SPOKANE, Wash. — Tommy Lloyd’s reputation as an international recruiter precedes him. Just ask Roger Powell.
Powell, then an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, was at Montverde Academy (Florida) to recruit Serbian big man Filip Petrusev, and had become accustomed to seeing Gonzaga’s top assistant, Lloyd, on the overseas trail. But the Bulldogs weren’t known to be recruiting Petrusev. Powell thought Vandy had a shot.
“I actually recruited internationals, so Tommy and I would often be in the same country,” Powell said. “I wasn’t going to beat him, but I tried to. Sometimes I’ll get a kid if I knew they weren’t going 100% after them. I was recruiting Filip hard to Vanderbilt, and [then-Commodores head coach Bryce Drew] and I are in the gym. And then Tommy walks in. I’m like, ‘you gotta be kidding me.'”
You know the rest of that tale. Petrusev signed with Lloyd and Gonzaga, where he became the top player on a Bulldogs team that has been a fixture in the top 5 this season and appears destined to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year. Petrusev became another in a long line of Lloyd recruits who have helped establish this Jesuit university of roughly 5,000 undergrads in Eastern Washington as a name-brand program in college basketball over the past two decades. Lloyd, 45, has also been explicitly cast as the heir to the throne of Gonzaga head coach Mark Few, whenever Few decides to retire or finally gives in to one of those deep-pocketed major-college suitors that tries to lure him every offseason, with the latter looking nearly impossible at this point.
For his part, Powell ended up in Spokane, too, hired last spring by Few after Drew and the rest of the Vanderbilt staff was dismissed. Which means no more running into Tommy Lloyd, except around Gonzaga’s basketball offices. Though your average college basketball fan might not know Lloyd’s face or even his name, anyone who has gone head-to-head with him knows you’re much better off having Lloyd as a colleague than a competitor.
“The track record speaks for itself,” Powell said.
INTERNATIONAL RECRUITING has become the lifeblood of the Gonzaga basketball program. Since Lloyd joined the staff full time in 2001, the Bulldogs have established themselves as arguably the preeminent destination for talented overseas recruits. It started with Mario Kasun (Croatia) and Ronny Turiaf (France) in the early 2000s, but has included J.P. Batista (Brazil), Elias Harris (Germany), Przemek Karnowski (Poland), Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania) and Rui Hachimura (Japan) from outside North America and Robert Sacre, Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos from Canada.
This season’s roster features six overseas prospects — five from Europe and one from Africa.
“What’s that saying? ‘Necessity is the mother of invention,'” Lloyd said. “We needed players, good players because we wanted to build this program. And we were worried at the time, some kids might not think Gonzaga was established enough and they might say they wanted to go to the Pac-10, I don’t want to go to little ol’ Gonzaga … We had to think outside the box, we had to fish in waters that others weren’t.”
It’s worked. Gonzaga reached the Elite Eight in 1999 under Dan Monson and then made the NCAA tournament in each of the past 20 seasons under Few. The Bulldogs have won at least one NCAA tournament game every year since 2009 and have advanced past the first weekend of the tournament each of the past five seasons. In fact, Gonzaga is second in Division I history for most consecutive 25-win seasons — a run that extended to 13 seasons earlier this year.
When Few arrived at Gonzaga in 1989, the school was discussing dropping out of Division I. Thirty years later, the Bulldogs are one of the nation’s most consistently successful basketball programs.
“I just think the bluebloods have changed,” Few said. “I think you would believe it now, we could win a national championship here.”
Gonzaga’s prowess overseas — obviously buoyed by the Bulldogs’ dominance on the court in the United States — has gotten to the point where the Bulldogs no longer need to be the first school involved for an international prospect. The reputation of the Zags overseas is enough to make up ground.
Sean Farnham believes Filip Petrusev has a great chance to take home the 2020 John R. Wooden Award, while Dalen Cuff is leaning toward Kansas’ Devon Dotson.
