SPOKANE, Wash. — Fly fishing is a puzzle, the solution ever-changing, even on the same stretch of water.
Success requires reading the river, its riffles and seams, flows and clarity, temperature, locating lies of holding fish.
Attracting a strike can take an entomologist’s mind; deciphering the hatch and the weather, knowing insect life stages and finding the fly pattern to match, mimicking the movements with a flick of the rod tip.
Even when everything is right, the fish still might not bite, possibly full from a previous feeding or spooked by something out of the angler’s control.
Mark Few loves this algorithm of the outdoors, working the angles to see that flash, feel that tug.
The time on the water also allows the Gonzaga coach to work on the other major puzzle in his life: Running one of the nation’s top college basketball programs.
“It’s challenging. You’re constantly trying to solve things, kind of like down on the floor,” Few said. “But then it gives you a bunch of time to think about recruiting, how do we want to play, what do we want to do with this guy, scheduling. It’s a great place to go and bring it down a couple notches.”
Fly fishing is a never-ending pursuit toward perfection seemingly available only in glimpses.
So, too, is perfection in basketball.
No. 4 Gonzaga nearly had it, needing only to beat unranked BYU at The Kennel last Saturday to finish the regular season 30-0.
The Zags stumbled when the Cougars put up a roadblock to history, fumbling away two key possessions late in a 79-71 loss.
The setback does little to diminish this team’s identity: Perhaps the best in Few’s 18 seasons as coach, legitimate candidate to stand alone when the confetti cannons fire in Glendale, Arizona, in April.
“The Zags are as good as any No. 1 team and could win a national title,” Pacific coach Damon Stoudamire said after an 82-61 loss to Gonzaga last month.
West Coast Conference teams certainly know Gonzaga’s dominance. The Zags’ closest game before the BYU loss was 10 points.
Opponents from power conferences know, too: Arizona, Florida, Iowa State, Washington, Tennessee all lost to them this season.
Yet no matter what they do, what team they beat, the familiar Gonzaga-is-overrated refrain continues to follow the Bulldogs.
It happened when Gonzaga was elevated to No. 1 by AP Top 25 voters, again when the NCAA Tournament selection committee pegged the Zags as No. 1 in the West Regional in its initial rankings.
The Bulldog doubt figures to continue now as March Madness revs up, even if Gonzaga wins the West Coast Conference tournament, which the Zags start in the quarterfinals Saturday in Las Vegas.
“We do kind of get that stigma, that stereotype of being good just because of our conference,” said Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, this season’s WCC’s player of the year. “We just have to work every day to make sure that when the time comes that we’re ready to perform on that big stage.”
Gonzaga has been remarkably consistent on that stage during Few’s tenure.
The Zags won their fifth straight WCC regular-season title and 16th in 17 years this season. Gonzaga is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the 19th straight season and could earn a No. 1 seed by winning the WCC tournament title for the 14th time under Few.
Few has done it by sticking to recruiting principles developed during his years as an assistant at Gonzaga, when sleeping on a friend’s couch was often the best option on the recruiting road.
Back then, Gonzaga cast a net toward a very specific type of recruit: High character, fits the Zags’ system.
The net’s reach expanded as the program’s prominence rose, allowing Few and his assistants into the living rooms of top national recruits.
Even with more access, Few has remained true to the basic tenets of his recruiting philosophy, searching for the right fit, not how many stars are by a recruit’s name.
“In the back of our minds we kind of harken back to what really works here,” Few said. “The farther along you get, the more resolve you get with that.”
This year’s team is a nice mix of veterans, talented transfers and arguably the best recruiting class Gonzaga has ever had, headlined by 7-foot forward Zach Collins.
The Zags have a mix and match of players who can score, play unselfishly and are willing to defend. Gonzaga led the nation in scoring margin at 23.8 points per game and was third nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
The roster balance is like an extension of Few’s life.
Most basketball coaches — football, too — consider it a badge of honor to spend endless hours in the office pouring over film.
The only badge Few seeks is to be a good father, husband and coach.
That’s why he heads home at the end of the day, watching film on his tablet in between spending time with his family instead of at the office. He takes a similar approach in the hours before a game, hiking the trails near his house with the family dog to prepare mentally and gets some exercise while he’s at it.
“Being a dad to them is the most important job I have,” Few said. “The mistake I’ve seen over the years with all my coaching colleagues is they just turn this into an all-encompassing thing, coming in early, leaving late. I’m just like, ‘What are you doing in there?’”
And there’s always room for fly fishing.
Few enjoys trips to Alaska and across the Pacific Northwest seeking big fish; the walls of his office are lined with photos of his catches.
He’ll even hit the waters midseason when life or basketball get too hectic, to clear his mind and sharpen his focus.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to look around and go, ‘holy smokes, look where we’re at.’ You can’t be in those places and feel there isn’t a God. That’s my feeling,” Few said. “I say I usually come back a better coach, a better dad, a better husband because you’ve just dropped down a couple notches.”