It has been a long time since the University of Washington and Seattle University met on the basketball court. Back in the 1970's this game used to be one of the biggest events on the annual Puget Sound area sports calendar.
Every game between the two teams was pretty much sold out and front page news. While Washington dominated the series in its later years it was always a very competitive contest.
The rivalry resumes a year ahead of schedule this week because Washington was looking for an opponent to fill in for the Lehigh game that was snowed out earlier in the season and Seattle U was willing to fill in at the last minute.
Seattle U. is having a very successful first season by any standard playing a quasi division one schedule. The Redhawks are currently the top ranked independent team in the country and have a Sagarin rating of (127) which would place them only behind Gonzaga (13), St Mary's (50), and Portland (95) in the West Coast Conference.
Seattle U is in its first year of a five year process to climb back to full division one status which essentially means being eligible for NCAA tournament play. I find the rebirth of the Seattle U basketball program fascinating because building a division one sports program from scratch in this day of age is no easy undertaking. First of all scheduling games in January and February is extremely tough because almost every school is in conference play at that time.
I was able to interview Seattle University Coach Joe Callero while he was on the road in the snowy Dakota's this past weekend to get a little information on his current team and what it is like rebuilding a storied men's basketball program that has been dormant as far as major college play is concerned for almost thirty years.
John: I think it always tough to ask a coach if a season has exceeded his expectations because any coach has to have the attitude that his team is going to win every game. That being said since this is your first season playing division one opponents and you are currently the top ranked independent in the country would you say you were at least pleasantly surprised by your teams performance in 2008?
Coach Joe Callero : I'm pleased up to this point that we have clinched our 4th consecutive winning season and that was one of our simple goals for the season. Its the first time men's basketball at SU has had four winning seasons in a row in 36 years.
John: Your team isn't eligible for RPI ratings till next season but currently you are rated #127 in the Sagarin ratings. That would put you behind only Gonzaga, St Mary's, and Portland of the West Coast Conference. Is this getting the attention of the WCC as far as possible future membership is concerned?
Coach Joe Callero: We have a great athletic director (Bill Hogan) and President (Father Stephen Sundborg). I trust them completely. My job is to build the men's basketball program. I let the administration at SU make the decisions on what is the best fit for our University.
John: If Seattle University's RPI isn't a problem would a ten team WCC be perceived as too large since a team like Gonzaga likes to schedule as many out of conference big name opponents as possible to build up their RPI?
Coach Joe Callero: I will let you ask Gonzaga that question.
John: You graduate four seniors this season who seem to be the backbone of the current team. Are you going to be in rebuilding mode next season or do you feel you will have the talent on hand to keep improving on the performance of the 2008 squad against a much tougher schedule?
Coach Joe Callero: We do have a much tougher schedule next year with twenty-nine division one games. We have eighteen on the road and eleven at home. We have lost key senior starters the last three years and have continued to build each year.
Sophomore point guard Drew Harris has improved all year. Freshman Aaron Broussard has been a spark off the bench. We have two post players redshirting and playing well in practice.
In addition to that we return a top scorer from two years ago in Ricky Berry. Finally we have two scholarships available for the spring signing period. We hope to add a junior college player who can compete for a starting spot next year!
John: Were the current seniors recruited for Division II play or were they recruited in anticipation of moving up to Division I this season?
Coach Joe Callero: The current seniors were recruited to Seattle University as Division II players that saw Seattle University as a great fit academically, socially, and athletically. The seniors have been smart, tough and unselfish all season. Their leadership has set the bar for the next season with a full division one schedule!
John: Are you recruiting locally or are you looking around the country for players to fill out your roster?
Coach Joe Callero: We are recruiting locally, regionally, and a little bit internationally. Seattle has a great talent base for us to focus on. However, we are looking for students that fit our University and want to be part of building a program that they can be part of the foundation. We are recruiting the whole student not just a player. For us to be successful he must graduate, compete, and make the University proud on and off the court.
John: What is the biggest challenge you face right now when you are out selling the program to a potential recruit?
Coach Joe Callero: Our biggest challenge is identifying the students that have the self confidence to go to a first year division one program and build from the ground floor.
John: How difficult is it to schedule next year's full slate of Division One games?
Coach Joe Callero: Scheduling twenty-nine Division One games without a conference has been very challenging yet extremely rewarding professionally.To work with my assistant coaches this past year finding bye dates and creative home and home games with regional division one teams from the Pac- 10, Big West, Mountain West, and Big Sky conferences have all been helpful putting together a full schedule.
John: Can you tell us anything about the 2009 schedule yet?
Coach Joe Callero: We have big time guarantee games with the Oklahoma State of the Big 12 and Marquette of the Big East. These early games will help us develop the speed and toughness it will take to move the program to a new level.
John: How are season ticket sales doing for 2009?
Coach Joe Callero: Season ticket sales for the 2009-2010 season have been steady since the January 1st game against Loyola Marymount at Key Arena.
John: How do you feel about playing the University of Washington a year ahead of schedule to conclude the regular season?
Coach Joe Callero: I think the Husky game will serve as another reminder on television and radio that Seattle University is back! Another Division One basketball team in town that will play some NCAA tourney teams in the Key Arena. This should help with season ticket sales and recruiting.
John: Will you be playing Gonzaga anytime in the near future?
Coach Joe Callero: We do not have any immediate plans to play Gonzaga at this time. However, we have discussed opportunities to play in their tournament in the future. Scheduling is more about available dates than opponents.
John: Seattle U has a rich history. Are you getting a lot of support from former players?
Coach Joe Callero: Our basketball alumni have been outstanding! They have helped rebuild all aspects of our program...banquets, fund raising, attendance and recruiting. This movement to Division One has been a total team effort!
John: Your team moves to Key Arena next year but the school has plans to eventually build its own on campus arena. Is anything moving in that direction yet?
Coach Joe Callero: The Key Arena is a great venue for college basketball. Our January 1st game had nearly 5,000 in attendance! Gonzaga and WSU play an annual game in the Key to large intimate crowds. We will play in the key for the foreseeable future. We will let the program build momentum....then we can address an on campus arena issue at another time down the road. Key Arena is great for recruiting as well as corporate sponsorship. The players, coaches, and students love going downtown! Thats who we are ! We are part of the City of Seattle! "We are Seattle University!"
John: In my opinion I think you are one of the most talented coaches on the West Coast. Do you see yourself possibly retiring at Seattle U. or would the lure of a Pac 10 job be too hard to resist?
Coach Joe Callero: Thanks for the compliment! I don't think much about retiring or leaving Seattle University for another job. My goals and focus are week to week. I have a great job in my hometown. My wife and daughter love the Puget Sound region. Both our families live in the area. I have told our recruits that I will leave Seattle University if I get offered $5 million and the Seattle Sonics head coaching job. Now that they have left Seattle I dream of beating Tiger Woods heads up at Newcastle Golf Course. Hopefully Seattle University wants me to be the head coach for a few more years because I am currently a 19 handicap!
John: Finally Coach Callero how is your team going to match up with the Washington Huskies tonight?
Coach Joe Callero: John, UW is a top 20 team. They have great ball pressure on defense and outstanding offensive rebounder's. We must limit our turnovers and shoot a high percentage on offense. Defensively we must stop penetration and hope they are not shooting well. Finally, as I mentioned they are a great offensive rebounding team. We must rebound like five Dennis Rodman's to be competitive!
John: I want to thank Coach Joe Callero for taking the time from his busy schedule for this interview and we wish him and the Seattle University men's basketball program the best of luck in the future.