They bribed us with a taco bar the night we first met Lorenzo Romar. A Qdoba taco bar, no less, the good stuff. And this was back before Chipotle had taken over the world of fresh express Mexican, when Qdoba was the very best for which any hungry, broke college student could yearn. The muckety-mucks in the UW athletic department were basically begging us to show up and meet the head coach of the men’s basketball team. And, if we were so inclined, maybe stick around for the game, too.
It was the middle of Romar’s second season at Washington, one that had begun rather inauspiciously, before taking a more promising turn of late. The streaky Dawgs had rattled off five straight losses to open Pac-10 conference play, then abruptly reversed course and managed five consecutive wins. A defeat at UCLA halted the winning streak, and then it was back home to where we now found ourselves, in the presence of the ground beef and seasoned chicken upon which we feasted.
We sat and scarfed down our meal in Hec Edmundson Pavilion’s auxiliary gym as we waited for the coach to arrive. A staffer let us know Romar was on his way, and that he’d be taking a few questions in the limited time we had together before tipoff. Seconds later, a door flew open and there stood the guest of honor.
He was taller than I’d expected, and filled out his suit as well as one might expect any ex-athlete to fill out a suit. He carried himself in a way that earned one’s respect, but not in a way that commanded it. He was confident, not overbearing. He was polite and genuine.
We crowded the doorway through which he had entered. The poor guy had barely taken two steps inside the vast expanse of the gymnasium before being surrounded by a couple hundred purple-clad college students burping up beans and salsa. That alone spoke to his character.
He began his address with a story that we would hear many times over in the seasons to come. He talked about working previous jobs at Pepperdine and St. Louis in front of barren crowds and empty student sections. He recalled walking with his assistants at these outposts of college basketball, across campus and onto Greek Row, stopping in the various houses and asking students to come watch and support his teams. It was a far cry from what he saw before him now, and he thanked us for being there, for coming out to watch his ball club, his players. It meant a lot to them, he assured us, and to him. This was his alma mater, after all, and anyone standing in the gym that night could tell that succeeding at Washington was very important to him.
He didn’t have to try to make us like him – Lorenzo Romar was then, and is now, a likable guy. He never patronized us like a lot of people in his position might. He treated us as equals, on par with anyone he might ever encounter, on par with even his players. He made us feel like we were part of the team, like showing up and wearing our school colors and simply giving a damn about the basketball program made us just as important as the guys who were sweating their way through practice every day.
He connected those of us who shook his hand and brought us together. He made us feel like we were a part of something, like we were special in some way. He did more for us in ten minutes of chatting than many of our professors would do in four years of education, than counselors would do in half-hour sit-downs, than TAs could muster in office hours.
When you’re 19 years old, affirmation, connection, and a sense of belonging is of the utmost importance. The man with whom we now talked gave us that. In a single moment, Lorenzo Romar took a campus that boasted 40,000 students and made it smaller for the group that stood before him. From then on, we were sold.
It’s all generational, of course. For those of us who transitioned into adulthood as Lorenzo Romar’s basketball teams transitioned into powerhouses, there is a romantic connection that binds both parties in a way that those older or younger than us will never understand. It would be impossible to convey the spectrum of emotions we felt in the presence of those Romar-coached clubs that found their way to multiple postseason appearances, that upended an undefeated Stanford squad in 2004, that throttled opponents on the way to the longest home winning streak in the nation. We were there, we lived it, the jubilation was real. But to outsiders, it was simply a moment gone by.
I get it. It makes sense. When the rose-colored glasses are removed and the body of work is reviewed objectively, one can clearly see why someone might want Romar to lose his job. There are a handful of reasons.
For starters, it has been six long years since any Washington team has made the NCAA Tournament. That’s underperformance, plain and simple, and certainly not up to the standard set in the initial decade of the Romar era.
Worse yet, the rosters compiled by this coaching staff in recent seasons have often been laden with talent – talent that has gone out and underachieved on game day. It’s not as if these Huskies have been beset by a few down years in recruiting or a caliber of athlete that simply cannot compete at a high level. Rather, they’ve featured quality players who either couldn’t work together as a collective unit or never lived up to the individual hype that accompanied them onto campus. Either way, the blame is placed squarely upon the coaches for failing to develop a winning club. And in the business of college athletics, it is winning that matters most of all.
