BY Art Thiel 08:11PM 03/15/2017

Thiel: A dreary, but necessary, move for Huskies

The 107-66 loss to UCLA at a sold-out Hec Ed was the soul-crushing moment that revealed the breadth of despair in Washington men’s hoops. It was coming for a long time. Cohen did the right thing.

The good times at Hec Ed (March 7, 2009) were long past for Lorenzo Romar. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Lorenzo Romar knows a little bit about firing popular basketball coaches at Washington. When the coach during Romar’s two playing seasons at Montlake, the legendary Marv Harshman, was axed in 1985, he had just finished the second of two NCAA tourney appearances after sharing the Pac-10 championship both years.

But a 46-17 record in those two years meant nothing to university president Dr. William Gerberding. He wanted a younger, hipper coach who could indulge boosters with jokes instead of growls.

Community outrage could have created a tsunami on Lake Washington. Thirty-two years later, ripples are few at Montlake.

If Washington can dump a coach with back-to-back co-championships, it can certainly dispatch a coach whose team set a record of 13 consecutive losses while failing to reach  NCAA tourney six years in a row, as was done Wednesday.

As you no doubt have read, heard and perhaps experienced over the past 15 years, Romar is the embodiment of dignity, grace and caring concern in a profession pickled with scalawags, brigands and mountebanks. His strength of character and conviction, which translated into keeping Washington out of the NCAA hoosegow, was why former athletics director Scott Woodward had no problem in 2011 extending Romar’s contract to 2020.

Not only was Washington a destination job for Romar, an alum and former player, he would do his best to keep the Huskies’ athletics program out of the college-sports slammer, where it was in the early 1990s because of Don James and a decade later because of Rick Neuheisel.

Romar didn’t have to win a national championship, or get to the Final Four. He just had to keep things interesting, but not too interesting.

The hoops landscape changed. In 2006, the NBA damaged the college game by forcing the one-and-done requirement for potential pros. Every year, international scouting and foreign players became better. Across the state, coach Mark Few’s success at Gonzaga kept making the UW look feeble, so much so that Romar had to insist that the schools no longer play.

Then there were the in-game problems. The Huskies often couldn’t in-bound the ball properly. Or they sometimes couldn’t swing the ball from side to side to beat a zone. Or they “settled,” either for a cheap three on offense or a reach-in on defense. And it kept happening more often after capable assistants Cameron Dollar and Ken Bone left for head coaching jobs.

In recruiting, Romar was finishing a close second on some difference-making players, like Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon. Then players start transferring out. They all said nice things about Romar, then let the sentence drift off.

One who didn’t was Nigel Williams-Goss, who left after two seasons and transferred to Gonzaga, where he is leading the Bulldogs into the NCAA tournament Thursday as a No. 1 seed.

In a book this fall about Gonzaga’s success, Glory Hounds by former Times and P-I sportswriter Bud Withers, Williams-Goss offered a telling assessment:

“I felt after my freshman year, a lot of the things we had talked about (that) were going to change going into my sophomore year, I didn’t see a lot of that change happening. It’s one thing, I feel like, to lose, but it’s another thing when you’re not doing everything in your power, or your capability, as far as preparation in trying to win. I just felt there were a lot of stones left unturned before games, and stuff like that. I had talked to past players, where they kind of had similar experiences . . . I just felt it was best for me to move on.”

“There are a lot of things that go into preparing and stuff at this level — the margin is so small at this level — and I just felt there were just a lot of things that weren’t being done that could have been done. That (they) said were going to be done that weren’t.”

The Huskies over the past few seasons often have seemed unprepared. A game’s inevitable turns seemed baffling. No solutions were forthcoming. This final season was bleak, a 9-22 debacle that had its nadir Feb. 4. In front of the first home sellout in five years at Hec Ed, UCLA slaughtered the Huskies 107-66, a schoolyard bully clobbering a third-grader for his lunch money.

Yes, UCLA is very good. But I have seen Washington beat very good UCLA teams.

This was the biggest defeat in Romar’s tenure, and the worst in the past 19 seasons, a dismal experience despite having Markelle Fultz, the likely No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. That’s when I wrote that a change had to be made. Romar was still an admirable person, but he was no longer an admirable game coach. Twelve of the players on the roster were freshman or sophomores, and they may have been emotionally scarred for life.

I thought he would survive in the job, because of his “protections” — a $3.2 million buyout and perhaps the best incoming recruiting class in UW history. But athletics director Jen Cohen looked past the near horizon to the far one and made the right call. The UCLA game was part of a season-ending run of 13 consecutive losses that was the acme of futility and mortifying for a sports program that aspires to championships.

Cohen has been around Washington athletics for 18 years as an employee, and for many years prior as a fan. This decision looked and sounded as if it tore her up. But she persisted in her evaluation to the critical conclusion.

