Commentary

Seattle U turns to UW for new coach

Redhawks don't have to look far to find coach to continue Div. I transition

Originally Published: June 29, 2009
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Amid a brilliant, near-record month of sunshine, it is an overcast summer day on Seattle University's Capital Hill campus. Cameron Dollar is in his Connolly Center office, talking to a writer about his first months as the Redhawks' head basketball coach. Perhaps it is the drowsy gray sky outside, perhaps it is the interviewer -- scratch that, more likely it is the interviewer -- but Dollar yawns a couple of times, either tired or bored, until he switches the topic to the prospects for reviving Seattle U as a Division I program after a 29-year hiatus.

Dollar's enthusiasm quickly rises as he discusses the various challenges and enticing possibilities that lay ahead. He talks up the school's strong academics, the attractive Seattle market, playing home games at KeyArena, the talent coming out of the area, the scheduling possibilities as an independent team, the program's rich heritage, a possible all-access TV show that will follow the program on its journey and … well, the master recruiter is no longer yawning.

[+] EnlargeCameron Dollar & Lorenzo Romar
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesCameron Dollar has taken over at Seattle University after spending the last seven years as an assistant on Lorenzo Romar's staff at Washington.

Dollar is selling the program, selling the dream, until you can almost see Seattle U listed on an NCAA bracket.

"When you're trying to sell people on your vision," says Dollar, 33, "they always want to see the hook. 'What's the hook? What's the catch?' What's going to be the thing that gets them over the hump and makes them say, 'I want to go try that'?

"Our current state and who we are and where we used to be -- all that combined presents a very, very good hook. We've had a No. 1 pick in the draft and 27 players in the NBA. We played in the national tournament. And all the people who would say, 'That was a long time ago,' well, yeah, it was. But we still did it. It shows that it can happen. And now it shows that you are committed to putting yourself in a position that it can happen again."

All this takes time, of course. Seattle U began the move to Division I two years ago but under NCAA rules, won't be eligible for the NCAA tournament until the 2012-13 season. Asked what it will be like to recruit and compete in the same city as his good friend and former boss, Washington Husky coach Lorenzo Romar, Dollar says that won't be an issue for awhile.

Just a week later, the UW loses junior college transfer Charlie Garcia due to heightened admission standards for JC transfers and the forward quickly accepts a scholarship to play for Dollar and the Redhawks.

It can happen again.

There was a time when Seattle U, not UW, was the city's premier college basketball program. The school reached the NCAA tournament 11 times and the NIT (back when the NIT still meant something) twice. In 1958, the school played Kentucky in the national title game, losing 84-72. John O'Brien, playing alongside his brother Eddie, was the first player in NCAA history to score 1,000 points in a season. The O'Brien brothers are just two of the 27 Seattle U players drafted by the NBA, including the great Elgin Baylor, whom the school recruited from all the way across the continent.

For crying out loud, Seattle U even beat the Harlem Globetrotters -- John O'Brien still has the game ball -- and how many schools can say that?

The school dropped basketball as a Division I sport in 1980, however, during a severe budget crisis, choosing to run it as a Division II program instead. About eight years ago the school began thinking seriously about getting back into the big leagues again. Athletic director Bill Hogan estimates the cost of going back to Division I as an extra $5 million a year and says it will be worth it. "We have outrageous potential. You can smell it every day when you walk on campus. Everybody is lined up. You have this huge market. We have KeyArena. It's just ready."

Joe Callero, who coached the Redhawks from 2001 until leaving for Cal Poly this spring, said that when he took the job he asked Seattle U president Father Stephen Sundborg if there was any truth the school might return to Division I. "His position as president was, 'I will not be in the way of institutional advancement, if it's the right move. Your job is to put program in position that it's a feasible move.'"

[+] EnlargeCameron Dollar
AP Photo/Kevork DjansezianDollar is no stranger to the West Coast both as a coach and as a player. He was a member of UCLA's national championship team in 1995.

The major reason behind the move, Hogan says, was to better promote its strong academics and attract students from outside the Northwest. Another reason was Gonzaga, the Spokane school and former rival 300 miles to the east.

Gonzaga, according to John O'Brien, was a bigger rival than Washington in the school's glory days and the Zags' extraordinary success over the past decade "had an influence among Seattle U people -- that we need to think about this, too." Or as Callero puts it, "When your neighbor builds a new house, you have to at least look at remodeling yours. You may not rebuild but you have to at least consider looking at getting a new deck and landscaping the yard. Gonzaga's success wasn't the reason but it brought up the conversation."

Seattle U's decision to return to Division I comes at a fortuitous time. The Sonics moved to Oklahoma City last year, leaving KeyArena in need of a tenant and the city's fans in need of another fix for top-flight basketball. More importantly, it coincides with a tremendous rise in local basketball talent. The city has produced such recent players as Nate Robinson, Terrence Williams and Brandon Roy (who graduated from Garfield High School, just a few blocks from Seattle U), with more on the way.

"I go back to watching maybe one or two players go Division I every two or three years and maybe every four or five years having someone make it to the NBA," says Callero, who grew up in Seattle. "I remember how big a deal it was to have Doug Christie go to Pepperdine and then on to the NBA. Now we have two or three kids a year out of our high schools in the NBA. It's a 300 percent improvement in the stock. Back then it was an occasional player reaching the NBA from here and half of them were foreign players, not home grown, like Detlef Schrempf and Christian Welp."

