Adversity strengthens new WWU hoops coach
Nov. 9, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
by Jim Carberry, WWU sports information office
If what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then you won't find many people stronger than Tony Dominguez, who in his 40 years has faced physical and emotional hardships that not only killed his dreams but nearly killed him.
Yet now the man who never played college ball or was even a high school head coach, is the interim head coach of the Western Washington University men's basketball team, the Division II national champion.
"It's pretty amazing to get the chance," said Dominguez, who started at WWU 17 years ago as a volunteer assistant before moving up to assistant coach and then associate head coach the past two years. "Lots of (high school) stars get four years. But God worked it out for the rest of my life to be in basketball, not just for four years."
For those who have seen him grow since graduating from Western and coaching junior varsity at Nooksack Valley High School, this opportunity comes as no surprise.
"I have the utmost respect for him," said Brad Jackson, who coached the Vikings for 27 years before leaving in August to be an assistant at the University of Washington. "He's a man of integrity, he's very, very bright. And he's a total basketball guy. Whenever I left, I felt there was no question in terms of him being the next coach."
Director of Athletics Lynda Goodrich, a national Hall of Fame basketball coach for WWU herself, agreed, noting that the "interim" tag was only because the school did not want to go through a long search process this close to the start of the school year.
"We're lucky that we kept him this long," said Goodrich. "We always felt he was going to be a good head coach. He had his opportunities to go somewhere else. Now he has his opportunity here, and I think he's ready for it."
Without a doubt, Dominguez is ready for it. Despite the huge sneakers he'll be filling -- Jackson is the third all-time winningest basketball coach in the history of Washington colleges with the school's first basketball national title among his many accomplishments -- or maybe because those shoes are so big, Dominguez is looking forward to continuing the same success.
"I don't expect anything less than the national title," said Dominguez, who recruited most of the national championship players. "It's going to be hard, but it's always a coaches' goal."
The team feels the same way. All-star guard John Allen, one of three returning starters and eight returning letter-winners, said he was excited but not surprised that Dominguez was getting his chance.
"The timing is unique," said Allen. "We reached the pinnacle at the Division II level so the timing for Coach Jackson was great. Now Coach D gets his chance. It's great timing for the team; we're coming back with a lot of confidence, and we won't miss a beat."
The confidence to talk about repeating as national champions is part of what makes Dominguez a logical choice to succeed his good friend and mentor Jackson and to succeed in the high-pressure world of college hoops. But that confidence was tested several times in Dominguez's life.
Growing up, basketball was his intense passion --"When I heard the stars played four or five hours a day, I'd have to play six hours," said Dominguez -- and his dream was nothing less than to play in the NBA.
But it wasn't a lack of skills, a loss of drive or even other players that kept him from reaching his goal. It was his own body. After a good freshman season at Cascade High in Everett, he developed rheumatic and Scarlet fever, which eventually was diagnosed as rheumatic heart disease, a serious coronary illness. Doctors told him at first he had only 24 hours to live and eventually told him he had to give up basketball.
"That's not happening," Dominguez remembered thinking. Despite the concerns of his family, his physicians and the school, he continued playing. "It definitely affected me. But I was so obstinate that they let me on varsity as a junior."
A successful junior year gave him great expectations for his senior season. Then in 1990 after a series of events, including Hank Gathers, an All-America college player, collapsing on the court and dying of heart problems, Dominguez went from "hopeful" to not being allowed to play. "I was really angry at my cirsumstances; all of a sudden, your dream is destroyed."
He hoped to pick up his dream of playing when he enrolled at Western. But it was the wrong place at the wrong time. In March 1992, Western suffered its own heartbreak when basketball star Duke Wallenborn died of congenital heart problem hours after leading the Vikings into the playoffs.
"As a spiritual guy, I had to say, `I was done (playing),'" said Dominguez. His playing days over, he graduated, got married, coached at Nooksack and AAU teams for a couple of years and even talked his way into working at the University of North Carolina basketball camp.
"I was pumped to coach," he said. "I was going to be a Division I coach by the time I was 30. I love strategy, making the moves. I love to motivate the kids to be better."
He sent out 500-plus letters to Division I and II schools, and was rejected or ignored by 500-plus schools. So he told Jackson he would work for free if that's what it took to break into college coaching. "He volunteered and basically worked full-time for two years," said Jackson. "That was impressive."
