Seattle University men's basketball Cameron Dollar has a grand vision for the Redhawks.
A week shadowing a startup Division I basketball team begins, fittingly, with a basic act. The Seattle University players and coaches gather at center court for a pre-practice chat. Coach Cameron Dollar, eyes wide and dancing from athlete to athlete, fills the entire gymnasium with his voice.
“Let’s make February our best month,” he tells his team, which has lost consecutive games by 17 and 30 points.
“Forget about what’s happened and play to the best of your abilities. Forget about anything that has gone wrong. And when something goes wrong again, put it out of your mind immediately. Just play. All right?”
The 12 college kids respond in unison: “Yes, coach!”
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It’s Friday, Feb. 4. Nine games remain in the season. The Redhawks have an 8-14 record and no legitimate hope for postseason basketball. Even if they were playing better, they aren’t eligible for the NCAA tournament until the 2012-13 season because they’re a newbie.
Everything is against them, it seems. The system. The torture of rebuilding. Their own limitations. But Dollar, a hard-edged player in his UCLA days, won’t blink. His players have no choice but to follow.
Spend an all-access week inside the program, and the fight to revive a once-great team becomes astoundingly — and, sometimes, comically — clear. Seattle U. is truly starting anew, right down to an office that needs phone lines installed and walls painted. Dollar is the 35-year-old Renaissance man coordinating it all, a never-ending list of diverse challenges that only a former point guard could handle.
The Redhawks are set to play Portland the next night, and as they prepare, seniors Garrett Lever and Alex Jones meet with the coach and tell him they want to make the most of their final college games. Dollar asks them to be leaders and ensure their teammates are just as committed.
Practice offers the first test. During a layup drill, the lights go out at the Connolly Center. It takes more than an hour for an electrician to fix the problem.
“Keep going!” Dollar exclaims. “We don’t need lights to make layups! Half of y’all can’t see anyway!”
Dollar dreams the grandest dream. His goal is to win a national championship at Seattle U. in 10 to 14 years.
“A big reason I took this job is because it doesn’t have a cap on it,” says Dollar, the former Washington assistant who is in his second season leading the Redhawks. “Usually, guys like me, moving up, they take a mid-major job that has a ceiling. I wanted to make sure I took a job that didn’t have a ceiling. If we want a ceiling, we have to build it ourselves. We’re a startup, and I love it.
“I’m greedy. I’ve been competing for championships for so long, I don’t want to go anywhere that I’m not able to do it.”
He’s realistic, though. Three years ago, Seattle U. returned to Division I after a 29-year hiatus. But there’s nothing wrong with dreaming.
“When we make it and I write a book, I’m going to call it, ‘Pushing The Pebble Up The Hill, Baby!’ ” Dollar says, grinning. “This is a long process.”
Guess that’s his remix of Sisyphus and Greek mythology. The king punished Sisyphus by making him push an enormous boulder up a mountain. Once Sisyphus reached the top, the boulder would roll back down the mountain, and he was forced to repeat the difficult task for an eternity.
If Dollar somehow reaches the top, he should have no problems preventing a pebble from rolling downhill.
Complaining is fruitless
Dollar arrives at KeyArena at 5 p.m., two hours before tipoff of the game against Portland. He can’t lose himself in preparation, however. He is scheduled to speak at 5:30 at a function for the university’s school of business.
“I’m worried about the team’s psyche,” he admits. “We need to score, and it’s going to be tough against Portland because they’re physical. We can’t put our heads down prematurely if we don’t see the fruits of our labor.”
It has been an odd season. The Redhawks have lost nearly two-thirds of their games, but they’ve also defeated two major-conference foes, Oregon State and Virginia. It’s the second straight year they have upset Oregon State. In Dollar’s first season, the Redhawks pulled off the most stunning score of the college basketball season in that game, whipping the Beavers 99-48.
Improbable victories define their early rebuilding.
“Right when you expect us to dip our heads, we’ve been able to get a big win and keep plugging away,” Dollar says.
During his pregame speech, Dollar tells those gathered at the university function that he’s thankful for their support. He says most rebuilding situations start without any fans around, but he has been pleasantly surprised by the community’s desire to see Seattle U. — which produced greats such as Elgin Baylor, Johnny and Eddie O’Brien, Clint Richardson, Eddie Miles and Tom Workman, to name a few — return to glory.
