Learning to Fly, Part 1

Seattle University's Redhawks return to Division I, and hope to fill the space left behind by the Sonics' departure.
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Photo by Erik  Badeau, courtesy of Seattle University Athletic Department.

The Seattle University men's basketball program is in the last season of a five-year transition to NCAA Division I. From the school's gym (the former home of the Seattle SuperSonics) to its legacy as a college basketball power decades ago to its promising young head coach, the Redhawks are anything but ordinary or overlooked. Yet Seattle U is still suffering through the lumps that accompany a leap forward in competition. In a three-part series, The Classical explores Seattle U's move to D-I. First up, the history behind the decision to return.

The NCAA's Reclassification Application isn't much different from a form you might fill out at work. It's an eight-page PDF, available for download on the NCAA website, that asks for details like school enrollment and a list of sports sponsored. Only once—the accompanying fee of $1.42 million colleges must pay to apply for reclassification—does the application hint at the world of difference between Division II and Division I athletics.

For all the NCAA's perception problems, membership in Division I is booming, so much so that the NCAA had to temporarily put it on hold, voting on a membership moratorium (since lifted) in the summer of 2007, less than two months after Seattle University finalized the decision to move its programs up. As recently as the 1992-93 academic year, there were 298 men's basketball teams in Division I. Today there are 345, and nearly five percent of those schools have joined within the last five years alone.

Seattle University is one of six schools that will complete their five-year transition periods and become full-fledged members of Division I in 2012-13, allowing them to become eligible for the NCAA tournament. All of them dream of reaching the Big Dance and eventually becoming the next Butler or Virginia Commonwealth, putting their school on the biggest stage in college sports. The one key difference with Seattle U is that they've already been there.

A History of Hoops

Long before anyone ever used the term "mid-major", this small Jesuit school was a basketball power. From 1952 through 1969, the Seattle Chieftains made the NCAA tournament 11 times and reached the NIT twice.

A set of twins first brought Seattle to prominence. Eddie and Johnny O'Brien looked more like the slight baseball players they also were (they later served as the double-play combination for the Pittsburgh Pirates) than stars on the hardwood. The O'Briens were undersized even by '50s standards, but their height belied their production on the court. While Eddie manned the point, as appropriate for his size, Johnny's forte was a post game that relied on hook shots against bigger defenders. He set an NCAA single-season scoring record and was a First Team Associated Press All-America pick in 1952-53. Johnny O'Brien also scored 43 points in a win over the Harlem Globetrotters. Still, his biggest assist came after his college career was over. When Elgin Baylor looked for a new school after transferring from the College of Southern Idaho, he remembered the national attention Johnny O'Brien had received as Seattle U's 5-9 center.

Soon after arriving on campus, Baylor would take the Chieftains to new heights. Given the way his aerial game transformed the NBA, it's difficult to imagine what college opponents made of the future Hall of Famer's ability to play above the rim. Seattle U went 22-3 in Baylor's first season, which ended in an upset loss in the quarterfinals of the NIT as the No. 1 overall seed. The Chieftains would return to the NCAAs a year later to face two teams from the Bay Area. Baylor hit a game-winner at the buzzer to win the first against San Francisco. In the regional final, Seattle U knocked off Pete Newell's California squad (champions a year later) in the Bay Area to reach the Final Four (which hadn't yet earned the nickname) in Louisville. Behind 23 points and 22 rebounds from Baylor, Seattle topped Kansas State to set up a matchup with Kentucky in the championship game. However, Baylor had broken a rib in the semifinal. Playing through pain, he got into foul trouble against the Wildcats, forcing the Chieftains into a zone defense to protect him. Kentucky won 84-72 for Adolph Rupp's fourth and last national title. Baylor was named Most Outstanding Player in defeat.

Baylor's success on the national stage and Seattle U's long history of integrated teams (referred to, long before NCAA coaches recruited internationally, as the "United Nations team" because of their racial harmony) made the school a recruiting destination for years. After serving a two-season NCAA ban for recruiting violations, the Chieftains made the tournament every year from 1961 through 1964. By the time Seattle left the independent ranks for the West Coast Conference in 1971, however, the team was in decline.

When the program was at its peak, Seattle was still a college town. The NBA's SuperSonics ushered Seattle into professional sports in 1967, followed by the Mariners and Seahawks a decade later. Suddenly, Seattle U found far more competition for fan dollars and space in the newspaper. The game was changing, and the school's president, Fr. William Sullivan, wanted out. In 1980, facing athletic department deficits of more than $300,000 a year, Sullivan deemphasized athletics and the school opted down from Division I to the NAIA level.

A Return to Prominence

Since that decision, Seattle University's athletic program has mirrored the development of the school as a whole. After Sullivan's austerity allowed the university to survive lean times in the 1980s and 1990s, successor Fr. Stephen J. Sundborg has overseen a bold expansion project since taking over in 1997. Construction is in progress everywhere on the school's campus in the First Hill neighborhood just east of downtown—a renovation of the library, new dorms, more classrooms. With Seattle U thriving academically, ranking among the US News & World Report's top 10 regional universities on the West Coast, the administration wanted athletics to match.

Slowly, the groundwork was laid for a move back to Division I. Seattle U's athletic programs, rechristened the Redhawks in 2000 in a nod to increased cultural sensitivity, rejoined the NCAA in 2001, spending a transition year in Division III and then entering the Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference.

In 2001, Seattle U hired Joe Callero to coach the basketball team. A Catholic who grew up watching SU in the '70s and was born across the street from the campus, Callero gave the program a face. Callero began reconnecting with the alumni who had drifted away from Seattle University during the decades of athletic exile. He also proved successful on the court, leading the team to the Division II tournament in 2007.

