BY Art Thiel 04:43PM 04/10/2015

Thiel: Romar will have to sell out, or lose job

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.

Lorenzo Romar’s tenure has never been more precarious. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

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 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.


  • jafabian

    I’m thinking Williams-Goss is going to follow Dan Dickau’s example and try to go to Gonzaga. However he should look more towards Senque Carey who also left after his sophomore year to go to New Mexico and it didn’t quite work out for him. If his concerns are that his tenure at Washington has hurt his NBA chances he’s wrong. Again, looking at past Huskies, Eldridge Recasner didn’t have the best tournament chances as a Husky but was still MVP of the CBA and later carved out a 7 year NBA career. And at that time the media exposure of the Pac-10 isn’t what it is now with their TV contract. IMO, it’s a gamble to transfer at this point in his career because after sitting out a season there’s no guarantee he’ll crack that team’s rotation. Seems to me Williams-Goss is getting bad advice right now. If he’s going to leave UW it should be for the pros, not another school. He should stay and lead this team to a tourney.

    Watching the team last season I thought there was cohesion issues and that Coach Romar might revoke a scholarship or two and maybe this is it. I have yet to hear of any of the alumni being unhappy with Lorenzo and ultimately they’ll play the biggest part in an early departure for him. First and foremost UW is a football school. That will never change. How the football program does dictates the course for the rest of the sports and football is at best stable. The trickle down effect hasn’t happened yet.

    Coach Romar is the best coach at this time for the Dawgs. He’s been the best coach for the basketball team since Marv Harshman, a developer and leader of men, has brought integrity to the program and been a pillar in the community. It could be said a more dynamic, outgoing coach like a Calibari, Pitino or Izzo should be brought in but that was thought when Andy Russo was brought in. UW likes a Lloyd McClendon running things, not a Lou Pinella type. Why has the basketball team taken a downward turn? IMO, the Pac-12 as a whole as. Kids are going to the ACC and SEC to play hoops. Half the conference had 2 or less in-state players on their team at the beginning of the season. Nike hasn’t been able to work their magic for the Ducks they way they have for the football team. Because West coast hoops takes a back seat to the East. Until that changes, best to support Lorenzo, not tear him down. Especially when he released Robert Upshaw instead of simply suspending him for a game. Most coaches would have in order to ensure a tourney appearance. That said a lot of Coach Romar right there.

    • art thiel

      Plenty of hoops talent right here in Seattle. Romar is coming in second on top-enders like Lavine.

      Geography has a little to do with it, but not much. SEC was relatively weak this year.

      NBA one-and-done rule happened in 2006. Full consequences have been obvious the last few years. Romar hasn’t made the transition as well.

      • jafabian

        The SEC still had 8 teams with 19 or more wins, a far cry from the 5 that the Pac-12 offered. And that didn’t include Florida amazingly. Also looking at how many Washingtonians are on, or not on, Pac-12 rosters as well as the low number from our state listed in the top 500 recruits in the US I question if the talent pool in our state isn’t on the downside right now, despite the fact that Pitino and Calipari have had success here. I actually think it’s harder to convince a player to stay close to home. Usually 18 year olds want to explore the world, then after a year or two realize they miss home.

    • bean2030

      Senque Cary had a back injury and was almost paralyzed. Didn’t finish his career. Not comparble

  • Joe Fan

    Romar needs to go (forgetting about the money).

    • art thiel

      That’s like saying the city government has to go, forgetting about filling the potholes and putting out the fires.

      • Jeff Shope

        well they aren’t very good at the pothole thing and volunteer fire departments seem to do just fine just sayin

  • RadioGuy

    Well done piece, Art. It speaks volumes about what a cesspool D1 basketball has become that after badly embarrassing Syracuse (and not for the first time), Boeheim’s “punishment” from the school is that he’ll have to step down from his job…in three years, when he’s 75 years old. And where to begin with UNC and Roy Williams?

    Nothing against players wanting to make money sooner rather than later, just like a whiz kid at MIT might do if Apple or Microsoft made him/her a good offer. However, as a fan, it’s pretty disheartening to watch games with players just cooling their heels for a year or two. I can’t imagine what it’s like for any coach to deal with.

