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Men's NCAA Tournament

On this Final Four trip, Gonzaga assistant coach Roger Powell Jr. knows history awaits

Powell, who played in the 2005 NCAA title game, hopes his Zags will keep their record-setting unbeaten season intact

INDIANAPOLIS – The last time Roger Powell Jr. and I spoke was on April 3, 2005. We were in St. Louis at the Final Four. Powell was a senior forward on a top-ranked University of Illinois team that tied an NCAA record that season with 37 wins.

On that night in 2005 before thousands of fans in traditional March mania, Powell catapulted Illinois into the national championship game with a remarkable performance against Louisville.

Nicknamed “The Rev” by his teammates because he was a licensed Pentecostal minister, Powell scored 20 points as the Illini defeated Louisville 72-57.

Things didn’t go well in the championship game when favored Illinois lost to North Carolina.

After that game, Powell assumed that was it in terms of any connection to college basketball.

“I thought my college career was over,” Powell told me Sunday evening.

“I had no intention of coaching. It wasn’t a goal of mine to coach. I thought maybe I’d win an NBA championship or a European championship. Never did I think that I would be back in the Final Four, especially in a national championship game. In any way, shape or fashion.”

Today, Powell is in his second season as assistant coach with unbeaten and top-ranked Gonzaga. The Zags enter Monday’s national championship game with a chance to make history.

After his final game in 2005, Powell embarked on a six-year quest to forge a career as a pro basketball player.

Illinois’ Roger Powell Jr. (right) puts up a shot over Louisville’s Larry O’Bannon (left) in the second half of a Final Four game on April 2, 2005, in St. Louis.

Eric Gay/AP Photo

First he went to Seattle, where he made the SuperSonics’ training roster but was cut before the season began. Then there was a successful stint in the Continental Basketball Association with the Rockford Lightning.

There was another try in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. Powell made the regular-season roster but was cut midseason. After that, there was a stint with the Arkansas RimRockers of the National Basketball Development League. Finally, there was a series of contracts in Europe with stops in Italy, Israel, Spain, France and finally Germany.

But even as Powell pursued his professional career, the basketball court, not the pulpit, continued to be his ministry.

He established RPJ Ministries Organization, which trained young athletes to reflect Christian values on their sports teams. He founded Integrity Sports Corp., a company focused on building basketball skills and the integrity of high school and junior high athletes.

“My heart was in mentorship and skill development and working with young kids,” he said. “I love high school kids. I love the excitement of taking an athlete and seeing them grow.”

In 2010 during the European playoffs, Powell was approached by Bryce Drew to be an assistant at Valparaiso. Powell said yes and at age 28 said goodbye to a playing career in pro basketball.

Powell stayed at Valparaiso for five seasons and followed Drew to Vanderbilt as an associate head coach. Drew and his staff, including Powell, were fired in March 2019.

Enter Gonzaga.  

Powell joined Mark Few’s staff at Gonzaga shortly after being dismissed from Vanderbilt. The ride has been amazing. Last season the team finished 31-2. This season — well, you know about this season: undefeated going into Monday’s championship game against Baylor.

Powell said this pandemic Final Four has been uplifting, exhilarating and stressful. “We’re in this bubble for three weeks. We can’t leave. We’re not traveling. We’re stuck here. It’s different.”

But he wouldn’t trade the experience, not in a million years. After having last year’s tournament canceled because of the pandemic, Powell — and everyone associated with college basketball — counts his blessings. Powell is happiest for his players. “As a coach, you appreciate it because you get to see your players, the kids you work with, the kids you recruit. You get to see them have the same experience that I had when I was a player. It’s pretty cool to see that.”

Time has passed, and while the memories of 2005 seem so recent, he is reminded by his players that 16 years have passed.

“The oldest player on my team, I asked him, ‘Hey, man, you’re from St. Louis. Do you remember when we played in the Final Four?’

“He said, ‘Coach, I was 7 years old.’ ”

Time moves on, yet the excitement of the Final Four remains timeless.

“The same excitement, the same feeling, the same goose bumps, the same desire that I had, I’m sure these guys have,” he said. “It doesn’t change.”

On April 3, we all had goose bumps as Gonzaga defeated UCLA on a last-second game-winning shot by Jalen Suggs. Just when Powell thought he had experienced just about every possible emotion as a player, this happened.

“As a coach you can’t really get caught up in emotions, because you’re thinking of the next play,” he said. “But once the game is over and once the buzzer goes off and there’s a buzzer-beater like that — for me, I lost it; I was so excited.

“It was surreal,” Powell added.

“He deserved that; the team deserved it. UCLA was amazing and they deserved to win also, but that is why March Madness is so special.”

When Powell and I spoke 16 years ago, he said that he wanted to be ordained and possibly start his own church. In the intervening years, his priorities have changed.

“When I started coaching, I couldn’t be a pastor,” he said. “I am still a strong Christian but coaching was my calling, my opportunity to reach kids and change people’s lives.”

Powell then excused himself. He had to join the team to watch film. “I am just trying to make sure I leave my mark. I want to help this program be the best it can be.”

A win Monday night and Gonzaga will do one better than anyone could have expected. Powell will experience something he never could have imagined when he enjoyed his own Final Four magic 16 years ago.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.