“I just wanted to see the program improving,” she said at a campus press conference Wednesday afternoon. “That just didn’t happen.”

Then she told the players.

“It was awful,” she said. “I wouldn’t have expected anything different.”

For the many who have celebrated with and for Romar, who have felt the warmth of his embrace and the sincerity of his convictions about how boys should become men, Thursday was excruciating. As it was necessary.

Cohen did a hard thing well. Now, it gets a littler harder, until it gets better.

 


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YourThoughts

  • WestCoastBias79

    The sad thing is, we’re likely going to lose out on what could be the best recruiting class in UW history. Michael Porter Jr. looks like Lebron did in high school. He may be one and done, but that one could have been a Final Four. Fultz is still raw, Porter isn’t. I don’t think anyone expected Criss and Murray to be one and dones, if they’re still on the team with Fultz, they’re in the tourney, but maybe I’m just now proving your point.

    Romar has always been a suspect X’s and O’s coach, but maybe it’s because I’m too young to remember Harshman, but pre-Romar, all I remember is a couple of decent Bender teams with Watts and MacCulloch, and garbage. I’m nervous about returning to the days of Nance.

    One more year… The incoming class is worth that wait… Screw it, just hire Brandon Roy, at least they’ll still have a shot at Porter, and I doubt he’s a worse coach than Romar.

    • art thiel

      Roy is nowhere near ready for D1. But when he was at UW, he made Romar a great coach. Funny how that works.

      • WestCoastBias79

        You’re probably right, but I’m a bit cynical when it comes to hoops coaching. (Warning: wishful thinking and dubious logic lay ahead) I think someone can learn to be a good football coach. Basketball coaches are born, or to put it in Denny Green terms, they are who they are. Basketball concepts are simple and pretty universal. Even the ‘revolutionary’ Golden State drive for efficiency isn’t difficult to grasp. It’s the ability to make adjustments and prepare that separates good coaches from each other, and people either have it or don’t. Smart players have that same mentality because they can’t overwhelm their opponents with talent, so they have to make in game adjustments to their game and prepare beforehand. Roy was that type of player, especially when his knees started to go. He also played for Nate McMillan and Rick Adelman in the NBA, both good coaches who are fanatical about preparation. Give Roy a couple of experienced assistants, with an intact recruiting class, he’d take them to the tourney next year.

        • wabubba67

          Please don’t underestimate the technical aspects of coaching and how complicated some concepts can be….and the ability to teach that knowledge to players each day in well planned practice. Great coaching matters more than a cult of personality.

          • art thiel

            I tend to agree. Gregg Popovich is a master of thorough preparation. In football, so is Chris Petersen.

        • art thiel

          Dedication to preparation in coaching is different than the same commitment as a player. Former players are shocked at the amount of management of people, media, business and staff that goes with the head coaching position. It’s a different level of commitment, and most ex-players don’t have the will or patience.

  • L78

    I’m not going to disagree about Romar being a class act. But when the head coach can create a $300,000 a year job for the inexperienced father of a top recruit–and still be lauded as a beacon of integrity–then big time college basketball is a fairly sleazy endeavor, yes?

    • art thiel

      I hope college-hoops sleaziness is not breaking news to you at this date. It can grind up everyone, Romar included. My view of Romar is dominated by what he contributes to players’ lives (and I don’t mean cash).

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    • Comrade C-attle

      If you’re looking for integrity from a big time college basketball or football coach, you probably believe Santa comes down that chimney on Xmas eve. As for Porter Sr., he was an assistant for the Missouri women and it happens all the time: see John Calipari and Larry Brown. Let’s not forget John Wooden had a booster paying players.

      • art thiel

        Sam Gilbert was the booster to whom you referred. Guys like him are everywhere, indulged by every program that feels obligated to keep the antiquated notion of amateurism alive.

    • Husky73

      Sadly, L78 makes a good and fair point. Cohen should have never allowed it.

      • art thiel

        If Cohen or any big-school AD had an anti-sleaze rule, the industry would collapse.

  • tor5

    I’ll miss LoRo. But nice write-up, Art!
    scalawags, brigands, mountebanks, hoosegow… That’s some interestin’ sports writing, I must say!

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            SPNW has installed all available WordPress software to block spam. And if you think you hate it, imagine being the guy — me — who has to shovel the stall.

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  • wabubba67

    I’m hoping for Archie Miller from Dayton. Competent, extremely competitive, young, hearing for a shot in a major conference, and it would make for an interesting rivalry with his brother coaching at Arizona.

    • art thiel

      His name is on the early speculation lists, and he fits a profile of the kind of guys who move up at tourney time.

