Thursday night, Washington and Seattle University renewed a tepid “rivalry” at KeyArena. A lot of things remained static; the Huskies won comfortably, which they always do against the Redhawks, and 6,163 fans showed up, a little better than a third of capacity, and that pretty much sums up not only the appetite of the fans for the series, but the passion for either program as 2016 bows out.
(We inject here an explainer: This blog will be primarily about Gonzaga, but from time to time, will also entertain notions on programs affecting the Zags, or on college basketball at large.)
Right about now, fans of the two schools -- and more important, administrators -- need to be asking, “Where’s this thing going?”
We’ll focus here on the Redhawks.
Seattle U. coach Cameron Dollar is a relentlessly positive guy. He told the Seattle Times almost six years ago, as the Redhawks continued a transition back to NCAA Division I basketball, that he hoped to bring a national title to the school “in 10-14 years.”
Well, that time frame has been trimmed from 4-8 years, and if Seattle U. is any closer to it than it was back when Dollar said it, it’s not apparent to most observers.
The Redhawks flunked the latest test against Washington by 22 points. That’s a Washington team that is now 7-5 and has struggled in many of the wins.
Dollar, in his eighth season, is 101-127. Those numbers aren’t especially damning, inasmuch as he took over a program in 2009 that had a lot of challenges as it attempted to reclaim some of the glory it knew decades earlier.
It’s the trajectory that seems iffy. In 2010, Seattle U. had an incredible, 51-point victory at Oregon State that OSU (then) coach Craig Robinson must still be trying to explain. A year later, Seattle U. won at Virginia, in Tony Bennett’s second year there.
Lately, there haven’t been many in the way of marquee wins for the Redhawks. In a 7-6 season, they have victories over the likes of PLU, Northwest and Great Falls. You hear snippets of talk about Seattle U. positioning itself somehow to make a hot run through the WAC tournament in March and steal an NCAA bid -- which is fine, except the real path to success has to be building a team with enough resume credentials to win an at-large bid, no matter what happens in the tournament. You don’t plan for lightning in a bottle.
In retrospect, the turning point for the program as it transitioned up was probably its failed bid to get the West Coast Conference interested in expansion. The school is a natural for the WCC -- Jesuit, urban -- but not without some basketball chops. Essentially, Seattle U. asked the league to put the cart before the horse back in 2007, when it requested -- and was denied -- admission to the WCC.
Shortly after, University of Portland president William Beauchamp told me -- in reference to the upgrade to Division I -- “That requires a lot of money, and it’s not something that happens overnight. As far as the West Coast Conference is concerned, it was a little premature for them to come into the conference right now.”
That left the Redhawks to join the geographically warped WAC, a league ravaged by football expansion. Instead of playing games against schools like Portland, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, Seattle U. tips off against Missouri-Kansas City, Chicago State and Texas-Rio Grande Valley. Gaahhk.
I can’t vouch for the struggles Dollar and Co. face in revitalizing the Redhawks. It must be difficult not having a major-college-level arena on campus, no matter that Seattle U. can tout recruits on playing in a place (KeyArena) that housed an NBA team. Most crowds there are skimpy and the college atmosphere non-existent.
Bill Hogan, then-athletic director at Seattle U., told me back before Dollar was hired that the school was staging a fund-raising campaign for a campus arena. But last spring, Hogan (outbound in the position) said that approach had been shelved, that the Redhawks were going to try to grow the fan base at the Key and use it for momentum to get something done on campus.
Absent a donor of significant proportions, that probably means the basketball team is going to have to stir passions, and in 2016-17, there hasn’t been a lot of passion-stirring. The Redhawks lost in two difficult double-overtime games against a competitive team in Eastern Washington, and they also were destroyed by 43 at Notre Dame.
Two years ago, Seattle U. bought a couple of games on campus in the College Basketball Invitational. By definition, it’s a third-rate tournament. But perhaps the Redhawks had to do it at that point in their development, and they won games against Pepperdine and Colorado.
Dollar’s run includes five losing seasons in his last six. Because he’s an affable, media-friendly guy, and because there are so many sporting objects of interest in Seattle that rank ahead of Seattle U. (including Seahawk OTAs), the Redhawks tend to escape scrutiny.
But that day may be coming, and he needs to get the property in order, because an inspection right now isn’t particularly flattering.