When an assistant position opened up, that was all Dominguez needed. His passion and competitive drive proved so valuable that Jackson kept adding responsibilities: scheduling, scouting, budgeting and recruiting -- especially recruiting the past 12 seasons. During that stretch, the Vikings' winning percentage was .711.
"I love the recruiting," said Dominguez. "It's competitive. Nothing is more fun. I ask, `How would I want my kid to be treated by someone?' It's more than just basketball. I love relationships, and I believe in Western."
If that wasn't enough, he has coordinated the WWU Basketball Camp, one of the Northwest's largest and most respected, the past 15 years; directed the school's Parberry Strength Center the past six years; and been intimately involved in overall basketball operations.
With all that on his resume, Dominguez had several offers to be a Division I assistant coach, but there were no head coaching offers. Then after the years at Western piled up, even the assistant coaching offers stopped coming.
"I thought I was done," he said of his future as a head coach. "I asked, `What's my next path?' I felt I was meant to be in here. Our family is doing well, and it was more important to me to take care of my family then follow my dream. But I still wondered: Could I have been a Division I head coach or am I really just an assistant for life?"
Then came last season that changed everyone's lives. During the season, Dominguez got food poisoning and missed his first game in 17 years. That night, as he watched the game on the Internet, he realized he couldn't control life and decided to leave it in God's hands.
And the Vikings kept winning games, a school-record 31 in all. They won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title, the regional championship, and finally, in dramatic fashion, the Division II national crown.
"It was such a big deal, I was asking, `Why is this happening?'" said Dominguez, who represented the team at the Elite Eight press conference when Jackson was ill. "I thought, `Maybe this is the year.'"
But then came April and May and no job offers. Dominguez looked up and down the West Coast, but the few head coaching positions were all taken. So finally, the man whose dream was to be a college head coach said it was time to give up the dream.
"I told my wife, we need to go on a vacation, so we went to the East Coast to figure life out," he said. And while visiting Times Square in New York City with his wife Kristi, daughters Emilia and Madison, and son Dane, he got the call from Goodrich: You are now the head coach at Western Washington University.
It was a long journey, with lots of bumps and even dead ends. But it is what Dominguez went through that others think will make him a good head coach.
"Some of the adversity that he's gone through has strengthened him in a lot of ways," said Goodrich. "It gives him a little more empathy with the player that's struggling. It's not always the great player who becomes a great coach."
Allen, an all-star competitor himself, agreed: "You can just tell with him, when adversity comes his way, he just keeps going. He's not the quitter type. He can lose five straight and he thinks he's going to win the sixth game. When your dream is taken away you have to face a lot, and being able to overcome all that allows him to relate with so many players."
Looking back through the disappointments, Dominguez realizes they've helped make him not only the coach he is, but the husband, father, and man he is.
"(The disappointments) give me a tremendous perspective on life in general," he said. "I get the struggles. I talk to my kids, and tell them to put themselves in the shoes of others."
Just not in the shoes of the person you replace. Goodrich, Allen and Jackson all said if they could give Dominguez one piece of advice, it would be to be himself, and it will all work out.
"He's a great leader, who will embrace the responsibility," said Jackson, "And the team will embrace him. I'd tell him to relax and enjoy it. And without a doubt he'll be successful."
Q & A with new men's basketball coach Tony Dominguez
Alex Peterson, The Western Front
AP: Walk me through this offseason. You went from assistant coach to head coach of a Division-II National Championship team. How did that change your life?
TD: I've been here at Western for 17 seasons, so I've been here a long time and I've turned down a lot of jobs to stay local. And, quite honestly, I was kind of giving myself a timeline, because college basketball coaching is very demanding, there's a lot of pressure and not a huge salary. So, you know, for me, I was about ready to make a life decision of whether to stick with it, or to move on. And so, as much as I love it here, and love Coach Jackson, and the school, I just didn't want to continue to be an assistant coach for too much longer. So to hear that Coach Jackson was moving on, I was excited for him, very much so, but also very excited for myself because I felt like it kind of, I use the word rejuvenated, because it gave me a clear path for at least the next five or 10 years.
AP: How did you find out that Coach Jackson was leaving, and how do you think it affects the program?
TD: I was in New York on vacation, actually in Times Square, and Coach Jackson had called me because we are close, because I've been with him for so long, he hadn't told me about this in case it didn't work out, because he didn't want me to get all worked up either way. So I found out on a Thursday afternoon in Times Square, in August, and Friday I was hired. As far as how it has affected the program, coach and I took the program from NAIA to Division-II and really worked on a model, so I think for me to be able to continue coaching, or to be able to continue the Western family that we built, you know, we built our program around the concept of a family. So it's always tough to see a leader go, but he's getting a great opportunity. I think the benefit of me taking over the program is continuing the legacy, continuing the program in winning ways, in successful manners.
