Passion for the game, life experiences and family drive Cameron Dollar
New head coach of men's basketball, Cameron Dollar.
Photos by Chris Joseph Taylor
Sports writer Dan Raley, who spent more than 29 years covering the sports scene for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, profiles Seattle U’s new head coach of men’s basketball, Cameron Dollar, and gleans insight into the man tasked with cultivating a team for success at the highest level of college play—Division I.
Cell phone pressed to his ear, Cameron Dollar crosses the intersection of 14th Avenue and East Cherry Street and enters the Connolly Center in full stride, chatting so loudly his high-pitched voice, mixed with a hint of a Southern accent, can be heard a half-block away.
This is someone expected to take his considerable charm and vitality and use it to elevate Seattle University’s men’s basketball program to national prominence.
This is a 33-year-old man, born in Atlanta, educated in Los Angeles and anchored to Seattle, whose résúme doesn’t begin to tell his story. His life-changing milestones remind one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: In order, the former University of Washington assistant coach and now head coach of SU’s men’s basketball has persevered in the face of adversity. He's overcome obstacles to become a success story.
“This job is a challenge for him and he realizes that,” says Huskies men’s basketball Coach Lorenzo Romar, Dollar’s employer for the past decade at two schools. “His whole life has been a challenge. Nothing has come easy for him.”
Dollar’s life has fluctuated wildly between highs and lows. As a student-athlete, he helped his team to a national championship at UCLA, proving to be the difference between a title-game victory and defeat. And he accepted the challenge to take a Seattle University program from the ground level and make it highly competitive in Division I again.
“I don’t do this for fame or fortune; I do it for the kids and to be as competitive as I can be,” Dollar says. “Is it a hard road here? Is it a long road? It can be. Those are the realities.”
Seattle U basketball and its winning coach seem made for each other. Cameron Dollar couldn’t be more ready.
No event in his life has been more cold and cruel for him than the death of his mother in 1980. He was four years old when Faye Dollar left the family’s southwest Atlanta home to buy some milk and never returned. A few days later, she was discovered downtown in the trunk of a car, murdered. The crime has never been solved.
From that day on, Cameron and his older brother, Chad, became full-fledged coach’s sons. They were raised solely by their father, Donald, one of Atlanta’s most prominent high school basketball coaches and more recently, an assistant coach at the University of West Georgia. They were put on the fast track to become coaches themselves, with Chad Dollar now an Arkansas State assistant.
“I was really hard and tough on them; I didn’t want them missing school or making any excuses because their mother was gone,” explains Donald Dollar, 69, who will be coaching alongside his son at SU as an assistant. “Cameron never asked about it. I don’t know if he was cognizant of it or didn’t want to be, but he didn’t let on.”
Cameron was almost too young to comprehend the loss of his mother. Plus, he says, his father did his best to fill the role of two parents and minimize the void.
“I remember the funeral and that’s maybe the only image I have of that,” he says. “My dad did a great job of roping us in. Because of how my dad was I didn’t feel I was missing something.”
Family is important to Dollar. It’s not unusual for him to greet his wife, Maureen, and three young children, Jalen, Jason and Giselle in his corner office and sneak away with them for a short break at a nearby park. Dollar wants to create a family atmosphere at SU, similar to what Dean Smith instilled at North Carolina, where former players feel compelled to hang onto the program. The hiring of his father, known as “Pops,” to coach with him, helps toward this goal. Father-son coaching teams, in which the younger man is the boss, are rare for Division I teams. Auburn Coach Jeff Lebo has his dad, Dave, on his staff. New Mexico Coach Steve Alford employed his father, Sam, at his previous stop, Iowa.
At Seattle U, Donald Dollar will do everything required of most college assistants: recruiting, scouting and mentoring, if not provide more hands-on coaching than most assistants.
“To put it simple, he’s good,” Cameron says of his father. “He’s an established veteran in his field. He’s done it for 46 years. There aren’t going to be a whole of experiences he hasn’t been through. You want to have people who understand how to get it done.”
“He doesn’t have to worry about dad taking over,” Donald says. “He’s going to be the guy. He’s strong-willed. We kind of see eye-to-eye on things.”
“I wanted to take a job where I could stay forever,” Dollar says. At Seattle U, he sees that now as a real possibility.
This is something Cameron knows well, as his father was his coach while a sophomore at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta. Cameron was the starting point guard, playing on a team that advanced to the Georgia state championship game before losing. Yet once the year was over, Donald left coaching briefly to become a school administrator and Cameron was sent off to a pair of Maryland prep schools to enhance his college recruiting opportunities. The youngest Dollar lived in the home of his prep school coach and attended Sunday services at a Baptist church, something he hadn’t done since his mother died. Define your life, the man behind the pulpit urged one day, and a teenaged Cameron Dollar sat up straighter and listened closer. Find out who you are through Christ, the minister implored, and Dollar let the words tug at his soul. Make a public commitment, right here, right now, the preacher challenged, and Dollar got out of his seat and walked to the front of the church.
“I became a Christian,” Dollar says. “That has been the biggest reason for my development, without a doubt.”
