It was a blip on the college basketball holiday landscape, one of those scores that might cause people to squint their eyes in surprise for a moment before moving on:
For the Cavaliers, the Dec. 22 loss was certainly a surprise but, given that it came two days after a narrow escape against Norfolk State, probably not a shock. It did end a five-game winning streak and it came at home against a school most of the 8,679 fans at John Paul Jones Arena might not know from the gone-but-not-forgotten Seattle SuperSonics.
“We took one on the chin,” was the way Virginia Coach Tony Bennett described it.
For Seattle, a school that played under the name Chieftains in its glory days back in the 1950s but now calls itself the Redhawks in its new incarnation, it was far more than that. It was evidence that the often-Sisyphean feat of moving back into Division I is not impossible. The rock may not be up the hill, but it is closer to the top than people may think or know.
“If you looked at the budget we have and the planning that’s been done you would stop and go, ‘Wow, these guys are serious,’ ” Seattle Coach Cameron Dollar said after the biggest win in his two seasons as the Redhawks’ coach. “We know we’ve got a ways to go, but a win like this shows all of us the potential that is there.”
In the past 30 years, more and more schools have tried to make the jump to Division I, tempted by the huge dollars that can be made by reaching the NCAA tournament. Of course, what most presidents and athletic directors miss when they line up to collect that money is that there are now 346 teams in Division I and 68 NCAA tournament bids. Do the math.
Seattle, however, is not your typical Division I newbie. It has, to say the least, a rich basketball history. In the early 1950s, Seattle became the first and only team to beat the Harlem Globetrotters, back when the Globetrotters played real games. In 1958, led by a pretty decent player out of the District named Elgin Baylor, the Chieftains made the Final Four, upset top-ranked Kansas State and then lost the championship game to Kentucky when Baylor was forced to play with an injured rib. From then until 1980, Seattle had 27 players drafted by the NBA, the greatest of them being Baylor, who went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Lakers.
But, like a lot of schools from non-power conferences, Seattle began to slip in the 1970s. In 1980, the school president decided the money being spent on basketball wasn’t worth the return and he pulled the Chieftains not only out of Division I but out of the NCAA altogether to the NAIA. Only in recent years has Seattle decided again to try Division I basketball after playing in Division II for several years on the way back.
Because so many schools want to go the Division I route nowadays in the hopes of becoming the next Gonzaga or Butler, the NCAA has made the journey to full Division I status — in other words, eligible for the NCAA tournament — a grueling one. Seattle is in its second year back in Division I this season and still in search of a conference. In today’s college basketball world, trying to make the tournament without being part of a conference is a little bit like trying to get the Bowl Championship Series presidents to listen to reason.
“We’re like the pretty girl who doesn’t have a date,” Dollar said, still glowing shortly after the win over Virginia. “We have a lot to offer a conference, but we’re not quite sure yet what’s best for us and they’re not quite sure yet if we’re best for them. It’s something we’ll have to make a decision on, but right now it isn’t what I’m focused on. If we continue to get better, the rest of that stuff will fall into place.”
Seattle managed to go 17-14 last season in Dollar’s first season but was 6-11 entering Saturday night’s game against Cal State Northridge. As an independent, Dollar has to take games — especially games in which the opposing team will pay the Redhawks to play — where he can find them. That’s why his team flew cross-country in November to play Maryland in the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament and then made another trek to Charlottesville six weeks later.
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.