The men's NCAA Tournament Final Four is upon us, and both matchups should be exciting contests. Between Gonzaga, UCLA, Baylor, and Houston, you likely recognize the names. However, the histories of these programs have taken different paths.
You can find more about the Houston and Baylor matchup here. On the other side of the bracket, we've got a battle between the currently undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs and the First Four to Final Four UCLA Bruins.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs have gone from mid-major darling to a routine powerhouse. The Bulldogs have reached at least the Elite Eight three times since 2015, and have received a one-seed in the tournament three times since 2017. They enter this year's Final Four with a perfect 30-0 record.
Their opponent, the UCLA Bruins, is historically the most successful program in all of college basketball. The Bruins have won an NCAA-record 11 championships, and have produced a long list of famous NBA stars, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to more recent players like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Lonzo Ball. But this year they almost didn't make the tournament at all; they snuck into the First Four as an 11-seed, and have proceeded to roll off five straight wins en route to the Final Four.
It should be a great matchup between two teams that play at totally different paces. How did Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and UCLA head coach Mick Cronin get to where they are today?
Mark Few, Head Coach Of The Gonzaga Bulldogs
If it seems like Mark Few has always been on Gonzaga's sidelines, well…it's because he really hasn't coached anywhere else. After growing up in Oregon, Few starred as a point guard on his Creswell High School team. A shoulder injury limited his collegiate athletics, so Few focused on his education instead, graduating with a B.S. in physical education in 1987.
Few served as an unpaid part-time assistant at Creswell before he even graduated. He started in 1983 and moved to a paid position from 1986 to 1988. He also worked at basketball camps in Oregon, where he became friends with Dan Monson, then an assistant coach at Gonzaga. Monson invited Few to join the coaching staff in 1989; Few was promoted to a full-time assistant in 1990.
With Few serving as an assistant coach, Gonzaga made its first postseason appearances, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 1995 and the National Invitational Tournament in 1994, 1996, and 1998.
Monson, who had become head coach in 1997, promoted Few to the associate head coach role in 1999. The Bulldogs had just come off its best season ever, reaching the Elite Eight as a 10-seed. Monson left a few months later and Few became Gonzaga's head coach.
Anytime a smaller school makes a tournament run, it's exciting, but there's often a lingering thought of, "can they do this again?"
Well, in Gonzaga's case, absolutely. Few has maintained excellence at the school ever since he took over in 1999. The Bulldogs haven't missed an NCAA Tournament aside from 2020, when the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Gonzaga had already clinched the West Coast Conference championship, so they would have made the tournament in 2020, too.
In fact, the Zags have finished either first or tied for first in their conference in 20 of 22 seasons since Few took over. Sixteen of those 20 seasons have also included a conference championship.
Few is married with four children and has said he's stayed at Gonzaga to offer his family some stability. He's turned down offers from larger schools—all while building the Bulldogs into a national powerhouse.
The one thing that has eluded Few is a national championship. He led the Bulldogs to the title game in 2017, ultimately falling to North Carolina. But he's set up for success this year, with multiple future NBA players on the roster. At 30-0, he's just two wins away from completing a perfect season.
Despite the continued success, Few was only the 57th-highest-paid coach this year, making $1,979,059 in salary, though his contract does include some performance bonuses.
Can he wrap up another impressive year with a title? He'll have to take down the fiery UCLA Bruins, led by Mick Cronin.
Mick Cronin, Head Coach Of The UCLA Bruins
As this NCAA Tournament has consistently reminded us, coaching is in Mick Cronin's blood. His father, Harold "Hep" Cronin won more than 400 games as a high school basketball coach in Cincinnati.
Cronin played basketball at La Salle High School, but he suffered a torn ACL in his junior season, ending his playing career. And he almost immediately turned to coaching. While attending the University of Cincinnati in 1991, Cronin went to a Cincinnati Woodward High School game with his father. The younger Cronin received a job coaching the freshman team and assisting with the varsity squad despite still being in college.
Cronin held a role at the high school through 1996, amassing a 57-3 record in three seasons as the school's JV coach. Six of Cronin's players ended up playing Division I basketball, demonstrating that Cronin could have success at the next level.
After graduating in 1996, Cronin stayed at Cincinnati as a video coordinator, serving as an assistant under then-head coach Bob Huggins. Cronin showed an eye for developing talent and helped recruit multiple NBA Draft selections. In 2001, Cronin took an associate head coach and recruiting coordinator position at Louisville, working with Rick Pitino.
By 2003, Cronin had received his first head coaching gig. He led the Murray State Racers to two NCAA Tournament appearances and was named the 2006 Ohio Valley Conference coach of the year.
That year, Cronin returned to Cincinnati as head coach. After a few subpar seasons, Cronin helped turn the Bearcats program around. They made the NCAA Tournament for nine straight years from 2011 to 2019, reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2012. The team also had back-to-back 30-win seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18.
In April of 2019, Cronin left Cincinnati to become head coach of UCLA. The team finished second in the Pac-12 and Cronin was named the conference's coach of the year. But the Bruins didn't get to play a single conference tournament game, as the coronavirus pandemic canceled several conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament.
This year, it looked like the Bruins might not even make the NCAA Tournament at all. They stumbled down the stretch, losing their final four regular-season games. As a result, they were named as one of the play-in teams for the First Four of the tournament.
Perhaps that losing streak was a bit of foreshadowing, as the Bruins defeated Michigan State, BYU, Abilene Christian, Alabama, and Michigan to reach the Final Four. It's the 19th time the school has made the Final Four, but the first apperance for Cronin.
Cronin is also the highest-paid coach of any of the Final Four coaches, earning $3.6 million this year. Will he and the Bruins continue their postseason magic?