The mark against Romar was that he had never been much of an Xs and Os coach, that his game planning needed work. His teams historically struggled with the basics, like scoring against a 2-3 zone or running a successful inbounds play. Those blemishes were never improved upon in a decade-and-a-half at the helm. In the case of the 2016-2017 Huskies, however, those perennial warts were compounded by moments of abject ineptitude, the likes of which spelled doom for the coaching staff.
Finishing the year with thirteen straight losses. Getting torched by 41 points at home against UCLA. Setting a program record for defeats. And all this while being led by an All-Conference point guard and the potential No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. It proved to be too much for even the most respected coach to withstand. Never mind that next year’s edition of the Washington men’s basketball team would feature one of the top recruiting classes in the country. Even that couldn’t save Romar. The cracks in the boat were never patched. The water never stopped seeping through. And ultimately, the ship sank.
I had a boss once that I really, truly enjoyed being around. At a job I hated, in fact. There were many days I wanted to call in sick or quit altogether, but I never would have forgiven myself if I quit on that boss. He was the type of guy who treated everyone like he himself wanted to be treated. Who cared about every person he employed. Who was more of a friend or father figure than a superior. If you got his vibe like I did, you would reciprocate his respect and do anything for the guy. And of course if you didn’t get his vibe, he’d still give you his respect because he was a kind human being and you, being the jerk you are, would take advantage of that generosity and walk all over the man.
In many ways, I thought of Lorenzo Romar in the same vein as my former boss. Romar extended courteousness to everyone, without fail, and expected nothing more but the same in return. If a player was mature enough to handle the responsibility that came with a coach who afforded his pupils a long leash and ample opportunity to succeed, he would do very well for himself under such tutelage. But if an individual lacked that maturity and took advantage of the situation, the potential for failure was immense.
Romar was a player’s coach, as evidenced by the outpouring of love and support on social media from current and former players in the wake of his termination. For some, the relatively loose nature in which he ran his program was no problem at all. Those who were intrinsically motivated, who were unbothered by outside distractions, could thrive on Washington teams of the past fifteen years. For others, however, structure and discipline would have paved the road to success. And sure, there was a degree of structure and a degree of discipline. But Romar wasn’t the type of person who would berate or intimidate players to get the most out of them. That just wasn’t his style. That method worked for some and it didn’t for others. Of late, it seemed that more and more players couldn’t find a way to make it work.
It may not have been his downfall – we can probably all agree that wins and losses were the deciding factor in moving on from the Romar regime – but it certainly didn’t help that there seemed to be a lack of cohesion between the way Romar ran his program and the way in which his players responded. His final Washington squad didn’t look physically overmatched in games so much as they looked mentally detached. Players would quit when the outcome didn’t seem to be headed in their favor. They would have brain lapses on the floor. They could be pushed around by their opponent. They were soft. They were weak. Eventually, they checked out altogether.
Looking back on the infancy of Romar’s tenure at Washington, one particular play will always stick out in my mind as a culture-defining moment. It occurred on January 8th, 2004, in the waning ticks of an eight-point loss to USC. Time was not on the Huskies’ side and the Trojans were on the cusp of leaving Seattle with a road victory if they could just milk the final seconds off the clock.
A change of possession resulted in a quick outlet pass to a USC player who raced toward the basket looking for a breakaway dunk, the icing on the cake of an all-but-certain win. Realizing what was about to happen, sophomore forward Bobby Jones, the very first player Romar ever recruited to UW, sprinted downcourt and leaped in tandem with his airborne adversary. He slammed into the showboating Trojan with a full head of steam at his heels, swatting him (and the ball) to the ground like a pesky fly. And then as his foe slowly rose to his feet, Jones shook his head and glared menacingly at the man who had dared threaten the sanctity of his home court. Not here. Not in this house. It was the type of foul that set a tone for the future of the program.
As the years went by, there were fewer and fewer guys like Jones who donned the purple and gold. Maybe that’s on the coaching staff for not unearthing the type of individual they could build and mold into a model player. Maybe it’s on the players for not exuding the necessary passion and dedication to be their very best. Regardless, there was a time and place in the program’s history when the employees got their boss’s vibe and the boss, in turn, got through to his employees. Unfortunately, that time passed somewhere in the midst of missed tournaments and disappointing finishes.