  • Husky73

    Great piece of writing, Art. For almost everyone, there comes a time to leave the stage. Romar’s character and respect delayed his departure a year or two. The vaunted incoming recruiting class will fly away (as will Porter, Sr.) leaving the Huskies toothless for the near future. Whomever comes in will say the right things about optimism and building a great program. The truth is that if the new coach can duplicate what Romar has done, he’ll be held in high esteem at this football school. Romar did it about as well as it can be done.

    • art thiel

      UW isn’t a football school if hoops wins big. But for the next two years, it’s likely to be comatose.

  • Husky73

    Art, I’d like to see you opine on the Seattle U situation. Dollar hung on longer than Romar did. He was never able to make Chieftains…err, Redhawks…basketball relevant even in his own back yard. There are some very good high school basketball players in the Seattle urban area, and none of them even sniff at SU, an urban D-1 university. What will Seattle U look for in a new coach, and how can they move the needle and be successful?

    • Kirkland

      They need to be relevant on their own campus first. For decades it was a commuter school where the students barely noticed their NAIA teams. I know they’ve tried to transition away from the commuter school atmosphere, which includes the D-1 move in their sports, but that’s taking longer than anybody anticipated.

      Key Arena doesn’t help, a larger than needed building on the other side of the city hard for their students to get to. A smaller gym on campus will give the Redhawks a real “home”.

      • art thiel

        They have Connolly Center on campus, but they say it’s too small.

        I just don’t think most faculty, staff and alums over 30 years missed hoops all that much. Amazingly to many sports fans, colleges actually to exist and even thrive without big-time college sports.

        Gonzaga works well in Spokane because it is the only national sports show in town.

    • art thiel

      They’re in a real bind — high academic standards and a big city with lots to do. SU needs to get a lot dirtier and devote lots more resources to create a breakthrough.

      • Husky73

        Seattle U should be the home town school for the kids from the Metro League. The new coach should do everything possible to corral those local players. And then they need to reach out to New Jersey (the O’Briens), Washington DC (Baylor) and Connecticut (Oleynick) for that one difference maker. Art– there’s your homework assignment: find Frank Oleynick. And in your spare time, see if you can locate John Brisker as well.

        • art thiel

          They’re getting the West Seattle HS guard, but most talented kids aspire to the big time, taking a WAC school as a fallback. The
          WCC is a better conference, but lots of private schools with higher academic standards. Not that that makes a a big differences to 4-5 special admits a year on hoops scholarships.

    • 1coolguy

      They don’t have the budget to bring in a top coach. When they had a very good coach, Joe Callero, he left for $$$.

      • Husky73

        Coach Callero was not a favorite of SU administration.

      • wabubba67

        Callero was replaced by Dollar…brought in because he was more of a “name” to make the move to Div. 1 seem legit. Always take competency over name recognition.

  • Kirkland

    Better to be fired for losing than for a scandal, like what’s happening at Baylor.

    Wondering, would recruiting four-year players instead of one-and-dones be better for winning consistently? You might not have the superstars, but you do have players that have progressed together and developed chemistry. Does Gonzaga recruit a lot of one-and-dones? (I don’t follow basketball, serious question.)

    Slightly off-topic, Art, but was Don James that much to blame for UW football’s probation in the early ’90s? If I remember right, that seemed more about Billy Joe Hobert and Jim Heckman than James.

    • art thiel

      99 percent of all players recruited by Washington and every school are four-year players. There’s only a dozen or 15 freshmen in any one year that are obvious NBA candidates. But most successful big-time programs have one. To skip over pursuing them consigns a school to second- or third-tier status. Woodward told Romar to go after one-and-dones, so, against his better judgment, he did.

      Regarding James, Hobert was the trigger event, but there was a cascade of other misdeeds discovered. Lots of people did things under James that he didn’t know about, but it was on his watch, and he quit over it.

      • wabubba67

        I think that if Romar, or now his successor, were a better teacher of fundamentals (to the point where players knew that they were becoming better) some might have stayed another year. Written, Ross, Chriss, and Murray come to mind.

        • art thiel

          Another good point.

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      • 1coolguy

        James quit and even though I have always respected him as a great coach, this move was nothing less than despicable. In leaving, he did many things: He showed his athletes a very poor example – what happened to “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”? As well as many other coachig maxims about hanging in there in the face of adversity.
        He also lost his soap box, which staying on as coach and undoubtedly bringing the team back to prominence after sanctions, Would there have been any stronger vindication?
        How better than winning than to give Gerberding the finger,and all those in the conference who teamed up to condemn him?
        He set the worst example possible to the kids by quitting, and then doing it the day two year sanctions were levied, in August, just before the season started. This put the UW and Jim Lambright (not a qualified HC) and the kids in a horrible position, essentially telling everyone “I give up” and walking away.

        • art thiel

          I wrote much of your thoughts at the time in the P-I.
          i should have kept copies and recordings of the death threats.

          • Husky73

            Barbara Hedges put James in a leaky rowboat and pushed him into the center of Hudson’s Bay in the middle of winter.