Sophomore center Petrusev, who is enjoying a breakout season and is among the 20 names on the Wooden Award’s late-season watch list, said Gonzaga was the last school to recruit him. And it was still enough.
“Once they came in, everyone I asked for advice, they would say, just look at what they’ve done before,” Petrusev said. “In my case, they by far had the best reputation. They did the most things with international guys. Other schools you look at, they might have the occasional one or two. But here you have like, I don’t even know how many. So that was a huge factor for sure.”
Redshirt sophomore Joel Ayayi went to the same school in France as senior big man Killian Tillie, so when Lloyd showed up at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance in France to watch Ayayi, there was already a level of familiarity. The two didn’t talk while Lloyd was recruiting Tillie, but Ayayi knew who he was when he walked in the gym. And just to make sure, he went home and Googled Lloyd — and saw a number of articles about his international recruiting.
One international recruit begets another.
“I can tell you like, right now in France, a lot of players watch Gonzaga, obviously because of Killian and I,” Ayayi said. “People in Russia watch Gonzaga because of Pavel [Zakharov] and Lithuania with Martynas [Arlauskas]. I think every time you have a player from your country at Gonzaga, it brings [Gonzaga] even more attention in the country. I used to watch Gonzaga because I knew Killian was there, you know? And I think that’s kind of how it works.”
Lloyd and Few never expected that landing Kasun and Turiaf at the end of the 20th century would turn into the Bulldogs becoming an overseas recruiting powerhouse. The success is carrying over to the U.S., too. Gonzaga has the No. 7-ranked recruiting class in the country, a group that includes top-5 recruit Jalen Suggs and ESPN 100 prospects Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther. In 2021, the Zags have already hosted top-5 prospects Chet Holmgren (No. 2) and Paolo Banchero (No. 4) for visits.
“There was never a master plan,” Lloyd said. “It was just one day at a time. One phone call, one relationship, one recruit. And then once you start having success, more opportunities present themselves.”
AMONG THE awards in Few’s office is his National Coach of the Year trophy. And one of the names engraved on the trophy is former North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, who was in charge of the Tar Heels for three seasons after Dean Smith retired. When you combine his years as an assistant coach and head coach, Guthridge spent 33 seasons in Chapel Hill.
Lloyd could end up as the West Coast Bill Guthridge — and that’s fine with him.
“I’ll look at that as an honor,” Lloyd said. “Whatever, he’s not going to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s not gonna be this, he’s not gonna be that. But I’ll guarantee if you go back, he had a huge impact on that program, on the coaches and on the players, and that’s pretty awesome. If that’s what I end up being labeled as, I’m really cool with that.”
In other words, Lloyd isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s a topic that has come up within the industry when the coaching carousel kicks off every March: Why hasn’t Tommy Lloyd landed a head-coaching job? Why is he still at Gonzaga? Despite routinely torching schools in the Pac-12 and certainly the WCC with a recruiting network as rich as that of any coach in Division I, Lloyd has never even gone to another campus for a job interview.
There are a few reasons — and one can be answered by two other people who often get asked the second question: Few and athletic director Mike Roth.
“It’s not that he hasn’t had an interview,” said Roth, who added that Lloyd’s compensation already eliminates most potential head-coaching jobs. “He’s declined them.”
“He’s got a guarantee to be the next head coach here, so that’s pretty strong,” Few said.
It’s more than a verbal guarantee, though, more than some sort of handshake agreement. Lloyd has it written into his contract that he’s the next head coach at Gonzaga, whenever Few decides to retire.
“Tommy has it in writing from me and the president that says, as long as he’s here, when Mark retires, it’s your job,” Roth said. “He’s got a document. I’ve got a document. The president’s got a document. Our general counsel has a document. It’s his job.”
There aren’t too many programs that write coach-in-waiting agreements into contracts, and there are even fewer powerhouse programs that simply promote a longtime assistant into the head-coaching chair. But it’s par for the course at Gonzaga. Few succeeded Dan Monson more than 20 years ago after 10 seasons on his staff. Monson succeeded Dan Fitzgerald after being on his staff. Roth tabbed assistant coach Lisa Fortier as Gonzaga’s women’s coach after Kelly Graves left for Oregon, and he promoted longtime baseball coach Mark Machtolf after 13 years as an assistant coach in Spokane.