Few know the local scene as well as Dollar, who is credited with recruiting some of the best to the Huskies when he was Romar's top assistant.

When your neighbor builds a new house, you have to at least look at remodeling yours. You may not rebuild but you have to at least consider looking at getting a new deck and landscaping the yard. Gonzaga's success wasn't the reason but it brought up the conversation.

-- Joe Callero

"We've been untainted in some ways by a mass exodus of wanting to be an NBA guy," Dollar says. "Our guys aren't pimped out. Our high school coaches, our AAU coaches, they're not sacrificing the fundamentals or development trying to get quick riches. They spend a lot of time working with guys, helping them improve. So it's just a grounded system that hasn't been picked apart.

"It's not going to stop, either. They're only going to keep coming."

That's good because Seattle U will need a steady stream of talented road warriors. Right now they are an independent team, which limits what schools they can schedule and when.

"It's a challenge," Callero says. "We had to pick up games in Puerto Rico last year. That was a good gig coming in the second week of January -- when other teams were going into conference play we were flying to Puerto Rico. But we also were playing games in North Dakota and South Dakota. We had 18 road games, and only 10 home games. Those are certainly challenges."

Dollar prefers to focus on what opponents Seattle can schedule because it is independent rather than what schools it is forced to schedule because it has no choice.

"Because you are in that free agent capacity, it gives you the chance to grow even faster because you're not locked in," he says. "It gives you the chance for even more exposure because you're not locked into a conference schedule. You get to travel nationwide in January and February. You have the chance for games you wouldn't see otherwise. It's very, very unique."

Dollar says he will seek out opponents looking for an extra game during the bye weeks, perhaps lower echelon teams from the major conferences who are often shut out from TV. One reliable opponent is Washington, which recently agreed to a five-year series with Seattle U. Dollar says he also would welcome games with Gonzaga.

What would be even more attractive, however, is joining Gonzaga in the eight-team West Coast Conference. The WCC is a logical spot for Seattle given its location, former conference membership, old rivalries and its Jesuit background -- all the WCC schools other than Pepperdine are Catholic and four are Jesuit. The conference voted not to expand two years ago, however, and there are no current plans for the WCC to add Seattle U or any other team.

"A year ago there were real concerns about how we would affect the RPI," Callero says. "Our success last season helped position Seattle as a competitor that would not devastate the conference RPI. It's a natural marriage but sometimes it takes time to position it and make sure it's the right time."

While Seattle was ineligible for an RPI ranking last year, its 13-8 record in Division I games earned it 132nd place in the Sagarin rankings.

Elgin Baylor
AP PhotoEven though Seattle U gave up its Div. I basketball program in 1980, the Redhawks boast a strong history, counting Elgin Baylor among its alumni.

Asked whether he prefers to join a conference, Dollar replies diplomatically, "I wouldn't say that's a preference. You want to put yourself in a position where both are positives, conference or nonconference -- then you pick which one you want to do the most. I don't think you want to be in a position where you have to do it one way or the other."

Whatever the challenges, this is a role Dollar has wanted since he was 4 or 5 years old and saw the influence his father had as a coach. "The positive effect he had on so many people's lives, that was always intriguing to me," he says. "That was fun to see, a rush to see. To help them reach their apex, whatever it might be. That's how it started."

Dollar loved coaching so much he abandoned any hopes of playing pro to coach Southern California College at age 22. He joined Romar's staff at St. Louis in 2000 and followed him to Washington.

"If you were to come to a practice or a meeting, you might think he was the head coach," Romar says. "I gave him a lot of freedom here and he took advantage of that and continued to grow as a coach. He was able to do so much from his assistant seat, along with his own study of the game, there is no doubt he'll be ready to go."

Dollar has already won one national championship in Seattle -- he was the point guard for UCLA when the Bruins won the 1995 Final Four in the Kingdome -- and now he will attempt to get Seattle U into that position. Romar says he looks forward to the day when Dollar has built up Seattle U to the point where the Redhawks and the Huskies are competing head to head for the same players and attention.

"That's going to be great. That's the plan. You go out and have assistants that want to become head coaches," Romar said. "And if Cameron does what I think he will do -- he'll be a coaching giant, a coaching superstar -- that means we had a good man with us."

In a way, rebuilding Seattle U may not be so different from helping Romar rebuild the Husky program from an eighth-place finish in 2002 to its first Pac-10 championship last year.

"You get so used to selling hope when you have no signs of success," Dollar says. "People look at you and say, 'You're going to do what? You only won nine games last year.' 'Hey man, I'm telling you.' You get so used to doing that and believe in it so hard, that anything on the other side of that, it's like, 'Whatever. We'll get through it.'

"One thing I'm excited about is the people from the '50s, '60s and '70s are so fired up. They're not crazy, 'Let's go win it all!', they're just fired up to be in the game again, to be acknowledged, to be represented. It's kind of like a badge of honor for them. We did so many great things before and to not even be around is very disappointing. Now we're coming back."

Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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