Before Dollar's arrival, the once-mighty Redhawks were virtually irrelevant on the college basketball landscape.
Today, SU plays its home games in 17,000-seat KeyArena, competes in the Western Athletic Conference with a shot at an automatic NCAA tournament berth, and has scored signature victories over major-conference opponents like Oregon State, Utah and Virginia.
On the eve of Dollar's fifth season at the helm, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview with Redhawk Nation. In the first part of a three-part series, Dollar talks about the phases of his efforts to bring Seattle U back to being a basketball powerhouse.
REDHAWK NATION: Going into Year Five, where is the program now compared to where you thought it could be in five years when you first got the job?
CAMERON DOLLAR: I came into this knowing it would have to be done in phases. Phase 1 is to take it from ground zero to what I'd call the Big Sky level; where if we were playing in the Big Sky, we'd be one of the top three teams and have an opportunity to compete for a conference championship. Phase 2 is to get it up to the West Coast Conference, Mountain West level. In that phase you not only go to the NCAA tournament once for sure, but you're consistently competing to get into the tournament. Phase 3 is you're in the tournament and now you're consistently trying to get to the Sweet Sixteen. Phase 4 is you're competing for a national championship. That's my grand view of the construction project.
So I think we've done a heck of a job in Phase 1. If you go back and look at our record against the Big West, the Big Sky, those kind of schools, we compare pretty good. Even last year, in a down year overall, against that competition we fared pretty well. So that's where we’re at. And it's good because we've built it to where we can be competitive in that phase. Now we go for Phase 2.
Are you still at a stage in your career where it's fair to say, "He's a young coach. He's still learning"? If so, when do you become a veteran coach?
That's an interesting question, because on the outside looking in -- and this is just being me, with my makeup as a 37-year-old former player and an African-American coach -- I don't know if you ever from the outside get a perception of how "veteran" you are, regardless of what you do. If you look at some of the older coaches who I think have done a really good job -- the Leonard Hamiltons and Lorenzo Romars, for example -- I don't think they would be as pleased with their outside perception as maybe I would be. So I put those perceptions aside a long time ago and just do my job.
A lot of times, how you're perceived may not have anything to do with what you're doing at all. So why put a lot of time into worrying about how you're perceived? Spend more time making sure you're doing the job, making sure your players are being served in the manner they need to be served in.
Last year the team went 8-22 overall and 3-15 in the WAC. What is a fair expectation for this year's team as far as a win-loss record?
I think it's fair to be top half of the conference. I think we should be competitive enough to be top half of the conference. I don't know numbers-wise how many wins that will be, but being competitive against our peers and competitive in the conference would be a fair expectation.
I've talked to a few coaches around the WAC who are new to the conference, and they all said they haven't really had time to scout other WAC teams because they're so busy just trying to get their own program up and running. Are you in the same boat with the six newcomers in that sense, or do you have any advantage being one of the three returning teams?
I think we're in the same boat with the new schools because we're transitioning just like them. It's an interesting bag because, on one hand, we've done some things to get out of being mentioned as a transitioning program -- going on the road beating Virginia, beating Oregon State, winning at Utah ... but at the same time, we're still a transitioning program. So adding these new programs (to the WAC), it doesn't automatically put you on top of them, because we're transitioning just like them.
Utah Valley, we've played them before and it's been competitive on both sides. They're gonna be a formidable opponent. Grand Canyon, in a lot of ways, they're doing the same thing we just did, and you see how we were able to be competitive doing it, so I could see them being competitive. UMKC, they've been as established as any one of the newbies, so I expect them to be pretty good. Chicago State just won the Great West last year. We're all kind of in the same boat, and that's what makes it fun and interesting.
New Mexico State is the defending WAC tournament champion. Does winning the WAC this season mean going through the Aggies?
It's New Mexico State and it's Idaho, those two for sure. If anybody has a leg up, if there's anybody I would expect to be up there just because of what they've done in the past and their proven track record, I would expect New Mexico State and Idaho to be up there. And (Cal State) Bakersfield, I expect them to be there too. They've been grinding this independent route, but they've got some good wins. They beat us in overtime last year. But New Mexico State has a head and shoulders advantage over all of us based on how they've done the last two years.
The WAC is so spread out geographically. You've got teams in Chicago, Texas, California. I'm guessing that can't be an ideal situation.
I think it's fun, to be honest with you. I don't go into anything like, "I want to be like everybody else." To me, what makes it fun is what makes it a challenge, and what makes it interesting is that you're doing something not everyone else is doing.
So you're playing on the West Coast, but you're getting to go to Chicago. You're getting to go to Kansas City. You're going to Texas. You’re playing in other environments. From a recruiting standpoint, from a selling standpoint, it's a different pitch. I mean, you can go to a league and play where everything is within a bus trip. You could do that. I wouldn't say that's better than what we're doing just because you’re closer in proximity. It doesn't mean you'll have more fans or more rivalries. A lot of those leagues that have those close rivalries, they don't always sell it out or pack it out. And I think for a kid, it's probably more fun to be able to go out and travel and explore and be in these different environments. It's fun for us. In my second year (at SU) we played 19 games on the road, so we've been there before.
Do you look at other coaches around the country who are four or five years into their job as points of comparison?
You can't really do that, because each job is a different animal. It's not a comparative job. It's not like, "Hey it's Year Five, where do you think you should be?" Well, wait a minute. Year One, we weren't even eligible for the tournament. Year Two, we weren't eligible for the tournament. Year Three, we weren't eligible. So don't get to Year Five or Year Six and say, "Let's compare you to a program that's been eligible for the tournament for 50 years." There’s still a gap.
So your Year Five isn't the same as, say, Tony Bennett's Year Five at Virginia.
Exactly. And we’d all be crazy to think of it like it is the same. It's not even close to being comparable.
Look at what Grand Canyon is about to do. They're about to play a real Division I schedule, but they won't be eligible for the tournament for four years. Think about that. They're gonna play against all of us who are eligible, so they'll recruit the same kids, but they can't offer those kids an opportunity to play in the tournament. But what happens is that, human nature, it'll be Year Three at Grand Canyon and people will be like, "Well, why aren't you as good as so-and-so?" It's a whole different set of rules, though. You might have been playing against these teams, but you haven't even got to a point where it's equal.
I call it putting your transition goggles on. You've got to look at everything we're doing through those transition goggles so you don't get jaded. And then you've got to give credit where credit is due. You look at the guys we've been able to recruit and bring in here, and then think about being able to do that without being eligible for the tournament -- that's pretty impressive. So it's little stuff like that. If you look at it in its proper context and measure it against your peer group, it makes more sense.
It'd be like me and you starting a computer company and we're trying to measure ourselves against Microsoft. But we just started last week! In a business sense, maybe that makes sense. But then all of a sudden we're on the court and we're playing Microsoft year to year -- and maybe one year we beat Microsoft -- but that still doesn't mean we should be using them as the standard.
What's your favorite part of this job?
My favorite part of it is building a legacy. We're doing something that -- with how we're trying to do it -- hasn't been done before. It's such a unique opportunity to take a program through these phases and navigate the things you have to navigate from phase to phase. Enjoying the successes, but not resting on, "Hey, this is where we started from, so leave us alone and gve us credit." Nope. Just because that's where we started, this is still where we want to go.
There's an endurance you need to balance all of that and make it through all the difference phases to get all the way to the top. We've seen programs in each phase have success and not have success. Constantly pushing forward, that's a challenge. That's probably the most fun part of the job for me.