For Gonzaga, it just works.
“In Tommy’s case, he’s helped build this basketball program and been a huge piece of building it,” Roth said. “His skin is way in this game. And he deserves that opportunity. But it’s not just because of length of time. It’s because of who he is as a person … Tommy’s the perfect guy. Yeah, he’s going to be able to X and O, he already can. He’s going to be able to recruit, he already does. He’s going to be able to run a great practice, he already does. He can do all those things when he slides over. But those things mean nothing if he’s not the right person. Why is Tommy Lloyd the right guy? Because he’s the right guy.”
Few, 57, understands what it means to make the move from assistant to head coach at Gonzaga, and he’s confident Lloyd is the right guy to take the reins when he decides to retire.
“The key to all this is sustaining continuity, especially when it’s been so successful,” Few said. “Tommy [and assistant coach Brian Michaelson] know this place inside and out. They’re dialed into our former players and all that. They know the history, they know the culture. They know what they are, they’re dialed into all our supporters around here. They know what’s worked here and what doesn’t work.”
For Lloyd, it’s more than just the coach-in-waiting guarantee that has kept him in Eastern Washington: he loves Gonzaga and he loves Spokane. He and his wife, Chanelle, who have three kids (two daughters and a son, Liam, who has signed to play basketball at Grand Canyon next season), just built a house two summers ago — complete with an arcade video game system covered in Gonzaga paraphernalia in the basement.
And while Lloyd’s house was being built, he and his family moved into the childhood home of none other than Gonzaga legend John Stockton. It’s hard to get more Gonzaga, more Spokane, than that.
Lloyd sees no reason to move, and it has helped that he has seen Few remain happy at one spot for the past 30 years.
“I’m at a place that’s become my dream [school], why do I need to outthink myself?” he said. “I’m happy raising my family in one place. How many people will get to do that in this business? No matter what happens with me in my career, my kids always have a home base — Spokane. You can make the job your destination, and that’s what [Few] has decided to do. That’s what I’ve decided to do.
“And you know, I just think of things like, well, if I did take a job, Where’s Ronny [Turiaf] gonna stay when he comes to town?” Lloyd continued. “Who’s [Jeremy] Pargo gonna call and complain to when we lose the game? You know what I mean? That means something to me.”
“HE WAS just kind of hanging out.”
That’s how Few describes the arrival of Lloyd into the Gonzaga program in 2001. But Lloyd’s backstory is slightly more circuitous than that.
It actually came as a result of Monson, Few’s predecessor with the Bulldogs. Lloyd, a native of Kelso, Washington (just under six hours from Spokane), played junior college ball at Walla Walla Community College and at the time, Gonzaga was still recruiting the Northwest Athletic Conference. Monson watched Lloyd toward the end of his time at Walla Walla and told him that while the Zags weren’t going to offer him a scholarship, Lloyd should call if he ever wanted to get into coaching.
“He probably told everybody that,” Lloyd joked.
But after finishing his career at Division III Whitman College, Lloyd decided to call Monson and talk about coming to Gonzaga to work in the basketball program. Monson was ready to bring him aboard, but Lloyd suddenly got an opportunity to play professionally in Australia and then Germany. Following his two seasons overseas, Lloyd and Chanelle went backpacking all over the world, through Europe and Africa and Australia.
Lloyd was finally ready to start his post-playing career at Gonzaga, but by then Monson was no longer the coach of the Bulldogs. Monson had left for Minnesota after Gonzaga made a run to the Elite Eight in the 1999 NCAA tournament, with Few, Monson’s longtime assistant, taking over at the top. The agreement Lloyd had with Monson still stood, though.
“In Tommy’s case, he’s helped build this basketball program and been a huge piece of building it. But it’s not just because of length of time. It’s because of who he is as a person … Tommy’s the perfect guy.”
