Asked about the style of play that led to a .792 winning percentage and decade of dominance in his previous job, Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford pointed directly to his teams' ability to rank high in field-goal percentage, rebound well and limit turnovers.
“We play efficient basketball,” Hayford said. “What I’ve tried to do is play percentage and possession basketball.”
Hayford played the percentages and won. In fact, he’s never gone through a single losing season in 12 seasons as a head coach. Before Eastern Washington looked no farther than nearby Whitworth University in Spokane to find its new coach, Hayford’s tactics had enabled the Presbyterian school to methodically emerge as a Division III powerhouse and make an Elite Eight appearance last season.
Success for the 44-year-old Hayford might not come easily at an Eagles program that last made the NCAA tournament in 2004. But then again, he’s accustomed to improbability. After all, it has defined his rise to Division I head coach.
It’s rare for a Division III coach with no Division I experience to get such an opportunity. Perhaps it’s even more unlikely given that during his days as a college athlete, Hayford played on a soccer scholarship before beginning his basketball coaching career at the high school level at age 20 and ending up an assistant at alma mater Azusa Pacific for nine seasons. “I kicked the ball instead of shooting it,” he said, guessing that the beautiful game might have allowed him to see basketball in a different way.
So did his daughter, Jayme, who has twice beaten leukemia. The last time Hayford was involved in a job search was 10 years ago while he was the head coach at NAIA Sioux Falls, and Jayme had just been diagnosed with the disease. Proximity to good care for Jayme led him to Whitworth, where amidst all the winning, he recalled his daughter had one particularly difficult year spending 182 nights in the children’s hospital.
“I watched a lot of game film and recruiting film in a hospital room or hospital hallway,” Hayford said. “When something like that hits you, coaching comes second.”
During his time at Whitworth, he won 217 games and led the Pirates to three Sweet 16s in the past five seasons. Hayford didn’t necessarily want to leave for just any Division I opportunity. He wanted to be a head coach and to win his way. When the Eastern Washington job was offered, he needed a few days to think about it and wanted to make sure he was doing it for the right reasons.
“It was more one of those times in life you think, ‘Why am I a coach, and why am I in this business?” Hayford said. “It was a moment of soul-searching.”
Ultimately, after consulting with some of his closest friends in the business, including Rick Majerus at Saint Louis, the decision was made. Since then, he’s reached out to others for advice, including Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett, whose program is a model for what Hayford wants his to become.
“For him, it’s much more about the new challenge,” said Eastern Washington associate head coach Craig Fortier, who spent four seasons as an assistant to Hayford at Whitworth. “If it wasn’t something unique, there was no reason to leave what we had going. It’s not necessarily about Division I. It’s just a new challenge. There’s an extra drive in him right now.
“He’s someone that doesn’t like to be told you can’t do something. There’s a perception this is a challenge, and of course if it’s a challenge, he’s really motivated.”
For Hayford, the best part of the new job is that he doesn’t have to uproot his wife and two children in order to coach in Cheney, Wash. It’s a program that does have a winning tradition in the Big Sky when Ray Giacoletti led the Eagles to an NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons before leaving for Utah to replace Majerus.
Surveying the scene at Eastern Washington, there’s much that Hayford is excited about even though the Eagles didn’t win more than 12 games during Kirk Earlywine’s four seasons and lost their top player after Earlywine’s contract wasn’t renewed.
Former Big Sky freshman of the year Glen Dean transferred to Utah, but Hayford hopes guard Cliff Colimon will step right in and have a big senior season. Eastern Washington also signed impact junior college transfer Collin Chiverton, formerly of Saint Mary’s. Hayford added junior college transfer Jordan Hickert from Australia and landed Oregon transfer Martin Seiferth from Germany, checking off two international locations he hopes to recruit in the future.
“He’s someone that takes very little time worrying about limitations, and very quickly he turns his mind to how he solves problems,” Fortier said. “I don’t think his first take is, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ His first take is, ‘What can we do?’”
After achieving a top national ranking last season and eight 20-win seasons at the Division III level, Hayford said his first major goal at Eastern Washington is simply a winning season.
“We just need to step out of the shadows,” Hayford said. “I really believe that can happen soon.”
For Hayford himself, it already has.