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After return to D-I athletics, Seattle U’s journey back to prominence is still only ‘two-thirds’ done
No one said the journey, one that had never been tried before, would be easy.
It was a dark day for many local sports fans in 1980, when Seattle U — with a storied basketball history that included playing in the 1958 national title game — made a conscious financial and philosophical decision to downplay sports, leaving NCAA Division I to compete at the much-lower NAIA level.
More than 10 years ago, Seattle U began the process of reversing that decision, becoming the first school to return to Division I.
While there is agreement among coaches and administrators that the athletic program is not yet where they envision, they are resolute in making Seattle U athletics a success, from building an on-campus arena, to winning more conference titles, to finally getting back into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
No regrets. No second-guessing.
“I would say we are fulfilling the objectives of going to Division I,” said Father Stephen Sundborg, in his 22nd year as Seattle U president. “It has been the best source for making Seattle University known. I would say that Division I has transformed this university as much as anything else has, in terms of the improvement of the university over the last two decades.”
There have been some significant successes, most notably in soccer and last year in women’s basketball, but some trying times in the sport with the biggest impact: men’s basketball. But the consequences of returning to Division I can’t be summed up by money or wins and losses. There is a new spirit visible on campus.
“Ten years ago, you would walk around this campus, and you would see more sweatshirts from other universities than you would see for Seattle University,” Sundborg said. “Now, you walk around here, and it’s Seattle U, and it’s Redhawks. It’s our colors and people are proud to wear it, and that changes the dynamic of the university too, with the student spirit and the student experience.”
Still, the second foray in Division I is considered a work in progress.
“My view is we are about two-thirds of the way of where we want to go, in being in Division I,” Sundborg said. “It’s just a matter of us developing and recruiting … to get us where we need to go. We are on our way, we are fulfilling what we want to achieve, but we’ve still got a distance to go.”
“It was not the right thing”
Many were caught off guard in 1980 when the school president, Father William Sullivan, set up a task force to study the future of Seattle U athletics, which was running at an increasing deficit each year. On April 7, Sullivan made the decision to leave Division I, to de-emphasize sports and dramatically reduce funding.
He then delivered this warning:
“I am convinced that in the next five years, that we will see a massive movement of intercollegiate sport out of the big time. Every school in the West Coast Athletic Conference is losing a significant amount of money.”
Sullivan miscalculated, as the big-time exodus never occurred. But Division I was over at Seattle U, a school that had played for the 1958 men’s NCAA tournament title game and had gone to 11 NCAA tournaments.
Among the casualties of the decision was Eddie O’Brien, who with his twin brother, Johnny, helped bring Seattle U to prominence in the early 1950s and had been the school’s athletic director for 22 years when Sullivan made his decision.
“It was not the right thing to do,” Johnny O’Brien said recently about the move out of Division I, noting that some big-time donors stopped giving. “Ed and I kind of abandoned (the athletic program).”
A new vision
In May 2007, Seattle U applied for a return to Division I athletics, even though its former conference in Division I, the West Coast Conference, was unwilling to take the Redhawks back.
“It’s a huge task to go back to Division I and it’s very difficult, but we had wonderful people to work with — the coaches and staff were just superb — and we were all really devoted to making Seattle University athletics something special,” said Bill Hogan, who was Seattle U’s athletic director at the time.
The school president was all in.
“My conviction was that we needed athletics to be at the same level and quality as the rest of the university, and therefore we needed to be at the highest level,” Sundborg said.
By 2009-10, Seattle U was again playing a full Division I schedule, much to the pleasure of many Seattle U greats, who came back into the fold.
“Bill Hogan and (then) basketball coach Joe Callero talked Ed and I into coming back,” said Johnny O’Brien, who sits on the front row at most home basketball games and hosts the annual O’Brien Open golf tournament that is a fundraiser for athletics.
Seattle U found a home in the far-flung Western Athletic Conference starting in 2012-13, providing a pathway into NCAA tournaments. In its first four years in the WAC, Seattle U won 31 individual or team championships, but none in men’s basketball, which last played in the NCAA tournament 50 years ago.
