Zag Nation: Families that Follow the Zags Together, Stay Together
By Peter Tormey
SALT LAKE CITY – Surprise surprise, Adam Morrison’s picture graces the front page of the Salt Lake Tribune this morning, Thursday, Game Day for everyone in Zag Nation. The Player of the Year candidate’s moustached-mug is at the top of the page, promoting “Bracketville” and NCAA Tournament coverage inside. The sky is overcast this morning and there was no snow overnight as was the case Wednesday morning when several inches of the white stuff fell.
Tip-off for the No. 3-seeded Bulldogs’ battle against fellow Jesuit school Xavier University of Cincinnati, a No. 14 seed, is at 4:20 p.m. PST. Needless to say, Gonzaga may be closing a few minutes early today to watch the Zags (27-3) on TV in this first-round NCAA Tournament game.
Speaking of Zag Nation, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few has expressed his hope that fans who are not necessarily here to watch Gonzaga will become loyal Zags on the spot, won over by Gonzaga players’ presentation of class and skill. Bulldogs’ supporters hope these last-minute converts to Zag Nation will cheer like crazy for the Bulldogs during the tournament and help power them to victories.
The term “Zag Nation” applies to Bulldogs who are directly affiliated with the University, such as alumni, students, faculty, staff and benefactors. The term also covers those who have no direct affiliation with Gonzaga but have been won over by their play throughout the years and their expressions of athleticism, sportsmanship and overall class as representatives of an outstanding academic institution.
While I had heard of this latter category of Zag Nation members – and did not doubt that they existed – I had not met any outside of Spokane. All of that changed yesterday, however, during the team shoot-around. As I positioned myself for some better photos, a conversation began with a dozen members of Zag Nation, from tiny towns in Central Montana, who had no affiliation with the University except that they love our basketball program.
Noticing the bright red Gonzaga Bulldogs’ ballcap perched on his pate, I asked the fellow behind me if he was a Zag alumnus or parent of an alumnus. “No,” said Gene Todd, from Stanford, Mont., a town of 600 approximately 60 miles easy of Great Falls. “We just love the Zags and this is our third NCAA Tournament; it’s just fun to go to. All of us, four couples and our kids and grandchildren drove down here. You know, you can really visit with folks when you are driving; you can really visit.”
Leonard Stone, another member of this traveling Zag Nation party, from Geraldine, Mont., population “about 220,” and the director of the Montana Farmers Union, was all smiles watching Errol Knight’s seemingly effortless slam-dunk acrobatics before us. Stone said that John Morrison, Adam’s father, has a Montana legacy as a former junior college hoops coach in Glendive, Mont., on the eastern side of the state. Adam Morrison, he said, was born in Montana.
“He has Montana roots so it would be really neat to see a team from a small school in the Northwest get to the Final Four,” Stone said, adding that the towns are so small near his home that there are many 6-man high school football teams.
“Everybody gets to play, everybody,” he said.
Todd said he was interviewed for the KXLY TV news yesterday and was tickled about that. He had just bought the hat and stood in line with a slew of children as Adam Morrison took time to accommodate every last child, and Todd. Todd, for his part, had Adam sign the inside bill of his new red Zag cap.
“It was me and probably 12 little kids down there. I think that speaks volumes about him as a person to be so patient and sign all of those autographs,” Todd said, adding not entirely in jest that he should have gotten credentials from his small newspaper to cover the game. After all, he said, the newspaper has a sports section – sometimes.
Stone said families who follow the Zags together, stay together.
“You get to watch good kids, good basketball and for us it’s a family outing,” he said. “It keeps your family close. Gene (Todd) is my brother-in-law and I am married to his sister, Myrna. You can watch all you want on TV but it just is not the same as being there in person. People don’t realize how hard it is out there with the talent pool to be able to compete . . . . To be able to take a small university to the level where an outstanding (high school) athlete from almost anywhere is willing to talk to them is incredible.”
These proud Montanans and proud Zag fans have become skilled college basketball observers.
“The biggest difference between high school and college basketball is that in high school the game is played at the rim. In college, the game is played above the rim,” Stone said.
The trip to Salt Lake is a double-bonus for these Zag Nation members. The No. 12-seeded Montana Grizzlies will take on the fifth-seeded Nevada Wolf Pack at noon PST. The No. 20 ranked Wolf Pack (27-5) is making its third straight NCAA appearance, fifth overall, and is sporting a 14-game winning streak, second only to Gonzaga’s 18.
*A Gonzaga University alumni gathering will begin at approximately 3 p.m. MST at the Stephen A. Douglas Armed Forces Reserve Center Officers Club neat the Huntsman Center on the University of Utah campus.
*Xavier (21-10) earned the A-10 Conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament by capturing the conference tournament, and beating St. Joseph’s 62-61. The Musketeers are on a roll; they are the first Division I team to win four games in four days for a tournament title for the second time. Xavier previously pulled the same trick in 2004, their last NCAA appearance. Before their conference tournament this year, the Musketeers had dropped eight of their previous 13 game.
*The winner advances to the second round here on Saturday against the winner of the 11th-seeded San Diego State vs. No. 6-seed Indiana game that tips off at 6:40 PST today at the Huntsman Center at the University of Utah. The winner of Saturday’s game then advances to the Regionals next week in Oakland, Calif.
*During Xavier’s media moments Wednesday, Justin Cage, a member of the A-10 All-Defensive Team and the A-10 Tournament MVP, was asked if he has played anyone better than Morrison this year.
“He’s the best player in the country, so no,” Cage said. “But I’ll be playing him tomorrow.”
*Among the last-minute spins by sportswriters prognosticating about the Oakland Region of the NCAA Tournament, is that by FoxSports.com’s Jeff Goodman, who notes three key storylines developing in this region. The second of those storylines proffered by Goodman is watching how Morrison, the nation’s scoring leader, will attempt “to prove that No. 3 Gonzaga was worthy of a No. 2 seed — and that despite playing in a weak conference, the Zags can still make a legitimate run to the Final Four.”
*This is the Zags’ eighth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, ninth overall.