“Usually, you walk around and everybody is like, ‘Oh, you took that job, huh?’ ” Dollar jokes. “It’s not like that here. I’m enthused and excited to have so much support.”
When the game begins, however, a frustrated Dollar can only watch as the referees allow Portland to play its physical style. Dollar complains throughout. The players dip their heads in frustration over receiving no calls.
A crowd of 6,111, the largest since the Redhawks returned to D-I, attends the game. Workman has his jersey retired at halftime. But the Redhawks lose, 71-55. They shoot only 38 percent before the robust crowd.
After a contentious evening with the officials, Dollar tells a ref as the game ends, “I’m gonna be here for a long time. We’re gonna keep doing this!”
But in a postgame interview, the coach doesn’t air his gripes.
“We have to get to the point where we can play through that,” Dollar says.
The coach sighs.
“Back to the grind. Just gotta keep grinding away.”
Contrition is a universal language
To hang with Dollar, you must understand his vernacular. It’s not really what he says, but it’s how he says it and the purpose behind his use of certain catchphrases.
If he’s telling a story about motivating someone, it usually begins with, “I was like, ‘Hey, man!’ ” To be authentic, HeyMan! should actually be one word with two split-second inflections.
He always refers to his team as “my guys.” If he doesn’t mention someone by name, he’ll call them “dude,” and he says it in a drawl that reminds you that he still has some Atlanta in him. He also uses “deal” where others might use “thing,” as in, “Let’s talk about that recruiting deal” or “I need to talk to the campus planner about this paint-the-office deal.” And every other sentence ends with “baby!” when he’s excited.
It’s 10:35 a.m., and all of the coaches gather for a meeting. After taking Super Bowl Sunday off, their day began at 8:30. Recruiting calls to high-school and junior-college coaches. Calls to other college coaches about future scheduling. Breaking down film of Wednesday’s opponent, Utah Valley.
Dollar and his assistants — Darren Talley, Yasir Rosemond, director of basketball operations Mike Jones and Donald Dollar, his father — all do a little of everything. For now, the head coach doesn’t want to make their roles too defined.
Their meeting lasts nearly 90 minutes. They discuss concerns with the team and plot strategy for everything from player development to the Utah Valley game plan to recruiting.
It’s a lively discussion, especially when they talk about the current team. The coaches debate why forward Aaron Broussard, their leading scorer and rebounder, didn’t score in the second half against Portland. They look at the game film and also notice that Lever, their best defender and steadiest player, missed several defensive assignments because he was frustrated. And Donald Dollar challenges his son to do more to get guard Cervante Burrell out of his seasonlong slump.
Most significant, though, is that the head coach tells his assistants not to show any emotion if the officials don’t call fouls. Dollar says he spent too much time griping against Portland. Later, the coaches decide that they’ll punish themselves by putting a quarter in a jar if they let the officiating get to them again.
During a film session at practice, Dollar admits to the entire team that he regrets complaining about calls.
“This is my fault,” he says to the players. “I messed that up. There is no more talking about the refs. It’s over with.”
Burrell sits in a chair and nods his head, inspired by the coach’s contrition. Looking back a few days later, he reveals that was a significant moment.
“That’s huge,” Burrell says. “Most coaches wouldn’t do that. They would keep making excuses. It takes a really manly coach to admit that he was wrong about something. It makes me want to admit when I do something wrong.”
If at first you don’t succeed, shoot free throws all night
On a wall to the left of his office desk, Dollar has what he calls The Vision displayed in an awkward place. The collection of photos rests low on the wall, near the floor. He looks down at it and smiles.
“That’s my cheat sheet,” he says.
They are pictures of basketball teams from three schools that he wants Seattle U. to emulate: Villanova, Marquette and Georgetown. All are religion-based schools whose basketball programs thrive without a powerhouse Division I Football Bowl Subdivision program anchoring the athletic department. All flourish within major cities and have won national titles.
“Usually, it takes most programs about 10 years to win a national championship, from the time they hire a new coach and rebuild the program,” Dollar says. “Add four years to that with us because we’re really starting all over. So, that’s why I say I hope to win a national title in 10 to 14 years.”
Dollar knows your reaction. He doesn’t care.
“I always laugh when people say, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re crazy to be thinking like that,’ ” Dollar says. “Well, I’ve been crazy for a long time.”
The coach leans forward.
