GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — In the summer of 1998, Gonzaga University was a small private college in Eastern Washington that barely made a blip on the public consciousness, even within its own region.
To shake things up, administrators decided to change the school’s visual identity. The school colors went from light blue and white to a deep navy. The odd-looking mascot — a bulldog in a sailor’s cap — needed an update, too, so it became the snarling canine with the spiked collar of today.
A new brand was born.
“We made a conscious decision to change who we were,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “We decided we wanted people to see us differently, too, and to do that we had to change the way things looked. We sat down that summer and decided, we need a new logo. We made it and thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.'”
The logo got a huge boost of popularity the next men’s basketball season, when the scrappy Bulldogs made a run to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, becoming synonymous with success as the program continued to grow.
Under the guidance of coach Mark Few, Gonzaga became a national powerhouse, reaching the NCAA Tournament 19 straight times with multiple trips to the Sweet 16.
That snarling bulldog is now on the sport’s biggest stage as Gonzaga gets set to play mighty North Carolina in Monday night’s national championship game.
“We don’t pretend or think we’re anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky,” Few said. “But at the same time, I think we do feel we’ve been a national entity for quite some time. The product, the brand, the players, the team that we’re putting out there on the floor we feel can compete with anybody in the country on any given night.”
The basketball program’s success has brought national attention to a school in the inland Northwest that likely would have otherwise remained mostly anonymous outside of Spokane, Washington.
The more the basketball team won, the more people became interested in learning about Gonzaga and Spokane. That interest turned into a familiarity as the Zags continued to win.
With that exposure came massive growth on the campus along the Spokane River.
Enrollment has nearly doubled to 7,800 over the past 20 years, with the number of full-time faculty up 55 percent. New buildings dot the campus, with more under construction, including the Volkar Center for Athletic Achievement next door to The Kennel, where the Zags play. Budgets have increased as the school’s endowment has climbed over $200 million.
“The visual part of that brand has been out there for a long time and when people see that mark, they think Gonzaga basketball and that helps the brand of the institution beyond that,” Roth said. “We want them to see that, wow, that’s a great place to get an education, wow, that’s a great place to be an engineer, they have a great school for business.
“To me, that’s what we’ve been able to accomplish over all these years with this basketball program,” Roth said. “The brand has given people the window in Gonzaga University and now even a window into Spokane.”
Despite the recognition, the basketball program had to fight perceptions that its brand didn’t match up with the bigger programs.
No matter how many games the Zags won, no matter how many NCAA Tournament trips they made, they were seen as the small school that beat up on teams in a weak conference, one that could never break through to the Final Four.
That changed when the Zags beat Xavier in the West Region final and Gonzaga took another step with its Final Four win over South Carolina.
Beat North Carolina, the bluest of blue bloods, and the brand will become a household name, even outside of college basketball.
“We don’t have that tradition that dates back 40, 50, 60 years, and so we defer to that,” Few said. “But we also think that this is the national brand and national entity and we’re not going anywhere.”
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