Bennett “was willing to play me two-for-one,” Dollar said. “I couldn’t say no to that.”
Having coached at Washington State, Bennett will take his team to Seattle next year. That game, like all of Seattle’s home games, will be played in Key Arena, the downtown former home of the SuperSonics. The court has been renamed for Baylor and Dollar thinks playing at a big-time facility will help with recruiting. At the moment, the Redhawks are averaging almost 4,000 fans per home game.
Given Dollar’s background — he played in high school for Stu Vetter before playing on a national championship team at UCLA in 1995 and then working as an assistant at Washington for seven years — leading a startup program is a different world. There are no chartered airplanes for those long trips and a lot of the players he is recruiting are those who have been overlooked by big-time programs or started someplace else and transferred in search of more playing time.
“To be honest, I love it,” insisted Dollar, who is 35 and has hired his dad, a longtime high school coach in Georgia, as an assistant coach. “I don’t like losing, no one does. But to be able to build something literally from the ground up is exciting and it’s fun, even if it comes with a lot of challenges. Tonight was a big step because we got in a position to get a quality win and closed the deal. There have been other chances where we haven’t been able to do that.”
Virginia certainly helped the cause. The Cavaliers shot 2 for 20 from three-point range and spent most of the last three minutes trying to rally by firing up the first 25-foot shot available. When they did finally cut the Seattle lead to single digits, the Redhawks got nervous and missed the front end of three one-and-ones and then both ends of a two-shot foul. They survived because Virginia never converted after those misses.
“Luck plays a part in it,” Dollar said. “What we’re really lucky about is we learned a lesson about playing with the lead tonight and didn’t have to lose to learn that lesson.”
There’s a long way to go. Dollar insists that if the Western Athletic Conference, West Coast Conference or Mountain West don’t want his team, it can go forward as an independent. He might want to talk to some coaches whose programs are still looking for a league about how difficult that lifestyle can be for a program. After the Virginia game, Seattle had 10 days off before traveling to Pepperdine. It has only five of its 12 home games left. Virginia, part of the all-powerful ACC, was in the midst of an eight-game homestand.
But on a cold December night, the little guy beat the big guy, much to the dismay of those who came to watch what was no doubt seen as a walkover game for Virginia. Dollar knows Elgin Baylor isn’t walking through the door of his locker room anytime soon. But for one night, as he and his players prepared for a very long trip home, he could dream about some day coaching in the tournament he and his teammates won in 1995.
That Final Four was in Seattle. Clearly, there is still more of this story yet to be told.
Read more from the author at his blog, feinsteinonthebrink.com.