“If I had been sitting at Washington two years ago and told you that I was going to Seattle U. and that we were going to win 17 games the first year, would you have believed me?” he asks. “If I had told you we were going to win at Utah and win at Oregon State by a ridiculous 51 points, would you have believed me? If I told you the second year, we would beat Oregon State again and beat Virginia on the road, would you have believed me?
“Don’t box yourself in. Then, if you don’t, stuff you would never dream would happen, happens.”
This day is about as far from The Vision as it gets, though. During an afternoon practice, the Redhawks can’t make their free throws. It’s getting late, and they’re still clanking. Dollar ends practice, but his players are stunned at what he says next.
He tells them to report back to the Connolly Center at 11 p.m. to shoot more free throws.
Just when it seems that you’re drowning in work, you’ll learn to swim
It’s game day, but Dollar’s schedule is full. He can’t just focus on last-minute preparations for Utah Valley. He spends the first four hours of his day in meetings with the campus planner, housing officials and marketing folks.
There’s so much to do. The coaches have moved into a new office, and the area needs a fresh paint job, as well as Internet service and a phone line installed. Dollar wants his players to live on campus next season, so he must arrange that. He doesn’t have a full-time secretary. Therefore, no task is beneath him.
“I do a little bit of it all, baby!” Dollar says.
I’m curious about one thing. In nearly a week of following the coach, I haven’t seen him eat.
“Yeah, I’ve got to get better at that,” he says, laughing.
Five minutes later, his wife and three children surprise him with a visit. The Dollars live a block from the Connolly Center, something Dollar wanted to do so that he could break up long days by spending time with his family. Once, as an assistant at Washington, Dollar spent a year tracking how much time he misses with his family during the season. He found that a 30-minute commute to work was killing his quality time with loved ones. He vowed never to do that again.
His wife, Maureen, wants to work out at the facility. So Dollar takes the kids — Jalen (5), Giselle (4) and Jason (2) — to lunch. Jalen wants Subway. Dad decides they’ll eat teriyaki.
“Hey, you guys are going to learn how to swim today,” Dollar says. The kids shake with excitement.
The rest of the day zips by. Shoot-around. Pregame meal at Buca di Beppo. Warm-ups. Game time.
The Redhawks play inspired to begin the game. They take a 15-point lead, but by halftime, Utah Valley trails by only three. During intermission, Dollar implores his team to keep fighting.
They do just that and win 63-57, their ninth victory in 24 games. Burrell doesn’t struggle in this game. He scores 15 points, grabs seven rebounds, dishes five assists and makes key hustle plays. Broussard plays a complete game and finishes with a double-double. Freshman guard Sterling Carter, who is still rusty from not playing basketball for two years, adds 14 points.
Afterward, athletic director Bill Hogan comes in to congratulate the team. The players yell and embrace in the locker room. Then they get quiet as Dollar enters.
“Maybe we should practice at 11 o’clock all the time,” the coach says. “I’m proud of you. Build on this, baby! Build on it.”
Twenty minutes later, the coaches sit in a room and watch ESPN. The ticker at the bottom of the screen shows their victory. Coach Rosemond pumps his fist.
Then Dollar’s oldest son, Jalen, knocks on the door. He trades barbs with his grandfather, assistant coach Donald Dollar.
“I heard you went swimming,” Grandpa says. “Did you stick your head in the water?”
Yep, Jalen says. He didn’t even need goggles.
It’s OK to breathe
Dollar returns to work the next morning and notices that some workers have come to paint the office. This is the coach’s first full week in the office since they moved into the athletic administration’s old space a few weeks ago.
It’s a slow day, and all slow days become recruiting days for the coaches. They’re checking the transcripts of prospects and calling for tips about hidden talent.
The players are off. Four of them — Broussard, Lever, Jones and Burrell — visit the office and joke with their coach. They’re not playing for the Big Dance, but this experience is meaningful.
“I always have little dreams about Seattle U. being on ESPN, nationally ranked, and there’s coach Dollar, still intense,” Lever says. “Then I’ll tell everybody, ‘That’s my school. I was there when it began.’ “
It has begun with promise, but there’s a long way to go. Dollar settles in for the journey.
He observes the painters as they survey the area with some crazy machine.
“You checking the air flow?” Dollar asks.
Everyone bursts out laughing.
“HeyMan!” Dollar says. “I’ve just got to make sure.”
There’s always something to check on, but progress is being made, slowly, certainly.
The pebble keeps rolling up the hill, baby.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer