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Jim Hayford, Seattle and the WAC’s road to relevance

The coach bought into the Redhawks’ potential. Will it pay off for him and the league?

NCAA Basketball: Eastern Washington at Xavier
Hayford believes in Seattle’s history.
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Not that long ago, Seattle University was searching for a home.

The Redhawks had rejoined Division I in 2009 after 29 seasons at either the NAIA, Division II or Division III level. But they were having trouble finding a league to let them in out of the independent wilderness. Before ultimately joining a reshuffling WAC in 2013, Seattle was told “no” by several conferences, including the Big Sky.

Jim Hayford, on the other hand, said “yes.”

The Redhawks hired Hayford away from Big Sky-member Eastern Washington in late March after six seasons leading the Eagles. The program was on more than solid footing. EWU made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, won at least 18 games each of the past three seasons and produced a pair of honorable mention AP All-Americans in Tyler Harvey (2015) and Jacob Wiley (2017) in recent years.

But Hayford chose to leave that behind for a program with a 48-year NCAA Tournament drought that was spurned by the league he had begun to master. Shouldn’t the “lateral move” alarm bells be dinging?

According to him, they shouldn’t be.

“I love what I built there, but this isn’t a lateral move,” Hayford [told the Seattle Times in March]. “It’s not looking where things are at now. It’s about looking at where things can be. And that’s what drew me to this job. I see more upside. I really do.”

The particulars of the situation make sense. “Upside” must, in large part, mean recruiting, as Hayford moves from a rural to urban setting. And ancient as it may seem, Seattle does own an impressive history from the 1950’s and 1960’s, where it appeared in a national final and rolled out Elgin Baylor and a boatload of future NBA players.

Poaching Hayford may vindicate some connected to the Redhawks program, and that same feeling might be running through the league offices.

This had to be the idea as the WAC hemorrhaged teams during the realignment explosion. Nevada, Boise State, Utah State and others took something with them that couldn’t be replaced. But the league could swing for the fences, even if it meant a geographically-haphazard roster.

In came Seattle, Grand Canyon, UMKC, Utah Valley and Chicago State. All were schools in major metropolitan areas with little Division I history (or recent history, when it comes to the Redhawks). But the league’s auto-bid is like the golden goose, and could help cut into lucrative media markets, build fan bases and make recruiting inroads in the talent-rich home cities.

CSU Bakersfield did just that in 2016 by winning the WAC Tournament. The Icardo Center sold out multiple times this past season - something that hadn’t been the norm - as the Roadrunners built on their NCAA Tournament appearance with a regular season title.

“We’re the most talked about in the team in the city,” Rod Barnes said in a phone interview earlier this year. “Season ticket sales have gone up. It’s been a transformation, people have rallied around our mens’ basketball program. It’s obviously a great time here, and there’s a lot of excitement in the city.”

If this wasn’t the WAC’s specific intent, then it’s at least one route to a stable and exciting basketball product. Four years in, the conference has an accomplished coach buying into that vision.

It’s now on Hayford and the rest of the league to deliver.