          • art thiel

            Hedges was under orders from Gerberding. She was doing the bidding of the person who hired her, which is not exactly a mis-read of her responsibilities.

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      • Bruce McDermott

        Interesting, Art. Did the “things” that these “lots of people did” actually form any part of the basis for sanctions? My memory is somewhat dim, but what I do remember doesn’t include such “things.” If not, such a statement sounds, dare I say, a bit Trumpian.

        • art thiel

          It’s hard to explain in a sentence what went down in the months-long saga, so I probably shouldn’t have tried. But let me attempt to clarify in one non-Trumpian sentences:

          Assistant coaches and boosters committed rules violations that were unknown to James, who did not dispute the veracity of the misdeeds reported by P10 and NCAA investigators, only the punishments.

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  • 1coolguy

    “But a 46-17 record in those two years meant nothing to university president Dr. William Gerberding.” Gerberding was an ass, who looked down on the “lower campus” with uppity disdain from his Ivory Tower. He not only fired Harshman, he fired AD Mike Lude, who in 1991 had just been voted NCAA AD OF THE YEAR!!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was Lude who hired Don James.
    Word had it Lude was raising money for the athletic department so successfully it was cutting in on Gerberding’s efforts.
    If that’s not all, he chose to NOT reach out a hand to James and defend him vociferously before the Pac-10 conference’s presidents. In essentially one fell swoop, he off’s the National Champion Husky football team by getting rid of both Lude and James.
    Gerberding was a very, very small minded man who will go down as not only UW’s worst president, but clearly one of the worst University presidents, nationally.

    • art thiel

      I don’t dismiss Gerberding as small-minded. He had a point that athletics were operating almost independently of the school’s mission statement, as they were everywhere. His lament about the overemphasis of sports at a university was legit then and now.

      He wanted to be rid of James, Harshman and Lude because they represented an old way of sports admin that he wanted changed. In addition, Lude sorely neglected the requirements of Title IX, to the point that federal funding was in jeopardy.

      So he hired Barbara Hedges, who was not up to the job, but nevertheless did implement the big changes needed to comply with Title IX.

      James had a lot of power, but the NCAA violations made him vulnerable. He tried to stare down Gerberding with the threat of quitting during the Pac-12 meeting on sanctions. Gerberding didn’t blink, James followed through by quitting, and both men were stained.

  • 1coolguy

    The “proof to the pudding” on Romar will be two-fold: What college picks him up and what that teams record under Romar is. Only time will tell.

    • art thiel

      Well, I think 15 years at Washington proves the pudding.

      • 1coolguy

        Art – As “thee” most talented NW sportswriter, I will only say your reply may be impacted by a possible friendship with LR.

  • Kirkland

    Indiana just let go of Tom Crean, controversially, and the Wichita State coach has said he’ll be moving on someday. Could Washington appeal and afford either?

    • wabubba67

      Crean doesn’t interest me much…and Marshall would be way too expensive. Miller from Dayton on the other hand?

      • art thiel

        Feel free to speculate. It’s fun. Remember that Romar was the fourth choice of AD Barbara Hedges, and he was three times the conference coach of the year.

        • wabubba67

          Any idea who the three ahead of Romar were? I do wonder if the chance to coach in the Pac-12 against his brother (and get paid handsomely) would be enough to finally lure Archie out of Dayton? (I wonder if Sean would persuade or dissuade his brother concerning the UW job? Certainly, Sean is very aware that the UW has the potential to be a formidable rival under the right stewardship.)

          • art thiel

            Quin Snyder was offered, and Hedfges also pursued Don Monson and Mark Few.

            Don’t know much about the Millers except they make a weak light beer.

          • 1coolguy

            Haha – well said!

        • wabubba67

          Here’s another name that crossed my mind (though, admittedly, a somewhat crazy thought…and one which I’m not sure I would be in favor of): George Karl.

          Has always said that he has a fondness for the college game, his reputation needs a slight repair after Sacramento and is currently unlikely to get an NBA job, already lives in the area, loves Seattle, has the NBA pedigree that recruits would respect, and keeps himself relevant in the region (just in case this city ever gets another NBA franchise).

        • 1coolguy

          Until the one and done rule, to which he never truly adjusted.

  • Ken S.

    Romar might have taken the time to watch Gonzaga play. He might have learned a ‘few’ things. IMO this is what comes from being too comfy in your job. Romar is a great guy and I wish him well. Now how about getting someone with better recruiting skills?Go ZAGS!!!

    • wabubba67

      Recruiting was never in question, coaching was.

    • art thiel

      Romar’s recruiting was not the issue. Game prep was the issue.

  • wabubba67

    Watching the chess match between Wichita State and Dayton…both teams SO well coached! I’ll be more than happy with either one ending up in Seattle for the UW.