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How the legendary Gonzaga baseball coach’s path crossed with the “greatest story in sports”

For former Gonzaga baseball coach Steve Hertz, the story of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program is still the greatest story in U.S. sports history.

The Bulldogs’ humble beginnings as a mid-major team from a small Catholic-Jesuit university took an incredible turn in the late 1990s when Dan Monson led a veteran squad on a Cinderella run to the Elite Eight round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament. Since then, Mark Few has led the team to 25 consecutive postseason appearances, including two Final Four appearances and nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances, all while producing 11 All-Americans and a wealth of NBA talent.

“This is one of the greatest studies I can think of as a coach,” Hertz said. “It has become the greatest story in sports.”

While he credited the Zags’ continued success to Few’s commitment to Spokane, Hertz, who coached Gonzaga’s baseball team from 1981 to 2003, helped build the program’s culture with a simple gesture that became a long-standing tradition.

Long before all the West Coast Conference tournament banners and trophies, Gonzaga basketball was anything but a household name in the sport. In its first 36 years as a Division I team, the team never made the NCAA tournament.

The Bulldogs reached a low point in the 1989-99 season, finishing 8-20, their fewest wins since moving up to Division I.

Then head coach Dan Fitzgerald asked Hertz for a favor.

“Fitz came to me and said, ‘Hertzy, would you come over and talk to the team?'” Hertz said.

Hertz wasn’t known for his basketball expertise. He played third base in high school before moving to the mound in college. After pitching for two seasons at Gonzaga, he signed with the Minnesota Twins, played three years in the minor leagues and returned to the college ranks to coach.

“I was used to when we had a guest speaker, it was a baseball coach,” Hertz said. “But anyway, here’s my friend and, you know, my boss. I was already head over heels in love with Gonzaga basketball and said, sure.”

Fitz had planned more than just the usual postgame speech. He wanted to somehow highlight a single player for his performance, something that would make every home game seem more important. And so Hertz brought a little bit of baseball into basketball.

“I was thinking about baseball coaches having baseball caps,” Hertz said. “So I thought I need to do something to make these so special, they’re like gold. I’ll come by after (the game) and we’ll honor a Zag who tried the hardest.”

The player with the greatest “Zag performance” received a baseball cap with his name, the date and the final score of the game. Whether it was the team’s leading scorer or an assistant coach who put together the scout, anyone could win the Hertz cap.

This small token of hard work became a program tradition for the next 18 years.

In an episode of Gonzaga Nation, Hertz talked about his experiences with the men’s basketball team and more.

WATCH THE FULL EPISODE WITH STEVE HERTZ

Produced by Thomas Gallagher.

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