... his team. And when he went off, it was sometimes frightening and sometimes comical.
Former team manager Drew Dannels recalled after a game one year when Fitz came in and started throwing around the boxes of postgame pizza.
“Fitz was so pissed, he fired this thing and the box opened up in the air and pizza went flying everywhere,” Dannels said. “I looked over in the corner and there was Mark Spink with this huge hunk of cheese hanging off his head. It was hilarious.”
And that was after a win.
At halftime when the Zags were getting beaten by Drexel, Fitz was so upset that he screamed at the guys and then stormed out, slamming the locker room door so hard that it broke the keypad lock. The team couldn’t get out, nobody could get in. The second half was delayed until a player eventually jimmied the door. The Zags went on to win the game.
He had no tolerance for players who failed to study the game. Dead-eye guard John Rillie remembered Fitz’s pregame grilling of players on their scouting reports. When Fitz tested one player who clearly hadn’t studied enough, he made him dress and go home. He hadn’t earned the right to play that night.
“So, he could intimidate you, but you knew he had a very good heart and a real soft spot for the players,” Rillie said.
Ken Anderson, a player from the early days and now the university faculty representative, very clearly saw Fitz’s human side.
“It didn’t matter what Fitz would be doing; whether you believed him or not, you always respected the passion he brought to it,” Anderson said. “Whether he was building you up or throwing garbage cans around in a fit, he did it with passion. He’d tell you a story and you’d think, ‘Hmm, he’s full of crap,’ but it would be damned entertaining.”
Fitz was not noted for his flexibility on certain issues. He claimed that if Michael Jordan didn’t prepare well, or wouldn’t set a pick and take a charge, he wouldn’t be allowed to play for the Zags.
But he rather admired players who stood up to him. He used to kid that spirited point guard Geoff Goss was taking years off his life. Goss countered that Fitz was doing the same thing to him.
“He’s a real rigid, kind of crusty-type individual,” Goss said, “but after you are around him for a while, you realize what he’s all about and you admire him for how he does things.”
He had always operated this program on an impossible budget. When assistant coaches Dan Monson or Mark Few went on recruiting trips, they often arranged to sleep on the couch in a hotel room of friends who were assistants at richer programs who happened to be recruiting in the area. Just to save money.
Fitzgerald said he recalled one year, as athletic director, when he saved any extra money that came in in hopes of getting a van for a women’s team, only to see it disappear into the general university fund.
He later said, at that moment, he thought: “(Bull), that’s never happening again.”
And it all came apart a few years later when an internal investigation discovered a $200,000 “slush fund” that Fitz had set aside for use by the athletic department.
According to reports, money was never used for personal enrichment or to buy players or gain a competitive advantage. But it very definitely bypassed university control and accounting.
“All the stuff I did, all my camp money and stuff like that, that went into the fund, too,” Fitz later said.
He told me his side of it in an interview a few years ago. “What I did was very poor judgment,” he said. “But it was never for personal gain. I had absolutely no idea it was an NCAA violation; this had nothing to do with basketball, there was no competitive gain. I thought, hey, if I broke a rule that gave me a competitive advantage, take me out and shoot me. Fine.
“You could say it was well-intended,” he said. “But I don’t think you can rationalize that it wasn’t a mistake.”
Fitz resigned in December of 1997 and the university was placed on probation.
And as the Zags, under Monson and then Few, rose to national prominence, Fitzgerald was an outcast. Those two longtime assistants often cited Fitz’s enormous influence in establishing the foundation for the success.
But the rest of the country had no idea about the man who, from that point, promised to never set foot on the campus again.
“People ask if I’m happy for these guys ... heck, I’m elated; I’m like a kid, I pray for these guys every single day,” Fitz said. “But I’ve stayed away. I don’t go over to the university because I know my personality and I’d probably be tempted to knock a couple (administrators) on their asses.”
Having covered the Zags under Fitz for a number of years, I have two memories that best show what was going on inside the man.
Late in one game against San Francisco, when the Zags were on the verge of setting a team record for 3-pointers made, word seeped to the crowd that a record was near, and they kept chanting for more 3s.
The game was in hand and Fitz told the players to be sportsmen and back off and kill the clock.
“I don’t care what the critics think about it,” he said after the game. “I’m not going to embarrass their players and staff just so we can get a few seconds on SportsCenter.”
And after a heart-wrenching road loss, when the staff and team was emotionally drained, Fitz told them all to hurry for the bus. But he looked around the locker room and said this: “Hey, before you go, clean up this locker room; these people have been good us, so let’s be sure not to leave a mess.” He then took a hand in picking up the litter.
Fitz had dealt with skin cancer in the ’90s, and talked about his mortality at the time. He did it cynically, and with humor ... and the customary tough posture.
“It’s mostly crappy living on my part,” he said of his health issues. “I go pretty hard and don’t take very good care of myself. But I’m determined NOT to die healthy. If it costs me a year and I had fun ... then so be it.”
It’s hard to think of that after his passing last week. But it all was typically on his terms.
And, yes, he had his fun. And he leaves a legacy of basketball excellence, of passion, of caring about the game and the people who played it.
And he made a difference in the lives of too many people to count.
A memorial service for Dan Fitzgerald will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Northern Quest Casino, located in the Spokane suburb of Airway Heights. He was employed by Northern Quest.