    Romar seems like a genuinely decent, moral man who HAS gone 270-159 with only one losing season in the past twelve at the UW. I don’t see him willingly joining the Boeheims and Caliparis in the recruiting muck. On the other hand, alumni and boosters may give him no choice.

    • art thiel

      It is a cesspool, but we love rolling in it every March.

      The situation wouldn’t be allowed to happen if fans truly cared about what happens to kids thrown into the meat grinder. But they never have, and likely never will because they amuse us so.

      • Jeff Shope

        It’s the kids who revel in the attention given to wet behind the ears egomaniacs who could care less about playing team ball preferring dunks to sound shooting. It’s why I rarely ever watch basketball anymore . Meat grinder? Ya it’s tough being treat like a rock star while getting college paid for

        • art thiel

          But if the college education is meaningless to many players, what is its value? The scholarship is a cover story for schools to avoid losing their nonprofit status.

      • RadioGuy

        Yeah, I guess it’s our modernized version of bread and circuses. And I didn’t enjoy rolling in it last month nearly as much as I used to because I can see what a farce this is all becoming.

    • jafabian

      Or alumni and boosters might take matters into their own hands. They’ve done it before. For another sport that shall not be mentioned.

  • Will

    Gotta remember something when using Syracuse and Seattle in the same paragraph … We know what’s here in Seattle but Syracuse is in the middle of New York – the state, not the city, about half way between Rochester and Albany. They have a minor league baseball team, almost 6 months of winter and the Erie Canal… It’s kinda difficult rooting for a tow path and snowplows so SU lacrosse and basketball produces a level of sports boosters the like Seattle has never seen.

    • art thiel

      Same with many college towns where hoops is king, Tucson and Spokane being two Western examples.

      Just adds to the pressure to cheat.

      • R D

        Are you accusing GU and Coach Few of cheating or running a dirty program because that’s what it sounds like. I know from some of your previous articles that you don’t like him, but there hasn’t ever been a rumor of cheating around the Zag program that I’ve ever heard of.

        • art thiel

          None of us outsiders can truly know what corners are cut and what rules are broken. I can’t say for certain that GU cheated, just as you can’t say the Zags haven’t. The only ways the NCAA knows is when an insider blows the whistle or a rival catches a school red-handed.

          But so many of the top programs over time get busted suggests that cheating is rampant.

          • Spider

            Thats pretty thin isn’t it? Implying Romar fails because “everybody” but him is cheating? Based on a few programs getting busted over time? Seems to me that the vast majority of college basketball programs are not nor have been busted, which would suggest the opposite of your conclusion.
            If in fact cheating is rampant wouldn’t that be a journalistic story of a lifetime?

          • art thiel

            A few programs? It IS the story of our lifetimes, because so many have been busted. But they happen a few at a time, and fans never connect dots.

            The NCAA enforcement division is a joke. Remember the Neuheisel trial, which he won because the NCAA didn’t know its own rules? NCAA has no subpeona power and only pursues a handful of cases, which most schools understand to be the situation, and cheat accordingly.

            The system is predicated on defending the indefensible — amateurism, a notion that no longer exists anywhere in the sports world except for U.S. college sports.

          • jafabian

            Let’s not forget that Few is quick to report schools doing anything resembling an NCAA violation.

          • art thiel

            He did it once with Washington. Not sure it’s rampant.

          • disqus_0fotImVld4

            I have a question about Gonzaga, etc. I’ve noticed that in the East there are many private Catholic schools who share conference memberships and they are geographically close–such as St, John’s, Seton Hall, Providence, Villanova, Temple, etc. Same in California. However, how has Gonzaga successfully blocked Seattle U from membership in the WCC? Or am deluded? I think not.

          • art thiel

            The West Coast Conference is nearly all private Catholic schools. Zags and the rest of WCC don’t want Seattle U because the program would drag down the conference’s RPI rating, thus hurting chances for a second WCC team getting into the tourney.

          • disqus_0fotImVld4

            Also–I would guess that other WCC schools might be worried about a weak link, but hell, none of them can stop Gonzaga. And you have USF, Santa Clara, St. Mary’s, and Pacific all within 100 miles of each other. Then there’s BYU–in the WCC with their football and basketball gym that seats around 18,000? Is that a cohesive link with the WCC? Seems like BYU has not really stormed through the league in basketball, but an ODD fit to my thinking.

