Men's Basketball: Adversity Strengthens New WWU Coach
Dominguez (right) has Vikings off to a 3-0 start.
Dominguez (right) has Vikings off to a 3-0 start.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

BY JIM CARBERRY (WWU Sports Information)

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - 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.”