I was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington the first time I met Lorenzo Romar. It was the evening before Valentine’s Day, 2004, and the Husky Men’s Basketball team was getting ready to square off against the hated Oregon Ducks.
In an attempt to encourage students to arrive a) early and b) en masse, the athletic department’s marketing staff held a pregame meet-and-greet with the head coach that also included … wait for it … FREE FOOD. A Qdoba taco bar was set up in an auxiliary gym and, not surprisingly, a good number of students showed up to sample the fare.
My buddy, Charlie, and I had been attending games the entire season, but up to this point crowds had been slow to follow us to Hec Edmundson Pavilion. A string of pivotal conference wins had sparked a renewed interest in the team, however, and the athletic department was looking for every opportunity to capitalize on the sudden success.
So it was that I found myself in the audience of a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing shiny black wingtips, standing much taller than I originally anticipated. He spoke in a calm manner, confident, quiet, commanding, yet still very warm.
“We need to come up with a good nickname for [Oregon star] Luke Jackson,” he suggested.
“Second-hand Luke!” shouted a voice amongst the throng. The gallery erupted in laughter. The timing was impeccable, with Oregon’s more talented star of the same first name, point guard Luke Ridnour, having departed early for the NBA (and your Seattle Supersonics) during the prior offseason. Jackson was, quite literally, Oregon’s second-hand Luke.
“I like that, I like that,” the coach replied. And then he paused as a smile crept across his face. We all laughed once more.
It was this initial interaction that spawned a relationship with Romar and his basketball program unlike most that any fan could ever experience with his or her favorite team. We were the Dawg Pack, a thriving, evolving mass of out-of-control, fun-loving students that wanted nothing more than to enjoy every Husky Basketball game with our friends. And he was the leader of an up-and-coming, exciting, fast-paced ballclub of bourgeoning superstars that not only won games, but also reciprocated the love expressed by the growing contingent of fellow students-cum-fanatics.
We would meet again, the students and Romar, on various occasions. When we camped out before the team’s nationally-televised matchup against an undefeated Stanford team, he delivered boxes and boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts the morning after a chilly, near-sleepless night. After that, he brought his players outside to visit with us. First Tre Simmons, then Curtis Allen, even Nate Robinson. We talked and took pictures, played Xbox, embraced the moment. And after that we were cool with one another. They got us and we got them, those players. We were all students on the same campus, and because of the coach we were no longer strangers to one another. As time passed, they became our acquaintances, our friends.
After each season’s final home game, win or lose, the coach would grab a microphone, stand before a crowd that unwittingly had begun filing towards the exits, and utter an unrehearsed speech thanking all of us for showing up and supporting the team. He’d remain on the court after those contests and hang out with us, talk to us, be amongst us. His players did the same. He even led an entire group of students on an impromptu tour of the facilities after a game once, simply because we were still in the building.
By the time I was a senior, we had begun sneaking into Hec Ed late at night – special thanks to two friends of ours, one who played on the team and another who moonlit as a campus security guard, for getting us in – to play pickup games, often for hours on end. This went on for more than a few weeks before Romar found out. Through an intermediary, he advised us against playing there. But he wasn’t upset. And he didn’t tell us we couldn’t play there. It just didn’t seem safe. We took our games elsewhere anyway.
Over time, he gave us so many speeches that we began to notice patterns. For instance, he would always tell us about his previous coaching stints at St. Louis and Pepperdine, where he had to go door-to-door at each university’s Greek Row and inform students that not only was there a basketball team on campus, but that students were also privy to attend, if they so desired. Washington, he informed us, was different. He didn’t have to tell us to come. We just came. And then we went nuts for his squad. It was the first time in his head coaching career that anything like this had occurred. No one was more grateful for the presence of a bunch of smart-ass know-it-alls than Coach Romar. No one was more grateful for Coach Romar than our bunch of smart-ass know-it-alls.
He defended us in the press when other coaches in the conference wanted to relocate the Dawg Pack. Washington’s students were breathing down their necks, they said. Washington’s students were too loud, too close, too rowdy. Other schools put their students on the baselines or on the opposite side of the court. Washington’s students were right freakin’ there! Romar wouldn’t let them move us. He fought to keep us where we were, where we gave the team a ridiculous home court advantage, where we deserved to remain. And so we remained there. They still remain there today.
He didn’t have to do any of this, of course. He could have just won ballgames and we all would have been happy, we all would have shown up. Secretly, most of us turned out on that evening I first met the coach because a complimentary taco bar was involved. But we kept coming after that, believe it or not, in spite of an absence of free food.
I get it. I get why some fans want him fired. Why certain people would rather see the Huskies guided by someone other than the guy who’s been doing it for the past 12 years. He’s the longest tenured head coach in the Pac-12 now, but it seems like just yesterday that I stood before him as a teenager, slightly skinnier and gawkier than I am now (though equally as motivated by a free meal), when he was in the midst of only his second season on the job. It’s the law of diminishing returns, the fact that his team has lost its grasp on success over the past three years, a quarter of the dozen he’s been at the helm.
And I admit I’m guilty of instigating the masses as much as the next guy, quick to poke fun at the team’s occasional inability to handle a zone defense, to recruit with the best programs in the nation, to win games they should be capable of winning. I’ve joked about some of his players. I’ve cringed when the likes of Andrew Andrews lofts an ill-advised three-pointer, or when the since-departed Abdul Gaddy would choke away a clutch opportunity in crunch time. I’ve been that guy as much as anyone else, as much as anyone who wants Romar gone.
But I can never want anything but the best for Lorenzo Romar. This dude has treated people well for as long as I’ve known him, for over a decade now. He has been and continues to be the ultimate human being. He is a good person who deserves good things to happen to him. How could I ever wish bad upon someone who has inspired so much greatness?
Some may not understand it, some may not care to understand it, some may not be moved by the man’s charisma or his heart, but I am. He will get a free pass from me. Not because he used to land the best players around. Not because he used to coach a perennial tournament contender. Not because he’s governed a clean program in an era when that’s an increasing rarity – though it’s certainly nice to know he stands for righteousness in the face of rampant artifice.
No, for me it’s simpler than that.
Romar was good to me and to all of my fellow students when he didn’t have to be. He paid attention to us when no one else did. He made the entire athletic department recognize and acknowledge our importance. He forced the institution to treat the students – not the adults, not the boosters, not the family men, nor the wealthy glad-handers – with the utmost respect. He had our backs when there was no reason to have our backs. He’s no hipster; he loved the Dawg Pack before it was cool to love the Dawg Pack. And I guarantee you he still loves the Dawg Pack now, even if it isn’t so cool to love them once again.
There is nothing I want more than to see the Husky Basketball program thrive. And there is no one else I want to see lead that program to greatness than Lorenzo Romar.