      • Jeff Shope

        wouldn’t that apply to pullman?

        • coug73

          Come on Jeff, it’s almost impossible to cheat successfully in Pullman.

        • art thiel

          I was talking about successful programs.

  • ollie swensen

    As I have watched Coach Romars’ tenure at Washington unfold, it is obvious that he has a sound basketball program that is not going to embarrass the university. He has shown that when the talent is available he can win. The problem is the system is in need of a change to deal with the reality of the current state of college athletics and athletes. When I see the word oxymoron in articles it is almost always in relation to the status of the student/athlete. The challenge is to keep the young talent filling the rosters and packing the seats at the college arenas creating revenue. With backing and determination any challenge can become an opportunity.

  • disqus_0fotImVld4

    OK–but SU recently beat Pepperdine in the second rate post season tournament. I tend to believe Gonzaga wants to rule the state of Washington and doesn’t want ANY future threat from SU.

    • art thiel

      That’s an easy conclusion, but I doubt the Zags thought about it more than a minute before joining the rest of the WCC is pushing away SU.

    • RadioGuy

      I don’t perceive SU as any kind of threat to Gonzaga. This is not the mid-Seventies and the Chieftains aren’t getting NBA prospects like Oleynick, Richardson or Oldham. Those average crowds of 2,200 at KeyArena aren’t exactly going to wow the recruits, either. SU doesn’t return to their glory days unless they start doing the things that led Father Sullivan to drop the program to D3 in the first place, especially given the way the players are brought in and kept eligible in 2015.

      The WAC is probably where SU belongs, or maybe the Big West if/when the WAC folds. They are not a WCC-level program.

      • disqus_0fotImVld4

        OK–let’s assume that Gonzaga is not a threat to the men’s basketball D-1 existence to SU. (And, by the way, I have no personal connection to SU–didn’t go to school there, etc.) Then I would like to know why the Zags have come to Seattle to play “big games,” and flex their muscles in front of what would logically be a UW or SU crowd. Sure, they have alumni here, but they have alumni in a lot of west coast cities. As does SU. Compare the two schools academically–does Gonzaga trample them in the mud there, too? I don’t think so. Also–SU would do much better with a gym of 5,000 or so, not a big barn or their tiny campus gym. Compare that with Portland U and other WCC gyms. Of all the WCC schools, it’s Gonzaga that has its foot on the neck of SU and for an obvious reason–recruitng and economic dominance. Why should Seattle writers and radio people be defending Gonzaga? At my age I have seen changes–and eras–I can remember a time when SU basketball beat Gonzaga like a rug–and I don’t think the Spokane school liked it. Plus, way back in 1958 it was SU who made it to an NCAA title game, not Gonzaga. How does the bay area justify all the rivalries within driving distances–St. Mary’s, Santa Clara, USF, Pacific, plus San Jose State, Cal and Stanford? Which brings up a lot more questions–such as how do those schools accept the continual beatings from Gonzaga while no wanting their conference “weakened” with the inclusion of SU, which recently thumped Pepperdine? And back in the 1970s it was one man who decided to take SU out of D-1 athletics while a law school was brought to the campus. Philosophically, it looked good to him and a few others, but things have chaged. It’s time for SU to be brought back into the fold of the WCC, whether Gonzaga likes it or not. Zag fans may love being the big fish in a small pond, but seriously, it’s getting kind of boring. It’s time for a more competitive conference. And BYU has no business in it–they don’t fit.

        • art thiel

          Two points:

          BYU is a private religion-based school, like the rest of the WCC. It fits.

          And I, as one Seattle writer, and I suspect most other writers here, don’t have a dog in the hunt. Don’t care professionally who’s in or out.

          And the WCC doesn’t have any obligation to invite in anyone. Again, from a basketball standpoint, it’s all about RPI. They don’t need another weak team.

  • bigyaz

    Plenty of programs succeed without a whiff of scandal. Romar has huge advantages: excellent school, great city, great conference, limited competition for talent compared to many other parts of the country. To suggest his utter failure is simply attributable to not cheating (as far as we know) is a pitiful example of suck-up journalism. You used to be better than this, Art.

    • art thiel

      Because we haven’t heard of NCAA trouble doesn’t mean rules aren’t broken. If any big-time coach is ever honest, he’ll admit sticking to rules is impossible, because the NCAA imposes a false morality of amateurism that exists nowhere in the world.

