Learning to Fly, Part 2

How the bright, young Cameron Dollar became head coach of Seattle U's soon-to-be Division-I basketball team.
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Redhawks' Head Coach Cameron Dollar. Image courtesy of Seattle U athletic dept.

With the arguable exceptions of the president and the athletic director, the coach of the men's basketball team is the most visible employee at Seattle University. So, when Joe Callero left to take the same job at Cal Poly in 2009 after leading the Redhawks' basketball program back to Division I, the decision of finding a replacement was crucial. As it turned out, AD Bill Hogan didn't need to look any farther than the city's other Division I program.

Seattle U and the University of Washington are separated by less than three and a half miles, but a larger gap grew between the two basketball teams in the decades since Seattle U basketball dominated the rivalry in the 1960s. As Seattle U began the process of returning to the D-I, the Huskies were simultaneously developing into a Pac-10 force. Cameron Dollar played a key role in that transformation. Dollar followed Lorenzo Romar from St. Louis University to Washington as lead assistant, helping his mentor turn around a struggling program.

The Husky athletic department has been a helpful partner in the Redhawks' transition, agreeing early on to a home-and-home basketball series. Hogan has also found promising talent on Washington's nearby campus, luring five coaches and staff members, including the current head coach of the baseball team, away from the Huskies with bigger opportunities. By the time Hogan conducted his search for a new basketball coach, Dollar had established himself as a coach on the rise. In his early thirties, he already had a decade of experience as an assistant coach. Proven as a recruiter and motivator, Dollar was a finalist for several head coaching jobs. Those factors helped Hogan make the decision to bring Dollar across town.

"It's kind of a gut feeling," Hogan says. "I haven't hired many head coaches in my career that didn't have head coaching experience. In this transitional period, because we don't really have enough players, getting a recruiter was a key part of it. Coaches who really do well capture the hearts of the people that they lead. I'd describe him that way. He has that kind of personality."

Now 36, Dollar is still one of the youngest coaches in Division I. He can relate to his players; he picks out the rap music that plays during pregame warmups. Yet, like the Seattle U basketball team, Dollar has built on a solid traditional base. There's a throwback feel to his philosophy, which Dollar came by honestly—he absorbed the basics by growing up watching his dad, Donald, coach high school hoops in Atlanta.

"As I see it," says director of basketball operations Mike Jones, "he is steeped in old-school history and knowledge, but because he's so young he has this magnetic personality. He just gets players. Players gravitate toward him because he's a player's coach. I tell him, 'I'm looking at a young man, but your mind says you've been here.'"

For as long as he can remember, Dollar wanted to be a coach. He grew up in the gym with his dad, who has joined his coaching staff at Seattle U, and his brother, Chad, an assistant coach at Georgia Tech. Donald Dollar spent his summers working basketball camps, including the famed B/C Camp for top high-school prospects in the Midwest. Cameron tagged along for his summer vacations, and he was already thinking like a coach. He remembers telling a teenaged Shawn Kemp—who has served as a guest commentator on Seattle U radio broadcasts—"You're talented, but you're undisciplined."

First, Dollar was a player himself, and a damned good one. He went across the country to play for UCLA because his goal was to win a championship, which he accomplished as a sophomore. He was ready when starting point guard Tyus Edney suffered a wrist injury, thrusting Dollar into the lineup for the championship game (played, fittingly, in Seattle at the Kingdome). Edney started but lasted barely three minutes, leaving Dollar to stare down defending champion Arkansas' fearsome “40 Minutes of Hell” pressure defense. Dollar played 36 minutes and turned the ball over just three times, handing out eight assists as UCLA won 89-78 for its first NCAA title since John Wooden's retirement.

After two years as a starter, Dollar prepared for the next chapter of his career. Though the NBA was an unlikely possibility, Dollar had offers to play overseas. Having already graduated, he was training for summer workouts when a phone call in his dorm room changed his plans. On the other end, new UC Irvine head coach Pat Douglass—who had never met Dollar but heard about his interest in coaching—offered Dollar a job on his staff. "As soon as I hung up," remembers Dollar, "I said, 'Wow. I think I'm done playing.' I went down there and looked at it. He didn't have to do anything. I was done."

