WALLA WALLA — You can be sure Kyle Bankhead will be in Gonzaga’s corner Thursday afternoon when the Bulldogs open NCAA tournament play against Southern University in Salt Lake City.
Once a Zag, always a Zag, right?
Well, not exactly.
As one of Bill Grier’s top assistant coaches at the University of San Diego for the last six years, one of Bankhead’s primary objectives is figuring out ways to defeat West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga. He doesn’t pull on his old Gonzaga jacket until his Toreros’ season comes to an end.
“Sure, I’ll be rooting for Gonzaga,” said Bankhead, a 2000 Wa-Hi graduate who went on to a surprising four-year collegiate basketball career at Gonzaga. “There are still a lot of guys up there that I am connected with, and I wish the best for them.
“At the same time, my loyalties are with San Diego and getting this program to be the best that it can be.”
The Toreros have certainly had their moments since Grier, a longtime Gonzaga assistant coach, left Spokane for sunny Southern California in 2007 with Bankhead in tow. The former Blue Devil had just completed his second season as an administrative assistant coach at Gonzaga after concluding his Zags playing career in 2004.
In their very first year at San Diego, the Toreros finished third in the WCC during the regular season, won the conference tournament by defeating Gonzaga 69-62 in the championship game and then upset Connecticut 70-69 in overtime during the first round of the NCAAs.
San Diego made another deep conference tournament run earlier this month. After finishing sixth during the regular season with a 7-9 record, the Toreros defeated Pepperdine 62-59 and Brigham Young 72-69, and they had Saint Mary’s on the ropes in the semifinals before losing 69-66 in overtime.
“I really thought we were going to be in the championship game,” Bankhead said. “But that’s the way it goes.”
Instead, Bankhead will have to be satisfied watching his former team compete for a national title. Gonzaga enters tournament play as the No. 1-ranked team in both the Associated Press and USA Today national polls and is one of the tournament’s four No. 1 seeds.
“There is no doubt about it, they are a juggernaut right now,” Bankhead said of the Zags. “They are very talented and it is going to be interesting to see how they do in the tournament. They are good, deep and balanced, and from now on it is all about matchups.
“Gonzaga has lost just two games, both to very good teams,” he added. “I thought that besides those two losses, our game at home was probably their closest game.”
Gonzaga survived its trip to San Diego 65-63 when Elias Harris deflected Kyle Rancifer’s 3-point shot at the buzzer. The Zags defeated the Toreros 83-70 three weeks later when the teams met in Spokane.
Bankhead, a 6-foot-2 shooting guard, led Wa-Hi to its most recent Class 4A state championship in 2000. When he didn’t receive any Division 1 scholarship offers, he accepted Gonzaga’s invitation to walk on.
It turned out to be a very wise decision.
“Growing up in Walla Walla, it was always a dream to be in a program that goes to the NCAA tournament and plays in front of packed houses every night,” Bankhead said. “I was so lucky and so blessed to play in four tournaments. And home and away, every game we played was sold out.”
And why not. The Zags won four consecutive conference championships and four WCC tournament titles during Bankhead’s career.
Gonzaga reached the NCAA’s Sweet Sixteen during his freshman season before losing to Michigan State 77-62 in the regional semifinals. And after losing to Wyoming in the first round of the 2002 tournament, the Bulldogs posted first-round NCAA wins over Cincinnati his junior year and over Valparaiso his senior season.
Bankhead played all four years of his career with Gonzaga greats Blake Stepp and Cory Violette. Another all-time Zags star, Dan Dickau, was a teammate during Bankhead’s first two seasons, and Ronny Turiaf came aboard when Bankhead was a sophomore. Casey Calvary was a senior when Bankhead was a freshman, and Adam Morrison and Derek Ravio were freshmen during Bankhead’s senior season.
Bankhead proved to be one of Gonzaga’s deadliest 3-point shooters during his career and earned a full scholarship as a junior and a senior. He finished his career with a .453 shooting percentage from outside the arc, and he ranks seventh all-time in school history with 169 3-point baskets.
“I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity,” Bankhead said. “Looking back, I’m not sure how a 6-2 unathletic white kid from Walla Walla could end up playing in a program like that, but it worked out.
“It got me to where I am today and has brought me a lot of good opportunities.”
Next on the list, Bankhead hopes, is a head coaching job at a Division I school.
“Without a doubt that is what I am striving for,” he said. “But it takes time in this profession to get to that point.”
In the meantime, he’s doing everything he can to elevate San Diego’s status in the West Coast Conference. And it’s a challenge in a conference that is getting stronger by the year, largely because of Gonzaga’s national status.
“A lot of us are trying to build our programs the way Gonzaga has,” Bankhead said. “And it has been very hard to do that. Spokane is kind of a special place, and with all the changes and people trying to upgrade their programs, Gonzaga is now the toughest it has ever been.”
Bankhead is especially impressed with the Zags’ Kelly Olynyk, and he said he wouldn’t mind at all if the 7-foot redshirt junior decided to turn professional at the end of this season.
“He is very talented and he is going to have a great NBA career,” Bankhead said of Olynyk. “His skill level and his size are really hard to find, and I would love seeing him out of the league. He’s had a ridiculously good year and he could end up being a lottery pick.”
Bankhead has also been impressed with Gonzaga senior Mike Hart for a different reason. The 6-6 senior guard from Portland’s Jesuit High has followed Bankhead’s path at Gonzaga.
“We are different kind of players but our stories are somewhat the same,” Bankhead said of Hart, who also walked on at Gonzaga and eventually earned a full-ride scholarship. While Bankhead was a key contributor on the offensive end of the floor, Hart is noted for his defensive toughness and rebounding tenacity.
“It’s kind of funny,” Bankhead added, “because when I left Gonzaga I thought I might be the last walkon to earn a scholarship there because of the talent level they are able to recruit. But he has made a major impact on their program, and it’s really special to find kids like that.”
Coaching against his old team has gotten easier as the years have gone by, Bankhead said.
“The first couple of years, after putting my heart and soul into that program, it was kind of different,” he said. “Especially up there, where I knew everybody.
“Now you treat it like any other game. You want to win, you prepare the best you can and you battle them the best you can.”
But that won’t keep Bankhead from finding the time to cheer on the Zags Thursday afternoon.
“Our goal is to win a conference championship, and when we play them we want to beat them,” he said. “But when our season is done and we are no longer playing, I am a Gonzaga fan.”