      But as the linked stories to Syracuse and North Carolina showed, cheating is not accidental but institutionalized. From the president on down, school officials know what’s happening, or insist on not being told. Big-time college sports is so corrupted, and fans like you so are so unwilling to believe it, that’s it’s much easier to simply fire the coach and give no thought to demanding reform.

      • bigyaz

        Way to twist my words, Art. Of course the whole NCAA stinks, and virtually everyone cheats to varying degrees. That’s my point: You’re implying — no, flat out stating — that UW DOESN’T cheat and THAT is why Romar isn’t succeeding. (As opposed to an inability to recruit top players from the state of Washington, players wanting to leave the program, a general lack of excitement around the program, etc.)

        Of course, not that many years ago the Huskies were regularly making it to the NCAA tournament. Were they cheating then?

        Sorry, but you’re really sounding like a Romar apologist.

        • Tian Biao

          I think Art is saying that in the one-and-done era, a different kind of athlete can be recruited: a kid that will play for a year, or two at most, while barely scraping through school (and staying clear of the law). But Romar likes to coach kids for three or four years. That’s the adjustment he needs to make.

          Don James, as i remember, did adapt his approach. The 1991 team was full of marginal students but great athletes. It caught up to him in the end, but it was his best team.

          As for the NCAA, it is a broken and outdated institution, its enforcements are arbitrary and lack transparency, and change is coming, whether Emmert likes it or not.

          • art thiel

            To bigyaz, what changed for Romar was imposition in 2006 of the NBA’s one-and-done rule. He didn’t respond to it as Calipari has, and now Coach K and a number of others. For that, he is responsible, meaning that he may have walked away from some recruits he likely knew would be in school for 6 months, and thus unable to get by the academic review board that has rejected some special admits (Charles Garcia, anyone?).

            I should have included the explainer in the column and will do so in the future, because the topic won’t soon be over.

            Bigyaz, the narrower subject here is not cheating or NCAA ineptitude, it’s how each coach and school responds to a change in workplace . . . um, playplace rules. There’s higher risk in taking some one-and-done talents who neither want nor need college. Some treat college as a nuisance, not an asset, and act accordingly.

  • Frankie

    Wonder if the whole Venoy Overton fiasco followed up by a year of coaching the uncoachable Wroten sapped a bit of Romar’s spirit

    • art thiel

      Fair point. He couldn’t wait for Wroten to go.

  • 1coolguy

    This program is a sorry mess – after 13 years and a miserable recent record, what coach on earth could keep his job? Time to do your job Woodward – pay off Romar, hire the right guy and don’t sign any more stupid long term contracts!

    • RadioGuy

      Okay, I’ll play. Who’s the “right guy?”

      • art thiel

        Always easy for fans to fire the coach. It’s part of the contract they sign with teams: “The fans know better.” They don’t read the fine print that says, “Fans are required to make the replacement hire.”

  • disqus_0fotImVld4

    Im not ready to let go of the WCC situation. All the schools, minus BYU, have undergraduate attendance between 3000 and 5600 students. BYU’s is 30,000. All the endowments are between 100 million and 688 million (that one is Santa Clara). BYU’s is well over a billion. Attendance capacity of the gyms are all between 2500 and 6000. BYU’s is 20,900. SU fits with all the smaller schools, except for their gym, which unfortunately is Key Arena. Don’t tell me BYU fits with this conference–Except if all you want is a better computer ranking for men’s basketball wins, and even that is pretty shaky. (I know–it’s all about money.) It’s a terrible idea–and–there is more to conference affiliation than men’s football and/or basketball.And don’t tell me that SU is supposed to be affiliated with Chicago State and Texas Pan American. That is BS. Sports may rule the roost, but it is a lousy way to run intercollegiate athletics. Also–if the aim is to entertain the lowest rung of the sports fan ladder–we all need a timeout. And you know exactly what I’m talking about. With this logic you might as well suggest that all schools in the bottom half of all conferences hang it up and quit. If that’s the case Baylor, TCU, and Butler would have been gone a long time ago. One more thing: The WCC’s inclusion of BYU is nothing more than “rent a big RPI team” (which is questionable) for a short time–because we all know that BYU will only stay with the WCC until a better offer comes along.