AP: What is the biggest difference between you and Coach Jackson, as coaches?
TD: Well, Coach is a little older...
TD: So he had been there, and done that. So he was kind of going down the mellow slope, where I'm a lot more intense and hyper. But, I think you always say that with age, so you know, 20 years from now when I'm 60, where he's at, I'm sure whoever is my assistant will say the same. So I'm a little bit more intense than he is. We have a lot of similar beliefs as far as life values and why we're in college coaching, you know, we're in it for the students, we're in it for the school, the program, the community, not just to move on and make a ton of money and make a name for ourselves. We're in it to be mentors and teachers, and that's our background.
AP: How do you think it's going to feel to see him across the bench when you coach against UW?
TD: It's odd. We're both excited for each other. He's always wanted to be in the Pac-12, he's always wanted to be making a high salary in coaching, but even though that's not our goal, and as I just mentioned, it isn't what we want for our lives, it's still a nice carrot as he is kind of moving into retirement mode. For myself, it's a tremendous opportunity moving on in my career. So it's bittersweet, where I'm excited for him, it's very odd not to have him around and I would say he would say the same thing. So to see him on the other end, I would say it won't seem real, to be honest.
AP: How do you feel about going against Duke, and Coach K?
TD: I'm a huge North Carolina guy. I worked the Tar Heels camp for 10 years strong, then I took a couple years off and now I've worked it the last couple years. I'm very excited to go, because, in my opinion, the North Carolina-Duke rivalry, those two teams in particular, is what college basketball is about. So for me, personally, this is a dream come true to be able to go into Cameron Stadium, not to take pictures or to relish in a rivalry, but at least to have a vision of trying to compete and beat the team that you've always hated over the years. (Thing about not wanting to come across as a jerk, blah blah. Didn't say anything, just trying to tell me what to write.) Coach K is phenomenal, the program is phenomenal. It will be incredible, the atmosphere, it's parent's weekend, the thing is sold out. I've had friends of mine from the Carolina camp that are trying to get tickets for me because it's impossible to get a Duke ticket. People that have lived there their entire lives, they're trying to get an exhibition ticket from a friend to get into a game that they've never been able to see. I think it's definitely going to be an experience.
AP: Did you ever imagine you would be coaching against Coach K?
TD: You always hope, you always wish. I always wished I would be in the Tar Heel blue doing it, but at the same time, Western is a dream job for me. So to do it with the school you have a lot of pride in is probably even better. You always dream big, but no, I think it's pretty phenomenal.
AP: If there is any challenge, what would be the biggest challenge in moving from associate head coach to interim head coach?
TD: Well I think this year, we've never had a national championship team to defend with. We've had great teams, but there is a huge target on our back. We've always had that in our program, we've always been everyone's team to beat, everyone's rival. Well, you better believe that this year is the strongest it's ever going to be. So the challenge will be to take over a program that you've been with a long time, that you feel like you have a lot of ownership in, in the success that we've had, but with the expectations of last year and all that comes with that. I think the challenge will be on managing everyone's expectations and trying to keep our guys focused on each day and on each task ahead of us, not the big picture, the smaller goals every day. Coach Jackson and I were together, like I said, we were together 18 years, so he's given me a ton of responsibility, so I don't know that the daily chores will change a ton. The last 10 years in particular, we've done a lot of co-coaching on the floor, I think it will just be the final say that is different. But Coach Jackson was so gracious, we worked together so well, he always let me have a say. So it will be weird not having that partner. I've hired an assistant, he's awesome, and we have the other guys involved and they're great, but it will be different. With everyone new and me being one of the only hold-overs, I will have the final say, so that will be the biggest difference, is to be solo on that.
AP: Even though, you've been an assistant here for 17 seasons, a lot of the Vikings fans might not be too familiar with you. What is something that you want everyone to know about yourself?
TD: I'm very competitive, very intense. Try to live life, each day as if it's your last. I don't really know. I'm pretty visible already, I do a lot in the community, as well as my wife, she's a teacher. We have a lot of community projects that we are involved with. I'm a spiritual guy. I'm a very competitive, fun-loving guy.
AP: How did you get into coaching?
