When Jim Hayford came to Seattle 17 years ago, basketball was the last thing on his mind.
“My daughter, in Kindergarten, was diagnosed with leukemia. and we came to Seattle Children’s Hospital,” Hayford said.
It was a battle Jayme Hayford ultimately won.
“She’s doing great. She beat cancer. But it took five years of her life, and our life,” Jim Hayford said. “Fortunately, Fred Hutchinson, Children’s Hospital, that’s something that brings hope to people, and saved my daughter’s life.”
Now, 17 years later, Hayford is back in Seattle, giving hope himself to a basketball program that’s struggled since its transition back to Division One.
“Are we an underdog? Yeah. You know, we have a rich tradition, but that’s before these guys were born,” Hayford said. “Honestly, if you look at the years, it was before I was born.”
In fact, it was nine years before Hayford was born that Seattle U lost to Kentucky in the national title game in 1958. Now, six decades later, the 50-year-old coach is tasked with the challenge of leading the Redhawks back to the NCAA Tournament, after he led Eastern Washington there in 2015.
“Fortunately my players were good enough that they beat Seattle U five out of six times, so when they hired me, they said ‘If you can’t beat him, hire him,’ “ Hayford said. “So that’s how I got into this seat, sitting at KeyArena, coaching a bunch of guys I love, at a school I really like in Seattle U.”
Added guard Jordan Hill: “You get to the NCAA Tournament, I promise you there won’t be any empty seats in here like that – that’s huge.”
No one knows that better than Hill, a graduate transfer from Wisconsin, who made two Final Fours and two Sweet 16s with the Badgers.
“I’m not part of the Power 5 school anymore,” Hill said. “I’m the little guy now, so that was definitely an adjustment, but it’s something I like…and sometimes being an underdog, I have the ultimate confidence in myself so I don’t hesitate or back down from anything.”
Added Hayford: “Nobody’s circling Seattle U on their schedule saying, ‘That’s a game we gotta win this year.’ And so we need to have that chip on our shoulder until we get to a point where, hey we are a big game for other people.”
The first step was an impressive 11-6 non-conference start. Now, the focus is on a successful conference season. But ultimately, it comes down to those WAC tournament games in March.
“That’s what leads to these Cinderella runs,” Hayford said. “You get teams that are hot at the end of the year. And so, I’ve learned how to coach that, and get your team peaking at the end of the season.”
It’s one of many goals Hayford hopes to achieve at a school without a football team – where basketball should be the top sport on campus.
“We want to be an attention gatherer that then shines light on the rest of a great university. And in college basketball, when done right, can do that,” Hayford said. “Look no further than across the state at Gonzaga.”