Johnny O’Brien, the patriarch of Seattle University athletics, is feeling pretty good these days, except for a bum knee and toe that have him “bumbling along,” he says cheerfully.
Not too bad for 91.
“You know, I’m getting older,” he said, the mischievousness oozing through the phone line. “I’m getting to be a senior citizen.”
O’Brien hasn’t made it out to see any of the Redhawks’ men’s basketball games this season, but he hopes he’ll soon be mobile enough to do so. Rest assured he’s watching avidly from afar.
“They seem to be doing damn well without me,” O’Brien said. “I’m absolutely delighted.”
Indeed, the Redhawks are in the midst of by far their best season since returning to Division I basketball in 2009-10. They have high hopes that this could be the year Seattle U men’s hoops returns to the national stage in a way that hearkens to the glory years of the O’Brien twins and Elgin Baylor.
Johnny and his brother Eddie, who died in 2014 at age 83, led Seattle U to its first NCAA tournament berth in 1953. Baylor propelled Seattle U to the championship game against Kentucky in 1958. And Seattle attained the last of its 11 NCAA men’s tournament berths in 1969, before dropping down to NAIA in 1980.
Sitting at 16-4 overall and atop the Western Athletic Conference standings at 7-0 entering Saturday’s showdown with second-place Sam Houston, the Redhawks believe the program’s first NCAA berth in 53 years is a realistic goal. The Seattle U women broke through in 2018, winning the WAC tournament to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament berth.
That’s what the men have been pointing toward since their 30-year hiatus from Division I ended more than a decade ago. As interim coach Chris Victor said, “It’s something we talked about when we first started, making this university proud and our guys being proud of having Seattle U on their chest.”
That their surge is happening in a season that started with such disruption makes it even more remarkable. Fifth-year coach Jim Hayford resigned under pressure Nov. 11, six days after being placed on administrative leave for allegedly twice repeating a racial slur. Victor, an assistant on Hayford’s staff, was put formally in charge just a day before the season opener.
“Through that situation, our guys really just revealed their character, their toughness and their maturity,” Victor said.
The Redhawks won that opening game over Alcorn State en route to a 7-1 start, and they are riding an eight-game winning streak. Despite blowing a seven-point halftime lead in a loss to Washington — a breakthrough win the program still awaits — they rank higher in the College Basketball Power Index (BPI), at 122, than the Huskies (141).
“I feel like that definitely helped us come together,” senior Riley Grigsby said of the Hayford departure. “Because a lot of us were hurt. During that time, a lot of us were upset. But all the other teammates had our back. So that definitely brought all of us together. And pretty much we said that nothing was going to break us. Just stay together, and do everything for each other. That’s how we got where we are right now. We’re in a good place.”
Cameron Tyson, a Bothell High School graduate who transferred from Houston after reaching the Final Four last year, credited Victor for leading Seattle through the turmoil.
“I think he preaches the right things and requires every day that you come to practice with the right attitude and come ready to compete,” Tyson said.
In fact, the 39-year-old Victor is making a strong case to have the “interim” tag removed from his title.
“He just stepped in and led us,” Grigsby said. “He said, ‘I got your back. I’m here for you guys if you need anything.’ But at the same time, on the basketball court, he’s hard on us. He’s bringing the best out of all of us. He’s not looking to let us slack. I mean, that’s what you want in a coach, someone that gives you confidence. Someone that’s there for you. And that’s the kind of guy he is. We love him.”
Tyson, who leads Seattle with a 16.6 scoring average and is second in rebounding to Emeka Udenyi, sees the names “O’Brien” and “Baylor” in the rafters at the Redhawk Center gym. He believes this team can start a new Seattle U tradition by once again making the NCAA tournament.
“That’s been our goal since the summer,” he said. “I mean, I went to the NCAA tournament last year. And part of the reason why I wanted to come to Seattle is because the last time they went to the NCAA tournament wasn’t even in the 2000s. I wanted to come home and help bring that to Seattle and hopefully build a culture that can be sustained.”
Victor says the players are keenly aware of the basketball legacy at Seattle U.
“They see the banners in our home court here on campus. We’ve had conversations about it. They’re proud of it. One of the big things that we want to do here is kind of connect those two generations. The gap is growing larger and larger every year we don’t go to the NCAA tournament.
“If we are able to make that happen this year, or even just the success of this year’s team, regardless of the outcome of the season, to connect those two generations is important.”
Which brings us back to Johnny O’Brien, who is reveling in the new generation of success at his alma mater, more than a half-century after his reign.
“What’s happening is a start on the way back,” he said. “I have high hopes that it will continue and they’ll get there.”