Dollar spent a year at UC Irvine and one more as the head coach at the NAIA Southern California College, where he coached kids barely younger than he was, before connecting with Romar. In time, the partnership proved an ideal match of contrasting personalities. Romar, who had coached Dollar as an assistant under Jim Harrick at UCLA, needed his stern presence as a taskmaster. In turn, Dollar improved his ability to build relationships with his players thanks to Romar's highly personal approach. Together, after two seasons at Saint Louis and a brief rebuilding period with their new program, they took Washington to four NCAA tournaments, including a No. 1 seed in 2005.

All along, Dollar knew he wanted to run his own Division I team. He didn't expect that opportunity to come from across town. In fact, Dollar had to be convinced Seattle U was the right fit. "Initially, I didn't know much about it," he says. "What I knew about it didn't strike a lot of interest. It wasn't until I talked to Bill Hogan that I began to really understand what they were trying to do and how they were trying to do it. Then I came over here and I talked to the vice president, Tim Leary, and I talked to Fr. Sundborg, the president of the school, and that's when I realized they were serious about having a nationally renowned basketball program."

Dollar took over at a critical point in Seattle U's move to Division I, just as the basketball team was preparing for its first full D-I schedule. The 2009-10 season started at Oklahoma State and featured two games against Pac-10 opponents, including Washington, and other matchups against top mid-majors. Dollar had to have his team ready immediately. Fortunately, he had been preparing for this moment for years. As an assistant coach, Dollar spent plenty of time thinking ahead to when he would run a team. The most important thing he determined was that, win or lose, the team would play his way. And Dollar knew exactlywhat he wanted.

"I don't think there are older coaches that were as prepared for taking over a head job as he was," says Darren Talley, who followed Dollar from Washington to become an assistant at Seattle U. "He had notebooks of how he's going to run a program from little tiny details like who fills up the water to who does (recruiting) mailouts. Every detail he had mapped out."

That level of preparation was a key reason why players like star forward Aaron Broussard believed that the Redhawks would not take a step back after changing coaches. Dollar inherited a team with key seniors who had successfully made the move up from D-II, as well as talented but untested youth. To them, Dollar added an unexpected dose of talent. He helped attract recruit Charles Garcia to UW, so when the athletic 6-11 forward was unable to get into school, Dollar brought him to Seattle U.

The mix produced instant results. The Redhawks beat Fresno State in their season opener at KeyArena, in front of Elgin Baylor, and won at Utah the following week. None of that predicted Seattle U's greatest triumph. On the road at Oregon State in January, the Redhawks picked up their first victory over a major-conference team since returning to D-I by a stunning 99-48 margin. Seattle U closed the season with eight wins in nine games to finish Dollar's first season with a winning 17-14 record.

With Garcia going pro—he's now in the D-League—Dollar faced the reality of trying to build a consistent winner. The Redhawks slipped to 11-20 in 2010-11, though they knocked off Oregon State again at home and went on the road to beat another power-conference team, Virginia. To add experience for 2011-12, Dollar recruited heavily from the junior college ranks this season, adding four JC transfers and two other newcomers from the D-I ranks in former Husky Clarence Trent and DePaul grad student Eric Wallace.

Higher expectations made the way Seattle U started the year all the more disappointing. The Redhawks lost a heartbreaker in their season opener at Portland State, giving up a late lead when the Vikings scored with 4.6 seconds left to play. Seattle U's schedule was frontloaded with games against NCAA-bound Harvard and Virginia and Pac-12 teams Stanford and Washington within the first half, and the Redhawks struggled with lesser opponents. At one point, they lost 10 out of 11 games to slip to 3-12.

During games, the animated Dollar can get so consumed with the action that he blocks everything else out. He claims he had no idea until late in the game that Seattle U was up 50 at Oregon State. Away from the court, however, Dollar has a more rational perspective that has helped him weather the ups and downs associated with the transition to Division I. His message to the team during the losing streak summed up his approach to running the program as it prepares to take a step up in competition in the WAC next season.

"I told our team the other day, our team is not in completion in the first eight games of the year," he said after losing to the Cavaliers. "That's not how it works. We would love for it to come fast and hit the ground and be rolling with all these new guys. We would love for it to happen. We thought we had it had a good chance for it to happen. It didn't happen.

"What do you do now? Just keep building your team. Keep learning how to win, how to play together, how to execute down the stretch, the importance of playing as a team and with confidence—all the things it takes to be good and to establish a program over time. You keep building that even if at some of the checkpoints you may be a little frustrated with how it is."

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