Departures of an assistant coach and three players have pushed the Washington program into a crisis. The solution may not fit with coach Lorenzo Romar’s standards.
Here’s a novel way to measure the distance between an elite college basketball program and the Washington Huskies: A couple of days after Kentucky’s top seven players declared eligibility for the NBA draft, the Huskies’ one borderline NBA guy, Nigel Williams-Goss, was granted his request to transfer, apparently without a fixed destination in hand.
In other words: Get me outta here.
It isn’t clear yet why he felt this way, other than the obvious 17-15, 16-15 seasons of tourney-free ball. But if he seeks to play at another Division I school, he will be required by NCAA rules to sit out a year before playing.
For one seemingly so eager to play in the NBA, Williams-Goss staying in college for another two years at a minimum makes little sense. He still could declare for the draft by the April 26 deadline. Then again, as a 6-3 point guard with ordinary speed and a weak outside shot (44.2 percent overall, 25.6 percent on threes), I don’t see him as one of the 60 worldwide who will be drafted in June.
What is clear, now that his request to transfer was honored by UW Friday — along with junior reserve guard Darin Johnson and sophomore reserve center Gilles Dierickx (season stats here) — is that the UW program is in serious trouble. The news comes a week after the departure by an assistant coach, recruiting ace T.J. Otzelberger, to his previous job as an Iowa State assistant.
Leaving after two years to take no promotion is a grim sign, although the news Friday that Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg must undergo open-heart surgery might have been an influence. So too, might Iowa State’s stature as a two-time Big 12 Conference tournament champion.
But trading Seattle for Ames? It could be that Otzelberger attempted to drive through downtown Seattle once, which scarred him for life and justifies the move. Whatever the reason, the optics are horrible for coach Lorenzo Romar. Worse, what do members of the heralded class of incoming freshmen think about the changes?
As program followers know, the Huskies have missed the NCAA tourney four years running, attendance is way down, buzz is minimal. Yet despite growing sentiment that Romar be fired, AD Scott Woodward said publicly he is backing Romar, although the rationale is at least partly due to the $4 million remaining on his contract through 2020.
But underneath the obviousness of the recent record and Woodward’s insistence on considering Romar’s body of work over 13 seasons at Montlake, is another conflict: Whether it is possible to run a program within NCAA and criminal laws and still be successful.
Romar has done as well as any coach staying in his lane. It may well be his undoing.
While integrity and big-time college sports are often an oxymoron, a new frontier seemed to have been reached early last month when the results of a years-long NCAA investigation of academic and monetary impropriety in the Syracuse program were finally disclosed.
Punishment for violations included 108 vacated wins by longtime coach Jim Boeheim, a nine-game suspension for Boeheim and the loss of 12 scholarships over the next four seasons for the basketball program.
Many of the details of investigation were remarkable, none more so than this one: An ineligible player from 2012 had the help of the director of men’s basketball operations and a team receptionist to get back on the court. Coursework was allegedly completed for the player by using the student’s password. He didn’t even have to send his own emails, much less do the work.
It was hardly unique. A five-year investigation of an even more storied program, North Carolina, revealed academic fraud going back decades, in complete contradiction of “The Carolina Way” of high achievement in athletics and academics. A first-person story in si.com by UNC grad S.L. Price spelled out the corruption and concluded he felt such shame, he would discourage his own son from attending his alma mater.
Two of the Final Four teams this year, Kentucky and Duke, were loaded with potential one-and-done players, which certainly isn’t against the rules but makes any notion of academic reform moot, to the point of silliness. Why bother to change if the best players don’t have to open a book, or even a school email account?
After a game in early March, I asked Romar a simple question, one he’s often had to answer: Can a program win without wholesale cheating?
“I believe it’s possible,” he said. “If you have a head start with tradition, like Syracuse, which has won a national championship, you don’t need to break the rules.”
But Boeheim did. Repeatedly and systematically, because the pressure to win and make money for the athletics department has grown exponentially. The increasing ineffectiveness of NCAA investigations and the indifference shown by the public causes schools to become even more brazen.
I asked: Isn’t playing by the rules burdensome?
“I would use the word challenge, as opposed to burden,” he said. “And in saying challenge, I don’t mean in a negative way. Playing Utah today was a challenge. I don’t mean it’s challenging.
“I look at it as: I want to be successful with our program doing it the right way. That’s a real challenge.”
Thus he is upon the challenge of his career: Finding enough recruits who can fulfill the barest minimums of academic and social legitimacy and still get to the tourney’s round of 16.
He’s done it before. But the world changed on him; no one with an honest eye on college sports can deny that.
His challenge? Adapt, or be fired.