As a player and now as a coach, Cameron Dollar’s basketball life has been defined by being thrown into pressure situations and thriving when others would simply hope to survive.
Back in 1995, Dollar was a sophomore backup point guard at UCLA when, less than three minutes into the national championship game against Arkansas, he was called upon to replace injured starter Tyus Edney. Facing the Razorbacks’ vaunted “40 Minutes of Hell” full-court pressure, Dollar kept a steady head and a solid handle – finishing with six points, eight assists and four steals – and guided the Bruins to their 11th national title.
Three years later, Dollar became college basketball’s youngest head coach when the 22-year-old was hired at NAIA Southern California College (now Vanguard University). He would later serve assistant-coaching stints at Georgia, Saint Louis and Washington before being named head coach at Seattle University in 2009.
Now in his fifth season at SU, Dollar has been in charge of the Redhawks’ transition back to full-fledged NCAA Division I membership. The same school that played in the 1958 NCAA title game (losing to Kentucky) and produced a handful of NBA players (including Elgin Baylor) had demoted itself to NAIA status in 1980, and after moving back up through the NCAA ranks, hired Dollar before its first season as a transitional D-I program.
Recruiting is naturally a major part of Dollar’s four-phase plan to rebuild the Redhawks into a powerhouse. Here, he shares his pitch to the players he asks to become a part of history:
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The type of kids we’re recruiting now, they want to have an opportunity to play after college. They’re looking for exposure. From that standpoint, the NBA Draft was beautiful this year. You look at the kid C.J. McCollum going 10th, then the year before that you had Damian Lillard going sixth. Both of those kids came from small schools where they were given the opportunity, and from that opportunity they created their name and their brand. And as they did that, they elevated their program as well. As our program goes through those phases, this is the phase where a kid like that can come in and have his dreams met.
Now the next phase is going to be attractive to another type of kid — one that wants to play in a high-major setting and be on TV multiple times and be able to play in the NCAA Tournament; not just in the first round, but in the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight. With that kid, I’m like, “You can be the catalyst taking us from Phase 2 to Phase 3.”
The other kid I’m recruiting — and constantly trying to get — is the Charles Garcia type. (Ed’s note: Garcia averaged 18.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in his only season at SU, then left early for the NBA in 2010.) If we add one or two of those guys, we can pass phases. All of a sudden now you’ll be the reason we play for a national championship. And at this school, you’ll become Elgin Baylor if you help us do that.
So those are the different types of pitches I’d give from a basketball side. And with all of those, it encompasses our staff, myself … we’re giving you the white-glove treatment as far as how we take care of our guys, and making sure that we’re leaving you with a host of options. If basketball doesn’t work out, or if you use it all up and you want to do something else, now you have two or three other things you’re able to do because you went to Seattle U and you got a great education that stretched you and pushed you in a great environment that’s ideal for you to be able to grow and learn as a person. It’s really hard for you not to get anything you want to get out of this. It can be tailor-made for you. Regardless of what you want going in, there’s so much we can offer you.
How do you go about recruiting the player who thinks — or the people around him think — he’s too good for Seattle U?
Well, usually your pitch is to the kid that, all things being even, you’re not supposed to get. You’re recruiting outside your sphere of what you’ve been able to get normally. So with that, it’s important for them to understand how big of a mark they will make by coming here, and what that does to prepare you in all different areas.
For example, let’s say you’re a really talented kid, and you’ll have a chance to get drafted in the top 10 picks. Well then, typically, when you’re one of those picks, you’re going to a team that hasn’t won a lot. You’re going to a team that has a lot of younger guys. What better breeding ground then to do that in college? Prepare yourself to do what you’re dreaming of doing on the next level. You’ll have more opportunities to develop your game, because you’ll have less players around you that are getting the same pitch. So if you came in and you were a catch-and-shoot guy, as your game progresses you can move to point guard because your talent level is still high enough that you can make that move and there’s nobody in the way to stop you from playing point. Access to a wide range of developmental options is available because you’re the big fish in the small pond whereas if you’re a big fish in a big pond, there’s not as much movement. If one of the keys to you being drafted is developing a skill that you may not be able to do your freshman year, when you go to the big pond, now you’re locked in and you can’t move over. If you’re the big fish in the small pond, you can move all over the place. From a basketball standpoint, from a developmental standpoint, that’s what we would be selling.
Then you obviously sell leaving a footprint where nobody has ever walked before. The thing that’s great about Seattle U is you’re creating history every year that you’re moving forward.