Gonzaga’s Mark Few on hoops and fishing.
I was half-way into my waders, ready to fish a Pennsylvania brook trout stream, when Mark Few returned my call. I knew I wouldn’t be catching trout for the next few hours, but instead I’d get to listen to basketball and fishing stories from one of the nation’s greatest coaches and, as I would learn, an equally intense angler.
Few’s passion for basketball and fly-fishing braid like the western rivers where he finds joy, solace, and a release from the pressure of big-time athletics As Gonzaga University’s men’s basketball coach for the past 20 seasons, Few owns the highest winning percentage of any active coach at .823, garnering 568 wins and establishing himself as one of the best thinkers and teachers in the game.
In 2017, Gonzaga played in the national championship game, where they lost to North Carolina. For his efforts, Few garnered a wave of accolades: AP Coach of the Year, Naismith Trophy Coach of the Year, NBC Sports Coach of the Year, and USA Today Coach of the Year.
At press time, the “Zags” were ranked No. 2 in the nation, with only one blemish on their record, and were expected to vie for the national championship. Few uses fishing as an escape from high pressure college athletics.
“The biggest thing for me is, if I get a day to go fishing, I come back in a better place,” he said. “These jobs are pretty intense. You’re in the limelight. People want your time, they want your attention. There’s tons and tons of exposure, and so to get away and think is important. My players know when I’ve been able to get out and go fishing. My wife definitely knows when I’ve been fishing. These seasons are a grind, and you need time to balance everything out. Fishing makes me a much better coach.”
Other college and even professional teams with more storied histories and fatter payrolls have tried to lure Few away from Gonzaga and the Spokane community, dangling tempting offers in the process. Time and again, however, Few has refused. He is a man who’s aware of how much place matters, a person in a transient profession who has put down roots and is committed to staying in the Pacific Northwest. “(The PNW) is a big part of who I am,” Few said. “Because people don’t understand it, I think they make too much out of it.”
There’s no reason for Few to leave. At this point, Gonzaga has evolved into its own storied program, with its own legendary streaks, its own tradition of winning with style, and a steady stream of players funneling into the NBA.
The Zags have made the NCAA tournament 21 years in a row, which is fourth in consecutive tournament appearances behind only Kansas, Duke, and Michigan State. During this incredible run, Gonzaga has reached eight sweet-sixteens, two elite-eights, and the aforementioned Final Four berth.
Few remains focused on the quality of life outside of basketball. Over the years he’s come to know himself: his limitations, his desires, his priorities. “I don’t think I’d be very happy if I was parked in a big city and couldn’t get out on a stream,” he said, which is why Spokane is such a great fit. Within a half hour drive he can be casting dries for native westslope cutthroat trout or, a little farther away, swinging flies for steelhead on Idaho’s Clearwater Snake and Grande Ronde rivers.
Imagining his life as a coach in an urban environment like New York, Few ponders the fishing possibilities and says he’d probably “fish for stripers or something,” but only because “I’m really a junkie.”
Out of season, Few enlists his family and close friends to fish with him.
“When we go to these lodges in Alaska, they want you to be back by five and there’s no way,” Few declares. “We just do the do-it-yourself places because we want to be out early and fish until dark. Then we relax a little, but I’m out there to fish.”
Anyone who has seen Few compete has witnessed high intensity. When I picture him fishing, I imagine him to have his Jaw set, eyes focused, body tensed, ready to react when a trout first feels the pinch of the hook, or a steelhead turns on a swung fly.
“My favorite take in the fall is seeing a steelhead blow up a swinging fly,” Few said. “That jolt of power and energy that they bring in that single instant . . . that first run is awesome.”
When Gonzaga made the Final Four in 2017, a video of Few celebrating with his team made the rounds on the Internet. Drenched in Gatorade and water, a shirt clinging to his wiry frame, Few jumps with his players, screaming and laughing. Few then clears the team from the center of the locker room to perform a handstand, holding it for a moment. Once back on his feet, his players swarm him. I was reminded of this physical display when Few described one of his more peculiar wading techniques.
“My buddies give me a hard time because I’m not the tallest dude in the world,” Few said, “but I’m a really aggressive wader. I have no issue going up to my armpits just to get to the right run, especially when steelheading. Usually, at some point in the day, I get water over my waders. That’s why I love wet-wading. I just jump in and swim or float down to where I want to be.”
Few’s children—AJ, Joe, Julia, and Colt—have all grown up in a house where these fishing extremes are accepted, even expected and celebrated. Few likes to talk about his children’s fishing. He proudly states that AJ has hooked multiple steelhead on a fly.
“I try to impress upon him what percentile that puts him in the world,” Few said, noting that AJ is catching these metalheads on the dry-line swing, possibly the most challenging strategy for coaxing these notoriously finicky fish to a fly.
But it’s not just about conquering the fish for Few. The flora and fauna, the geography and topography are also important.
“What I try to tell my kids is to look at all these spectacular places that fly fishing takes them,” Few says. “We are so blessed in the Northwest. Getting them out and showing them that country. Presenting a fly, watching the fish eat it. Teaching them how to fight big fish. Learning to catch-and-release and to pass this on and be stewards of all these amazing places . . . .”
Few knows the spaces where wild things live are precious. He hopes his family will stay close, bonding with one another and with the natural world.
“It’s good quality time,” Few said of being on the water with family and friends. “Phones don’t work where we go. Colt, our youngest, is a fishy guy. He catches all the pike off the dock when we go to the lake. Everyone in the family knows how to throw a fly. So that’s good. I want my kids to know how to live a balanced life.”
Few models such balance for his family and his team. He often breaks into a smile when watching his team jog off the court, winners or losers. When Gonzaga lost the national title game, as heavy favorites, Few displayed great poise and was able to put that disappointment in perspective for his players. Maybe he’s gained that perspective through fishing. He’s quick to note that more than one big steelhead has broken his line.
“I don’t walk away from a trout or salmon stream pissed off,” he said. “Even if they’re rising everywhere to some size 22s and I only get one or two eats all night. It’s still a really cool day.”
Noah Davis was a 2017 NCAA Division II Basketball Academic All-American and writes from his home in Tipton, Pennsylvania.