Lorenzo Romar’s Free Pass


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.

19 thoughts on “Lorenzo Romar’s Free Pass”

  1. This from a hated Duck fan. I couldn’t agree more with your feelings for your coach. My only interaction with him was at the Dutchess about 8 years ago where he was doing a radio show and when he came in, my son, (a much loved tho disappointing Husky,to his father) greeted him and introduced me as a Duck and he was cordial , gracious and very natural when he could easily have been perfunctory. I hope the critics abate and you keep him on, he is a good man. Good profile of him.

  2. I too share your sentiments, except it’s becoming increasingly clear that Romar is not the guy to lead the Huskies to greatness and he should bow out, no pun intended.

  3. That the head coach of a UW sports team be a man of moral integrity and high character should be the standard, not a point of praise, and certainly not as a reason to retain a coach. He is paid a 1%er salary to win games and generate interest in the program through ticket sales. He has been spectacularly failing in both regards the past three years. The excuse making and lack of vision is breathtaking. Dare to dream big. It’s OK to call a spade a spade, guys.

  4. Rich in Ohio
    Coach Romar took over a team that had been losing for a long time. With the same players, he took them to impossible heights. Now he’s up against some sharp shooter coaches (Arizona?) He’s gone back to developing 3-4 stars. He’s established and respected. Now is not the time to start all over again. Stay with the ONE who took you to the dance.

  5. He is not getting paid 1.8 million a year to be a good guy! We all know what a great man Romar is! He is getting paid to win Basketball games and we are no longer are doing that! I’m sorry but with no hope in sight for next year now is the time to make a change! If the Seahawks taught us one thing it’s we no longer have to settle on being a second rate sports city. I want elite 8’s , final 4’s national titles!!!! Sorry, but Romar and his coaching is not going to get us there! It wouldn’t matter if Romar did go door to door now, no one wants to go to the games.

    Very good article, thanks!

  6. Alex–this is a great article. The interactions with Coach Romar that you have described truly exemplify him as a man and a coach…he has been wonderful every time I’ve met him and I know from very personal experiences how he genuinely LOVES the Dawg Pack. Watching Husky Basketball was honestly my favorite extra-curricular school activity while being at UW, and it breaks my heart to see the stands empty right now. I think Coach Romar can still be a winner, he just needs to find his fire again and students need to believe in him and the program. Hopefully this article will inspire a) the program to entice students with free food, fun events, etc. and b) inspire students to show up again regardless of winning or losing. Utah State’s student section goes apesh*t even when they’re not good…we can, too. Thanks for writing this.

  7. Let me get this straight……we should keep a failing coach around because
    1. He was really cool to some students 10 years ago, even gave them free food
    2. He’s a really good guy

    Silly me, I thought the goal was to win.

  8. Romar definitely has a special place in my heart. Even still today, if i ever see him, I give him a head nod and a ‘Hi Coach’ and he’ll always reply back like we’re the best of friends. The Dawg Pack, Husky Basketball and Romar shaped my college experience at UW and it is a time of my life I will never forget, ever. It was a time in my life when I felt like I was apart of something so special and so unique, because it was just that special. Truly, the “good ol’ days.”

  9. I can’t respect Romar since he quit playing Gonzaga. And don’t give me that BS Key Arena series. That made as much sense as Clay Bennett wanting a new stadium where 405 and I-90 merge.

  10. Fully agree with your sentiments, Alex — no surprise there. I’d also point out clearly what you allude to, in response to other commenters and in my own personal account of whether to keep Romar around — he built this program from the ground up after decades in mediocrity/doldrums. We wouldn’t be even having this expect-to-win discussion if not for his great efforts and success in building a Pac-10 also-ran into a player on the national scene. I too want better success. I too can’t quite imagine a Romar-less UW basketball program.

  11. I’d wager that many of the same people who want Lorenzo Romar fired consider the late Marv Harshman a legend.

    Lorenzo Romar: Six NCAA Tournament appearances and three Sweet Sixteens in 11 seasons.

    Marv Harshman: Three NCAA Tournament appearances and one Sweet Sixteen in 14 seasons.

    I like both guys. But it’s clear who’s had a better run.

  12. It pains me to see when Husky Fans don’t show as much loyalty to Romar as much as he’s shown to the program. That’s got to count for something…..and it needs to be heavily weighted. Some folks just forget where we came from.

  13. Here’s the story Husky chums: Romar elevated the program, started trying to land big-time national recruits for several years and was in on them until the end but none chose the UW. Turns out UW still can’t recruit nationally, and that’s okay. Now he’s going back to recruiting very good talent, and local talent, with a nice chip on their shoulders. Looking forward to the next 2 UW classes because they’re looking very good. Wouldn’t want any other man leading our program. Go Dawgs.

  14. Makes things worse Gonzaga is the only tourney presence we have in the state. Hell, the Cougars probably couldn’t beat WWU

  15. Nicely written, Alex.

    In the two years that has transpired, Romar has learned his lesson about counting on the Jabari Birds and Aarons, super stars who express sincere interest in coming here, but ultimately chose to attend the established basketball schools like Duke and Arizona.

    It was a hard lesson, but Lorenzo has corrected the course.

    I think Romar by dint of his decency and hard work earned the grace which allowed him to work through that unfortunate recruiting debacle.

    In the two years hence he has turned the program around talent-wise with Dejounte Murray, Marquese Criss, Malik Dime, Matisse Thybule, David Crisp, Noah Dickerson, Devenir Duirsseau, Donavon Dorsey, and Dom Green. These are Romar’s type of players: lean, athletic, long, aggressive; players who most of all WANT to be here, as opposed to players “renting out the program” for a year or two (NWG?)

    Whether we make the NCAA this year or not (and I hope we do–we’ve got a decent shot as of 217-16), there’s been a 180 degree turnaround in respect to excitement, aggression, speed, talent, and intensity.

    The dawgs are back, with next year appearing to be THE year to make a decent run, especially with 2117 additions five-star Markelle Fultz, Sam Timmons and Matthew Atewe, the latter two tall bangers.

    Romar and the program went through a huge dip that would test anyone.

    But Lorenzo’s on the comeback trail.

    Couldn’t happen to a better guy, and I’m excited for this team.

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