PITTSBURGH - Robert Sacre walked off the interview platform a few minutes before Mark Few walked on it, and before he sat down, Few looked around as if making sure the coast was clear.
“I never know what to say following Rob on the podium,’’ Few said. “Especially when I wasn’t present.’’
Since he stepped foot in Spokane, Wash., five years ago, Sacre has had a special relationship with Few.
Sacre is a walking one-liner. Few, every now and again, walks into them.
“Me and Coach Few, we just kid and joke,’’ Sacre said. “I like to give him a hard time.’’
For instance, on Friday, as the seventh-seeded Bulldogs prepared for their East Regional matchup on Saturday with second-seeded Ohio State, Sacre decided to pitch an idea for a new play.
The 7-foot, 260-pound center was named first-team All-West Coast Conference (and defensive player of the year) after averaging 11.8 points and 6.3 rebounds, and wanted an isolation play for himself.
“Top of the key for a three,’’ he said.
Sacre is on the books for four 3-point attempts for his entire career, and actually made one two seasons ago. Few, obviously, shot down the idea.
“Coach didn’t like it too much,’’ Sacre said.
But in the time that Sacre has been with the program, he’s come to embody everything that Few wants in a player. From the time Few went to Vancouver to recruit him, Sacre has had a supersized personality - loud, tattooed, and a spewing stream of consciousness humor - but the senior has become the leader of the Zags, who’ve taken on that personality as they’ve made the program’s 14th straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“It was big and goofy,’’ Few said of Sacre’s personality when they first met. “You weren’t quite sure if you could ever get the goofy side dialed in. He’s just kind of those once-in-a-lifetime personalities. I’ve said over and over again, he walks into our arena, I can hear him from my office when he comes in. Every person he meets, I think, feels like they’re a friend of his. It’s a great gift to have, it truly is.
“He’s always been excited to be at Gonzaga. He loves Gonzaga. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad practice in five years. The guy just works and works and brings enthusiasm. He’s just been a joy to coach.’’
Few saved Sacre’s most important quality for last.
“He’s funnier than hell to hang out with.’’
Sacre, whose mother, Leslie Sacre, played basketball at LSU and whose father, Greg LaFleur, was an NFL tight end with the Eagles, Cardinals, and Colts in the 1980s, has carved out a spot as one of Gonzaga’s best big men, cracking the 1,000-point and 600-rebound plateaus, but also showing a deft touch from the free throw line (his 449 foul shots are the third most in school history).
His attitude is infectious.
“It really rubs off on our whole team,’’ said guard Kevin Pangos. “We really feed off his energy.’’
Knowing he’ll see a lot of Ohio State’s pro-in-waiting, Jared Sullinger, teammates don’t expect Sacre to back down.
“I think Rob has always been like that,’’ said forward Elias Harris. “He’s not afraid of big challenges. He likes to get challenged.’’
The problems with Sullinger start with his build (6-9, 265) and end with his skill level (team-high 17.6 points with 14 double-doubles this season). But Sacre looks at the challenge like a gift.
“I’m fortunate to see a big body like that,’’ Sacre said. “He’s a great player. I know I have my hands full, and it’s going to be a great task.’’
If there’s a key, Sacre said, it’ll be limiting Sullinger’s touches.
“He likes to get the ball in deep,’’ Sacre said. “So you want to keep him from getting the ball in so deep near the basket and make sure you limit his touches. If he doesn’t get the ball, it’s harder for him to score.’’
In the 13 years that Few has been Gonzaga’s coach, he said Sacre is one of the most significant players to come through the program.
“I take great pride in that,’’ Sacre said. “I’m so proud to be with this team and I’m so proud to be with this great group of guys that I want to go further.’’Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.