TD: I had played in high school. I had a heart condition, not making that too big of an issue, but basically that prevented me from playing in college, which was hard. Basketball was an extreme passion, being a teacher was a passion, so I combined the two. Didn't know where that was going to take me. I coached for a year at Nooksack Valley to try to formulate an idea. Then Coach Jackson offered me a volunteer spot for a couple years and then that's how I got started.
AP: What is your proudest moment as a coach?
TD: The proudest moment for me, honestly I don't know if it's any one moment. It's when our former players have graduated, and seeing them do well in life. Truly, and I know last year was amazing, I think what really set that true was this summer, even though winning the National Championship was incredible and that's awesome, talking to former players and them with degrees and businesses and jobs and lives that are fulfilled, that's amazing. And that's why I coach.
AP: What did winning the National Championship last year feel like?
TD: I'm a competitive guy and so at the end of the game when the buzzer rang and we won, it didn't seem real. The confetti is coming down and I'm thinking, "Alright I gotta get the scouting report for the next game, now what?" I think that was the biggest question in my mind. For me, it was like, "This is amazing, this is incredible, now what?" You don't really realize the impact of that until a week or two later when you come home and you deal with the folks at home and talk to people around the country. It has such an impact on folks' lives because of the amount of visibility it got playing on CBS, national TV, etc. It proved your theories about basketball, makes you feel like you're accomplished. Makes you think that what you're teaching is the right way.
TD: We've got Richard Woodworth, John Allen, Rico Wilkens, Paul Jones as guards and wings that have had a major part in last year. Chris Mitchell was definitely a really good player for us and did some big things. Those five are going to play the bulk of the minutes. We can talk about those other guys coming in as well, but I think our guards and wings are going to be our leaders, so we're going to rely on those guys pretty heavily. We did get a few new guys: Anye Turner and Austin Bragg. Don't quite know what the other transfers or freshmen are going to be like yet. We've had a few days of practice and they're extremely talented, but I don't quite know where they fit in the puzzle. But Austin Bragg and Anye Turner will be the two new guys that will step in and try to fill in the roles that we had last year.
AP: You mentioned that there are some new guys. Are there any young guys we can expect to see big things from?
TD: We felt like we had an incredible recruiting class, and we didn't have a ton of money, not because of school, but because you only can have ten (scholarships) in the NCAA and we were at ten, but we spread that around. With that we were able to get four freshmen that I believe are awesome. Joey Schreiber was All-Metro out of Eastside Catholic in Seattle, 6'7" kid who's got a huge future, he's very talented. Dana Abe, from O'Dea, All-Metro kid. For a Division-II to get All-Metro kids, that's tough. Dana Abe is a special athlete and we're very excited about him. Jeffrey Parker out of California has won two or three state championships. He is very gifted and very driven, I think he was an All-State player as well. Then, Jimmy Keum out or Lindbergh High School is a guard who was first-team All-League, maybe even All-State and was just unstoppable. He was the one that beat Squalicum in the State Tournament, kind of had a legend behind him because the rest of his team just stood on the side and he went one-on-one and he beat them. So with those four guys, they're young, playing with older guys, they're very exciting and they're going to be the future of Western basketball.
AP: Total, how has the team looked so far through training camp? Are they meshing well?
TD: Yep, they're very committed, very disciplined. They're working very hard towards what we're selling as far as each day and not getting caught up because everyday somebody is asking about the National Championship, everyday someone is asking, "Are you guys going to repeat?" And winning the National Championship isn't just beating each opponent, you never know which opponent you're going to get, it's got to fall right. I felt like we had teams in the past that maybe were a little bit more talented than last year's group, but maybe not as mentally tough. Or, they didn't get the draw that we had gotten. Last year, every team that we got in the NCAA tournament fit our style to help us be successful in the game. We've just got to keep those guys focused, not from talking about repeating as National Champions, but our first scrimmage next Friday against Eastern Washington. Then from there, we'll talk about our intra-squad scrimmage, then we'll talk about UW, then Duke. If we take each game and each day, and it's very cliché to say that, but it's true, and that's what we did last year. These guys so far have done that. We just don't have a really meaty, super-huge center, and we didn't last year, so we'll see if that formula works again this year.
AP: Anything you want to say, in conclusion, to the Western fans and students before the season starts?
TD: Western is a special place, and the student body and the crowds that come to our games, the support we get is just amazing. At least in Division-II, I don't know where we would match that. And I would encourage them to continue to support us because this group of guys is committed to hard work and they're committed to playing the right way. I think that I would just want to give a "thanks" for how they've been over the years and then a "keep it going" mentality.
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