His basketball world also evolved in a healthy manner. Dollar was set to accept a scholarship offer from Temple when UCLA spotted him on the court at St. John’s at Prospect Hall prep school, grabbing teammates’ jerseys, playing harder than everyone else and taking charge on the floor. Dollar was even more impressive on his recruiting trip to Los Angeles. He wore a coat and tie and asked a lot of questions. He requested to occasionally sit in on coaches’ meetings because he wanted to follow that career path. And he sought a private meeting with UCLA’s Athletic Director Pete Dalis. “That was unbelievable for a high school kid,” says the UW’s Romar, who at the time was a UCLA assistant. “The athletic director later said, ‘I like this kid. I’ve never seen him play and I don’t know how good he is, but I hope we get him.’”
“I just wanted to meet the owner of the shop, sit down and look him in the eye and if I could do that I could get a pretty good handle on things,” Dollar says.
Dollar’s time on the UCLA team worked out well. In 1995, the Bruins won the NCAA championship by beating Arkansas 89-78 at Seattle’s Kingdome. While Dollar considered a move to the NBA, a logical next step, a phone call changed everything.
Months earlier, Dollar had watched on TV as Pat Douglass coached Cal State-Bakersfield to a third NCAA Division II national championship. UCLA teammate J.R. Henderson remarked that he could play for that coach. Now Douglass was on the line, asking Dollar to join his coaching staff at a new job at UC-Irvine. “When I hung up the phone, I was done as a player,” says Dollar.
Dollar stayed one season at UC-Irvine. With Douglass’ help, he became head coach at a nearby NAIA school, Southern California College, now Vanguard University. At 22, Dollar was the nation’s youngest college head and younger than some of its players. Before long there was another call, another opportunity. Jim Harrick, his UCLA coach, asked Dollar to join him as a third assistant at his new job, Georgia. Dollar saw a chance to go home and advance his career.
“It was the first time I made a bad move,” Dollar says of his decision to leave Vanguard. “Nothing against Georgia, but I missed Vanguard. I missed teaching.”
Dollar didn’t last through the summer at Georgia. Romar called and persuaded him to come to St. Louis. Three years later, they moved to Washington and the UW together, marking the start of seven solid years as assistant coach to Romar’s Huskies.
When SU went looking for a head coach after Joe Callero left for a job at Cal Poly, Dollar quickly became the top candidate. Romar called on his behalf. Others vouched for him. Impressed, SU’s Athletic Director Bill Hogan had an informal interview with Dollar while the two were at the Final Four in Detroit. A formal offer soon followed.
“He had a real good idea of where he was going and how he was going to get there,” Hogan says. “Cameron had a real sense that he could carry on what we already started here with Joe. He was just very prepared. He comes across like he’s been around forever.”
As a coach, Dollar admittedly can be feistier than most. Former UW players will never forget a memorable post-game tirade in which Dollar screamed his displeasure and threw things off a locker-room wall after the Huskies blew a big lead and lost to his old team, UCLA. Before long, he walked away to cool off. But he’s also someone who can supply a calming presence. He was at the forefront in offering encouragement and scholastic advice to Huskies guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton in helping them become academically eligible for the college level.
“He made you think you could do things you didn’t think you could do,” Thomas says.
While still getting acquainted with their new coach, Redhawks players say Dollar seems like a man ready to make inroads and is someone who has shared basketball nuances with them that have resulted in new discoveries.
“I’ve already seen progress in my game, along with my teammates,” says Seattle University guard Michael Boxley, ’10. “I’m excited. He’s taught me a lot of new stuff, new moves, things I hadn’t thought about before. I just feel like it’s a blessing to have him as coach for my senior year.”
He’s really trying to move our program up... He’s just ready to get after it. He doesn’t want to waste any time.
—Chris Gweth, '10
Adds senior guard Chris Gweth, ’10, “He’s really trying to move our program up, getting us more gear and more big-time games. He’s just ready to get after it. He doesn’t want to waste any time.”
On the court, Dollar’s team will be freewheeling offensively and play man-to-man defense almost exclusively. He intends to stock the roster with local talent, yet he’s already received calls from players eager to transfer from some of the nation’s highest profile programs.
Dollar’s arrival at SU is a strong indicator of a program on the rise. And it coincides with the team’s move to KeyArena at Seattle Center, one of the best-known basketball facilities in the Northwest. While the complete season will be announded later this fall the Redhawks will open against Fresno State on Nov. 19 at KeyArena.
Mens’s basketball and its coach seem made for each other. Each has waited patiently to move up. And Dollar, full of personality, spirituality, energy and all kinds of life experiences, couldn’t be more ready.
“I started praying last year that I didn’t want to leave Seattle,” Dollar says. “I wanted to take a job where I could stay forever.”
At Seattle U, he sees that now as a real possibility.
Get in the Game
Comment on this story and you’ll be entered into a random drawing to win a pair of courtside tickets to the season opener on Nov. 19 at KeyArena at Seattle Center. Comments must be submitted by Oct. 15.
Ticket information: (206) 296-2835.
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