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Faux Feud between Jimmy Kimmel and Gonzaga Fans isn't "imaginary"

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Jimmy Kimmel's late-night comedy bit at the start of this year's NCAA tournament insisting that Gonzaga is "an imaginary university" with a team created for its annual tournament appearance has set off what bloggers have dubbed a "faux feud" (which mean fake news in political language) between the comedian and Gonzaga's hometown and state.

The ongoing routine is now making Gonzaga and its basketball team well known beyond the sports world with Kimmel jabs like: "Now people from Spokane, Washington, are claiming Gonzaga is real and it is located there."  

The dean of the Gonzaga law school and Washington attorney general even got involved in the humor, sending Kimmel a video of law students swearing the university is real.  

Kimmel responded with a bit featuring comic actor Fred Willard pretending to be the chancellor of Gonzaga, named Dr. Gonzo Aga who, after his story fell apart, allowed Kimmel to use that as proof Gonzaga is a myth.  

In fact, there really is something almost mythical about the rise and continuing role atop basketball's collegiate ranks for the little Jesuit school with an enrollment of just over 5,100 students. That's less than a third of the enrollment of Duke University, which is frequently referred to as the small school with the powerhouse collegiate basketball reputation.

In fact, if Gonzaga should finally prevail and win the tournament this or some future year, they will be the smallest school to ever do so.

This is the 20th anniversary of Gonzaga's continuous run since 1999 as a part of the March Madness that is the NCAA tournament. And it's the 20th year of head coach Mark Few's leadership of the program he inherited after Dan Monson rode the Zags' shocking Elite Eight appearance to a head coaching job at the University of Minnesota.

There are a couple of lesser-known, or maybe lesser remembered, things about Gonzaga basketball before moving on to answer the question of "is there more to know about Gonzaga than basketball?"

First, there was the African-American young man who, fresh out of the U.S. Army and with family at 26, walked onto the basketball court as an unknown to try out for the team in 1959. He soon became the star and two years later, in 1961, Frank Burgess led the nation in scoring with an average of 32.4 points per game.

It would be 45 years later that the Bulldogs produced another nation's leading scorer, in 2005 when Adam Morrison averaged just over 28 points a game.

Then, of course, there was home-grown John Stockton, who starred for the Zags in the early '80s before winning a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic basketball team then going on to a career with the Salt Lake City NBA team and eventually becoming an NBA hall of famer.

Whenever Stockton's name is mentioned to those familiar with Gonzaga sports lore and the fact that the school pursued a delusion of becoming a football power like that other small Catholic school, Notre Dame, there's a knowing smile at the fact another Stockton was prominent in that 1920s effort.

That was John's grandfather, Houston Stockton, who was one of the finest backs in the nation from 1922 to 1924. In '22 he not only scored 46 points in one game when he had six touchdowns and 10 extra-point conversions as Gonzaga swept over Wyoming, 77-0, but he guided the school that year to its only bowl game, That's right, the school with then a couple of hundred students became the smallest school to ever compete in a bowl game, the first and only Christmas Day Classic in San Diego.

The game was envisioned as a marketers dream, matching the Notre Dame team coached by Knute Rockne against the Gonzaga team coached by Gus Dorais, who had been the passer who teamed with Rockne in the Notre Dame playing days to popularize, if not invent, the forward pass.  

But the dream match never came about because when Notre Dame lost its last game of the season, Rockne decreed that they didn't deserve a post-season game so the promoters of the San Diego game had to race to find a replacement and found one in West Virginia, which actually had beaten Rose Bowl-bound Pittsburgh that season.

Gonzaga lost, 21-13, but the game and Gonzaga's performance earned a front-page headline the next day in the sports section of the New York Times. "Hous" Stockton went on to a pro career as the star quarterback of the Frankfort Yellowjackets, forerunner of the Philadelphia Eagles, in the latter years of the '20s.

Interestingly, Stockton wasn't the only Gonzagan to star in the NFL. Ray Flaherty, who had played at the same time as Stockton, went on to be an NFL All-star with the New York Giants.

Then in 1937, Flaherty was tapped to be the coach of the team nicknamed the Redskins, who were just relocating that year from Boston to Washington. It was there st Washington that he became one of the most successful NFL coaches over the next six years, until he went in the Navy in World War II, winning the NFL championship in 1937 and 1942 and being league runner-up in 1940.

So what of non-sports things about Gonzaga? Well, There was its likely most famous grad, Harry Lillis Crosby. So what was he famous for? Oh, forgot to add his nickname, "Bing," which answers the question.

Then there was Tom Foley, whose five years as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives ended with the Republican congressional sweep of 1994.

Then there's the fact that Betsy and I met there in freshman math class, which I was taken as a super-senior (beyond four years) because I had to have the course and even though I didn't care for math, there was no more time to wait. We were married two years later so I tell people "don't say nothing good ever came out of math class.

So back to basketball and Coach Few. It could be that the respect the school has gained on the basketball court may not be the success most other colleges would like to emulate. Rather the "nice guy" image that Few has legitimately earned and the "family" characteristics engendered by Few, the school and its supporters may be the most envied part of what Gonzaga has brought to college basketball.

Longtime King County land developer and 20 year Regent of Gonzaga Jack McCann of Jack McCann Company once summarized the Gonzaga story for me as "a magic carpet ride for all the segments of the 'family.'"

"I always wondered if Few and (athletic director) Mike Roth were just lucky or were incredible people. Well, I think the last 20 years have answered that question," McCann told me for this column.

Oh, and as for Kimmel, he said in explaining his pick of Gonzaga to win it: "I figured if these are so good they can concoct an imaginary university, and get almost everyone to go along with it, they could easily win a basketball tournament. So, go Zags!"

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