By that point, the Redhawks had already begun the Division I reclassification process. The last piece to fall in place was an experienced leader to oversee the transition. Enter Bill Hogan, hired as athletic director from the University of San Francisco in the summer of 2006 with a grand vision of success.

"I think the best way to describe it is at Seattle University there is no ceiling," says Hogan. "There is nothing holding us back from exploiting all of our strengths: the Seattle area, KeyArena, being in the WAC. Those things all add up to the possibility of building a monster."

In May 2007, Seattle U officially announced it was headed to Division I. A year and a half later, when the Redhawks made public their plans to play all games at KeyArena—the modern incarnation of the Seattle Center Coliseum, where the team had once played—Fr. Sundborg was able to declare, "We're back in the game, folks."

Growing Pains

Seattle U's history hangs over everything the program does in its current form. The basketball team plays on the Elgin Baylor Court at KeyArena, and the Hall of Famer returns annually for a tournament named in his honor. The athletic administration offices are in the Ed and John O'Brien Center. Players dress in a locker room decorated with photos of the school's legends, reminding them of the 10 NBA players who came before them.

Hogan is pleased with the early returns on his broad vision. Joan Bonvicini, who twice reached the Final Four at Long Beach State, has guided the women's basketball team above .500. In just its second season, the reborn baseball team knocked off Notre Dame, Oregon State and Washington. The men's soccer team recently brought back popular coach Peter Fewing, who previously coached the Redhawks to both NAIA and Division II championships before leaving in a dispute with the former athletic administration six years ago. Still, to the outside world, the success or failure of Seattle U's return to Division I will be determined by whether men's basketball can summon the echoes of the school's past glory.

Playing at KeyArena, the place the Sonics called home before moving to Oklahoma City, has legitimized the Redhawks. By agreeing to 2-for-1 series—in which a smaller program exchanges two road games for one home game over the course of three years—they've been able to lure big-name opponents like Stanford and Virginia to Seattle, and the Redhawks and Washington Huskies have resumed an annual home-and-home series. But most nights, even with the upper bowl curtained off, KeyArena's 10,000-seat lower bowl seems cavernous for Seattle U's crowd, which has averaged around 3,000 this season. The school provides buses to bring fans from campus, but the student section still numbers in the tens.

Part of the issue is scheduling. As an independent, Seattle U has been forced to schedule around conference seasons, which means few Saturday home games from January through March, arduous road trips and multiple matchups against other independents like Longwood University (Va.). Thankfully, scheduling will improve next season, when the Redhawks join the WAC.

When Seattle U began the move to D-I, the assumption was the school would end up back in the West Coast Conference. At the time, Hogan and Fr. Sundborg were open about their desire to join the WCC, a natural fit with nine private schools, seven of them Catholic, including Hogan's old USF program and nearby Gonzaga. Citing concerns about the potential effect on conference RPI, the WCC passed and opted instead to add Brigham Young University.

The Redhawks landed in the WAC, which isn't bad for a fallback option. While the conference's position in the ever-fluctuating NCAA landscape remains to be determined, few D-I newcomers land in conferences that can send multiple teams to the NCAA tournament, which the WAC did as recently as 2010. Hogan is insistent he likes the fact that Seattle U is distinctive within the conference.

"The WAC, to me, has always been a goal because you can be unique in that league," he says. "We're the only Catholic school and one of the few private schools. I love that marketing uniqueness for us. All the teams in the league have big-time arenas. When you see the WAC teams on TV, it's going to look pretty good."

"We Have to Be Great"

There's an opportunity for Seattle U to carve out a place in a major city lacking in sports options during the winter. While the NHL and NBA might be headed back to Seattle with a proposal for a new arena in front of politicians from the city and King County, for now the University of Washington is SU's only competition for attention from January through March. If the Redhawks can win, fans figure to follow. That possibility attracted Dave Grosby, a longtime local sports radio host who negotiated the broadcast rights to Seattle U's games and calls play-by-play.

"There's no question that inside the Seattle U alumni community, (going D-I) had a big impact," says Grosby. "There was definitely a swath of people that were disappointed when they deemphasized it. So yes, I think it's brought back within the Seattle U community, but in terms of general thinking, unless you've lived in Seattle for 20 or 30 years—30 years, really, at this point—it wasn't necessarily on your radar and it probably still isn't.

"I think a big part of it is winning. It will always matter in Seattle. When that happens, I think it really increases in cache or becomes something fun to do that maybe not everyone knows about. We all know that Seattle Center is built for basketball. If they could ever get nine or ten thousand regularly in here—which shouldn't be a problem, in my opinion, if they have some success—I can't think of a better place to be."

The responsibility for making this team a winner falls to Cameron Dollar, the former UCLA point guard and University of Washington assistant Hogan brought across town to replace Callero, who left for Cal Poly in the summer of 2009. Dollar makes no secret that his goal is to win a championship at Seattle U, and Hogan says he likes having someone who shares his big dreams. But they know it's going to take time to get to that point.

"I think it's no different than any goal or game plan that you have," says Dollar. "You know there are going to be some steps—a lot of steps—in the dark, so to speak, as you're building or grinding. We typically, we being me too, want it to happen super, super-fast. That isn't how growth takes place."

Eventually, however, everyone involved agrees that Seattle U has a chance to rebuild the kind of program it once had. To Hogan, there is no other choice.

"We have to be great," he says. "We have to be. We have to fulfill our potential. If we don't, I take it personally. I think this place has all the right pieces. Now it's just taking the time to lay the foundation."

Coming next: In building his program to compete in Division I, Cameron Dollar faces a major challenge. Fortunately, he's been preparing for it all his life.

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