Fun, love and hard work: Behind the scenes with Jim Hayford as he begins to rebuild Seattle U basketball

Seattle U hired a friendly, unimposing man who continually tells players he loves them but is willing to show tough love when they aren’t giving it their all. “I just want them to be the best they can be,” Hayford says.

The five players who just lost a free-throw-shooting contest stand in a row at midcourt, facing the five winners.

“T.T., I want you to piggyback Aaron to the end of the court,” Jim Hayford instructs. The players laugh, but the Seattle University men’s basketball coach is not joking.

So Aaron Menzies, all 7 feet 3 and 285 pounds of him, gets a free ride on the back of guard Mattia Da Campo, 6-5 and 210. It’s quite a sight, with Da Campo seemingly disappearing below the big center, and the players crack up.

But the laughter soon stops. It’s time for the other four losers to pay up.

“We want to make it fun for them,” says Hayford, who took over the Seattle U program in March.

If Hayford is a bit unorthodox and does things a bit differently than most Division I coaches, maybe it’s because he was never trying to become one. It happened by accident, he says.

But here he is, in charge of re-energizing the Seattle U program, which has seen little success since returning to Division I in 2009.

The school hired a friendly, unimposing man who looks more like a computer engineer than a basketball coach, who takes pride that a lot of his friends aren’t coaches (“because I try to live a normal life outside of this basketball thing”) and has been successful at every coaching stop in his career.

It hired a man who is continually telling players he loves them but is also willing to show tough love when players aren’t giving it their all.

“I just want them to be the best they can be,” Hayford says, speaking about not just basketball but life.

Saturday Dec. 2, 2 p.m., on the bottom floor of KeyArena

It is less than 24 hours before what certainly will be the most emotional game of Hayford’s first season at Seattle U. Eastern Washington, the team Hayford coached the previous six seasons, is coming to play the Redhawks.

But Hayford couldn’t look more relaxed, wearing gray sweatpants and a Seattle U sweatshirt. He has brought his lunch, fast food from the Safeway deli, and is ready to talk a bit about his journey.

Hayford, who turned 50 in May, is not a young coach looking to leave Seattle U in a year or two for a bigger job. He came here after 16 years in Spokane, the first 10 as…

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