They won on taco night. Beat Oregon by nine, 83-74. They’d go 7-1 in their final eight games of the regular season, starting with that victory over their southern rivals. They’d sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a result of the strong finish. That season was a sign of things to come. For a while at least.
We slept outside Hec Ed for the final home contest that year. It was cold and we had no idea what we were doing. Some had the foresight to bring tents from home. Most of us piled under an awning in just our sleeping bags and shivered. When we awoke after a restless night on concrete, a man carrying boxes and boxes of doughnuts to the makeshift campsite greeted us. It was Lorenzo Romar.
We started a tradition of camping out for big games and Romar, in turn, started a tradition of providing breakfast to the devoted campers. He didn’t just drop off the food, though. He’d sit there and talk with us awhile, about anything really. The game, the weather, our classes, our goofy outfits.
For all those years I went to games as a student, Romar insisted we were a part of the team. He went so far as to have the PA announcer introduce the student section as the sixth member of the starting lineup. We became something of a family, I guess. Him, the students, the coaches, the players. We walked around an enormous campus where seemingly no one knew anybody else and befriended guys who would become NBA superstars, all because the coach established a culture that allowed these relationships to blossom.
We were grateful. Grateful that he cared for us. That he went out of his way to show us he appreciated every last student who wanted to support the basketball team. And yet at the same time, he was just as grateful for us.
Even those who have spent ample time calling for Romar’s head can agree that he was an admirable individual. Every argument over the coach’s fate seems to be prefaced by a frank admission: “Yeah, he’s a great person, but…” It hardly salvages the end result. Still, though, if even his most ardent dissenters are willing to acknowledge the strength of his character, it goes a long way in explaining why Romar was given every opportunity to turn the program around anew – and why it was exceptionally difficult to finally let him go.
No one knows for sure if firing Romar was the right move. Some will adamantly claim that this change was needed, that a new hire will bring much needed life to a stagnant program, that Washington basketball’s best years are yet to come. Others will argue that one more year with the status quo would have ensured a top tier recruiting class punctuated by the consensus No. 1 player in the country. But only time will tell if this decision was the correct one.
One thing we can be sure of is that, despite the results of late, Romar commandeered one of the most successful eras of Washington Huskies basketball. He is the second-winningest coach in program history, behind only the man whose name adorns the building in which the team plays. He produced more NBA players than any other UW coach. He led his club to six NCAA Tournament appearances – twice as many as any of his predecessors. And he made Seattle a premier destination for college basketball players; that, above all else, will pay dividends for any coach who takes the reins of this program in the future.
One day, he will be properly honored at halftime of a game, as he should be. He’ll be labeled an ambassador of the program and have his name attached to something more permanent than a program or a stat sheet. Fans old and young and in-between will rise to their feet and shower him with applause as a montage of highlights scrolls across the video board above center court. And he will smile and wave and maybe even tear up a little as a sea of purple rains its affection down upon him.
But that day isn’t today. Today, he lost his job. Today, he became the former coach of the University of Washington men’s basketball team. And whether you love him or hate him, the finality of such a moment brings forth a slew of emotions amid the uncertainty of tumultuousness. Where does Washington go from here? For fifteen years, that wasn’t a question that needed asking. Now, all anyone can do is await answers.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ll miss him. Tremendously. Romar was synonymous with my college experience and when someone asks me what I enjoyed most about Washington, I can unequivocally point to the UW basketball program and say, “That.” And I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. It’s not easy to watch someone you revere struggle, which Romar and his team certainly did. And yet he handled the adversity with the exact same class and grace as he did the success. He never wavered in that regard. He has always been the type of human being we all strive to be.
It wasn’t just his humanity that set him apart, though. He was a winner, too. And he bred winners. His teams won and his players moved on to bigger and better things, whether that be in the game of basketball or other aspects of life. He epitomized what anyone would want in a coach. And he did all of that at a time in the sport’s history when his cohorts across the nation, many of whom were far less successful than him, often found themselves on the wrong side of righteousness.
Lorenzo Romar was a great coach and is a great man. I’m thankful he embraced me, thankful he embraced the people who would become some of my lifelong friends, and thankful he made so many nights eventful at the University of Washington.
The Huskies will eventually hire a new basketball coach. But they will never, ever replace Lorenzo Romar.