The Seattle U women’s basketball team broke through in 2018, winning the WAC tournament title and earning the program’s first NCAA tournament berth, bringing the school great exposure.
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But for Seattle U to achieve its mission with athletics, the men’s basketball team needs to return to power.
“It’s paramount,” said Shaney Fink, who became Seattle U’s athletic director in 2016. “The success of the men’s basketball team is the quickest route to the exposure that you are looking for through Division I athletics. Men’s basketball everywhere feels that pressure.”
Men’s basketball can’t support a program like a Division I football team can, but Sundborg wants his men’s team to “carry more of its weight.” He believes that coach Jim Hayford, who is 38-28 in two seasons as the coach, is the right man for the job.
“I accepted the job knowing the school had high ambitions and a rich history,” Hayford said.
There was once a time when Seattle U was nationally known for its men’s basketball program.
“When you say Jesuit university in the United States, you put two things together, cities and basketball,” Sundborg said. “Georgetown, Boston College, Xavier, St. Joe’s, Creighton, Marquette and so forth. It’s all big cities and basketball. Seattle U has the opportunity to be that.”
A new home?
The Seattle University men’s basketball team was playing many of its games at KeyArena before renovation on that facility began last year. That meant the Redhawks played all but one of their games this season at the 1,000-seat Redhawk Center.
Although there is a deal in place for Seattle U to play some games at KeyArena when it reopens in 2021, an on-campus arena has been on the wish list for years. That wish took a step toward reality this fall.
In Sundborg’s “Winter Update,” he wrote “The Board of Trustees in November approved moving forward on a comprehensive feasibility study for an event center on campus that could be the new home for our basketball and volleyball teams.”
“You want to bring out the best in your student athletes and the best in your coaches and in order to leverage what you are doing, you need the infrastructure to be a part of that,” Fink said. “It’s been great to have that (the Redhawk Center) on campus and I think that has created some energy, but it’s not a long-term solution to have a facility that size. We are in need of a long-term solution.”
Hayford said a new facility, paired with some big games at the new KeyArena, would have a great impact on his team and the athletic department in general.
“The big opportunity to fuel the whole department revenue-wise is a basketball team that sells tickets,” he said. “The opportunity to lift the whole university by having success with men’s basketball is something I really embrace. And that excites me.”
More than hoops
There are about 4,350 undergraduate students at Seattle U and about 350 of them are playing Division I sports, with another 50 or so directly connected to athletics (dance team members, managers, etc.)
Perhaps the most successful program has been men’s soccer, led by coach Peter Fewing. He led Seattle U to the 1997 NAIA national title and the 2004 NCAA Division II title. That success has continued at the highest level, leading the Redhawks to three WAC titles.
The Redhawks have won at least one game in three NCAA tournaments since 2013 and reached the Sweet 16 in 2015.
“I think it’s going well, we just have to keep growing,” Fewing said. “I think Seattle is very capable of supporting two very good Division I programs.”
Seattle U, as a private school, does not have to reveal its athletic budget, but the school helps subsidize the athletic programs, even with private donations continuing to rise. Playing in the WAC, with teams in Chicago, Kansas City, Orem, Utah, and Brownsville, Texas among other locations makes travel expensive.
Seattle U administrators go to great pains not to say anything negative about the WAC, but getting back to the WCC, which is much less far-flung, would cut travel expenses. And seven of the WCC schools are Catholic Church affiliates, and four, like Seattle U, are Jesuit institutions.
“The WCC is certainly part of our history and there is a lot of similarities in the peer group that we are looking at,” Fink said. “Every athletic director has to keep their eye on the landscape and know what’s moving and so that is definitely a conference that we keep our eye on.”
In the meantime, Fink said her budget is big enough for the program to be successful. Sundborg believes money going into athletics is well-spent.
“There is a benefit to the university in the way it has transformed our student body, just by the student athletes,” he said.