Mike Roth, Gonzaga AD, on Lloyd as coach-in-waiting
Few brought Lloyd onto his staff as a volunteer administrative assistant. While Gonzaga now has a director of basketball operations, a video coordinator, a number of graduate assistants and team managers, it wasn’t quite the same in 2000. The Bulldogs had Few, two full-time assistant coaches, one assistant coach who wasn’t considered a full-time employee, one student manager, a student doing work study — and Lloyd. That was it. So Lloyd helped out any way he could: film exchange, working camps, pretty much anything.
“That was really fortunate for me and my development, I got an opportunity to work and show I’m capable,” Lloyd said. “And once you show you’re capable, Gonzaga is just one of those places. ‘Well, let’s add this and add this’ and you just came to get more and more responsibility. Gonzaga was an up-and-coming program and I’m able to get inside of it before it gets so big, so I got a lot of hands-on experience.”
Lloyd would be promoted to a full-time assistant coach a year later, before the 2001-02 season, but Few wanted him to develop in certain areas, namely recruiting. Lloyd was familiar with international recruiting; he scoured the internet for reports on European players, in turn helping assistant coach Bill Grier land the Croatian 7-footer Kasun and French big man Turiaf a year later.
But Few told him he couldn’t just be a jack-of-all-trades in order to become a big-time college assistant: he needed a specialty.
Remember that backpacking trip around the world?
“He loved traveling over in Europe,” Few said. “And I told him, hey, if you want to make it in this business, you gotta develop a niche, you gotta have something different than somebody else. There’s so many guys in this business, you have to separate yourself. So he kind of figured out like, ‘Hey, I can figure out how to do this European thing and see if I can establish a network and trust, you know, some real expertise over there.’ And he’s done that.”
Lloyd corroborates that, albeit in simpler terms.
“He threw like, a German U18 guide on my desk and away I went,” he said.
AS GONZAGA students file into the legendary Spokane staple Jack and Dan’s on an icy and snowy Tuesday night, nobody takes more than a passing glance at the table by the window, where Lloyd is sitting with a guest.
Several of the students sipping Kokanee beers are likely to be in attendance at McCarthey Athletic Center two days later, when Gonzaga takes on Loyola Marymount, but nobody bothers Lloyd for an update on Tillie’s ankle injury or the latest news on a headline recruit.
“It’s the John Stockton effect,” Lloyd said.
The Hall of Fame point guard moved back to his native Spokane with his family after his NBA career — and nobody bothers him when he’s out to dinner or running errands. It’s just business as usual in Spokane.
Not that Lloyd is comparing himself to Stockton, or wants any attention for his job. He’s fine being just another cog in the Gonzaga machine.
At the arena before the Loyola Marymount game, Lloyd is not one to pace for hours before a game. He follows a similar routine before each home game, working out freshmen Pavel Zakharov and Oumar Ballo after an afternoon pregame shootaround. On the way back to his house, he stops at Qdoba and watches other games from his couch before returning to campus.
On a rainy Thursday night in February, Lloyd reenters the arena about 70 minutes before tipoff.
“I used to walk through the main entrance with all the fans,” he said. “Now I go through the side.”
Less than 40 minutes after an 85-67 win over Loyola Marymount, Lloyd is back upstairs in his office fine-tuning his scouting report for one of the Bulldogs’ biggest games of the season: a trip to Saint Mary’s to face the rival Gaels in two days. He’s jotting down notes to plan for Friday. Apparently, it worked — Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s by 30.
“I’m a checklist guy,” Lloyd said earlier in the day.
If he ever made a checklist for his dream job, Gonzaga would tick every box. Perhaps the only thing missing is a national championship — but, with the Bulldogs heading toward their third 1-seed in four years, that might not be too far off.
“I’m fulfilled,” Lloyd said. “I love being at a place that’s bigger than any of us on the coaching staff. We’re all part of something bigger than ourselves. And I think that’s something pretty special.”