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Saturday, March 18, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Assistant Dollar has proven his worth

Seattle Times staff columnist

SAN DIEGO — Bleary-eyed passengers sit staring at the walls, looking like characters from "Night of the Living Dead." The light in the terminal is so dim you can't read your morning newspaper, but then your eyes are so filmy, you probably couldn't read it anyway.

It doesn't get much lonelier, much more desolate or desperate than a departure gate at LAX at 5 a.m., especially when only a few hours earlier your team has squandered a 13-point lead and suffered a shocking loss to Oregon in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.

But college basketball doesn't give you time to wallow in your defeats. This was another day — barely — and for Washington assistant coach Cameron Dollar, there were other games and, for that matter, other seasons to prepare for.

There was Dollar, before sunrise, in his sweats, at an Alaska Airlines gate in Los Angeles, on his way to the Tacoma Dome for another full day of basketball, for a chance to be seen and a chance to see into Washington's future.

"Got to switch gears, man," Dollar said in the hallway at Cox Arena before Friday's practice. "First of all, recruiting is 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That never stops. You may see a guy playing in the park and wonder, 'How big is he? What year is he?' So in the midst of your season, you're always trying to fit in recruiting as you are preparing for your own games."

After the Oregon loss, Dollar got back to the hotel at midnight. He slept fitfully for a couple of hours and woke up at 4 a.m. When he landed in Seattle, he went directly from Sea-Tac to Tacoma and watched basketball until almost midnight.

He saw Mount Tahoma play for the first time. He saw Franklin, Snohomish, Gig Harbor. He got another look at Curtis' dervish guard, Isaiah Thomas.

This is what a coach does if he's hungry. This is what he does when he wants to get better.

At age 30, Cameron Dollar is on the cusp. He's ready to become a head coach, and there are attractive openings at places like Idaho and Pepperdine. Before the NCAA tournament he talked with Idaho, but he said on Friday he won't talk with any other school until after the tournament. "The Dollar Policy," he calls it.

"I think he can run any program in the country right now," said Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar, whose Huskies meet Illinois today in the NCAA's second round. "I've given him our defense. He runs our defense. He's done a marvelous job of it. He just has a great understanding of the game. And he's going to be able to take over a program and function right away."

The game is in his blood. His father, Donald, was a high-school coach in Georgia for more than 30 years and now is an assistant at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Dollar's brother Chad is an assistant coach at Georgia Southern.

When Dollar was growing up, he would spend summer vacations traveling to coaching clinics and basketball camps with his father. Dollar and his father still exchange tapes from coaching clinics, still talk weekly about their craft.

"He taught me the importance of being prepared and organized," Dollar said. "He taught me to have a total overlook of the game, technically, but also to be able to relate with your players."

When he played at UCLA, Dollar sat in on Jim Harrick's coaches' meetings. He helped plan practices and talked with recruits. When he was 22, he became the youngest college head coach, coaching at Southern California College in Costa Mesa.

"If you're lucky you know there's something out there for you," Dollar said. "You know what's your calling, or what you're gifted at, or what God's blessed you to do. With me I was able to know real early that it was coaching basketball and developing players and teams. I know I can do this. It's kind of like old hat for me."

Dollar will get his chance soon.

Idaho athletic director Rob Spear told the Idaho Statesman, "Cameron is an awesome young person." And because of his Southern California connections and because Romar once coached there, Dollar should get serious consideration from Pepperdine.

And when he is interviewed he inevitably will asked to explain the problems he faced at Washington after the 2003-04 season. Dollar was suspended without pay for a month and the NCAA put his school on two years' probation because of a series of illegal contacts he made while recruiting.

"Mistakes were definitely made and Cameron didn't run from them," Romar said. "If you look at what he has done since then, you will see that he was just kind of overzealous at the time and learned from it and has bounced back.

"If I thought he was a rule-breaker, a perpetual rule-breaker, he wouldn't be on our staff anymore. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely. Is that him? No."

Dollar is a hustler in the best sense of the word. He's committed. Even in the dim light of a cramped gate at LAX, he was looking forward to another day, another game, another chance to help the program improve.

Cameron Dollar is ready for the job he has prepared a lifetime to do.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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