McGrath: Time to show UW’s Romar a little loyalty

Huskies’ coach deserves another chance to turn his program around

Staff Writer Staff WriterMarch 14, 2014 

Washington coach Lorenzo Romar reacts to a play against USC during the first half of a 82-75 victory on March 8. UW will miss the NCAA tournament for a third straight year, the longest tourney drought in Romar’s tenure.

JOE NICHOLSON /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

This past Wednesday marked the third anniversary of Washington’s 77-75 victory over Arizona, a game that clinched the conference tournament championship and put Isaiah Thomas’ last-second jump shot in the pantheon of all-time great buzzer-beaters.

“Cold-blooded!” bellowed CBS broadcaster Gus Johnson, whose description of the shot became as much an Internet sensation as the shot itself.

Three years to the day after Thomas’ cold-blooded jumper assured his team of an NCAA tournament berth, Washington took the floor against Utah in Las Vegas and revealed symptoms of a different kind of cold blood. Given a faint, final chance to salvage their disappointing season, the Huskies showed up indifferent to the challenge.

Even though they awakened and were able to muster some competitive energy — they held a one-point lead with

1:24 remaining — their sluggish response to the noon tipoff reflected poorly on coach Lorenzo Romar.

The team “did things for most of that half,” Romar said afterward, referring to the second half, “that in a lot of games, it would allow you to win the game.”

Perhaps, but the Huskies did things in the first half, which ended with them looking at a 10-point deficit, that allowed them to lose the game and ponder a third consecutive March spent in college basketball’s version of purgatory.

An NIT bid might await Romar’s 17-15 team, and three victories in that tournament would give the Huskies a 20-win season. Plans for a parade and the distribution of commemorative caps are not forthcoming.

The program has endured worse seasons under Romar — the Huskies finished 10-17 in 2003, his first year as coach, and they went 16-17 in 2008 — but the one-and-done performance in the Pac-12 Conference tournament underscored a malaise that extends from players to fans.

Remember when Huskies basketball tickets were coveted, and the bracket announcements on the second Sunday of March turned the tournament selection show into a pep rally at Hec Edmundson Pavilion? Remember when “the Sweet 16” was a basketball term around here?

Today? The “Sweet 16” might as well stand for the group of Seahawks starters remaining in the fold after free agency.

Between the low-spark state of UW hoops and the inevitable restlessness of fans familiar with how a coaching change helped lead the Hawks to an NFL title, there are rumblings it’s time for Romar to be replaced. I hear them. I feel them. I understand them.

I won’t contribute to them. Romar retrieved college basketball from a scrap heap on the local sports landscape. He gave fans both a reason to watch and a chance to care. His teams became the talk of the town, the talk of the region and, for a brief and shining moment, the talk of the nation.

Romar accomplished all this while remaining true to his core values of faith, humility, compassion and honor. Success on the basketball court, unanticipated and virtually unprecedented at a school where football will always be king, didn’t pique temptations to move onward and upward in the coaching chain.

Washington never was a stepping stone for the former UW guard. Montlake was his destination, his only destination. Loyalty like that requires loyalty in return.

That’s not to say Romar deserves a lifetime ticket to coach the Huskies. I don’t believe he needs to reinvent himself — the original invention is just fine — but his program has hit a snag: less intimidating than a wall, but more problematic than a speed bump.

The team that went out against Utah on Wednesday and played 20 minutes of blah in the first half was a team desperate for a charismatic floor leader, somebody with the mean-streak attitude to gather the guys around him for a lecture along the lines of: “We’re stinking up this place. We’re an embarrassment to the entire state of Washington.”

Then again, the team that lost Wednesday not only had no starters from the state of Washington, but also no reserves from the state capable of producing meaningful minutes.

Where have all the flowers gone?

Local talent streams tend to run in ebbs and flows, and since the glory days of Brandon Roy, Will Conroy, Nate Robinson and then Thomas, there’s been an ebb.

The good news: Local help is on the way, in the form of 6-foot-1 guard David Crisp, from Rainier Beach. The not-so-good news: Crisp is headed for prep school, and won’t be available until the fall of 2015.

More good news: The next two recruiting classes appear strong, with Timberline’s 6-6 Donaven Dorsey and Triston Etienne (a 6-10 forward from Abbotsford, B.C.) anchoring the 2014 class and 6-9 forward Marquese Chriss (the Huskies’ highest-ranked frontcourt prospect in years) joining Crisp in 2015.

More not-so-good news: 2015 is not tomorrow.

If the Huskies, seeded No. 9 in the Pac-12 tournament after a regular-season conference record of 9-9, sustain their recent pattern of mediocrity, the pressure on Romar will only intensify.

He’s not inflexible. Romar installed a high-post offense last season for half-court sets, likely straining the attention span of freshmen born to run, six years after revamping his entire offensive scheme to best fit Spencer Hawes, a 7-1 freshman from Seattle Prep who spent his sophomore season in the NBA.

If the 55-year-old Romar needs an inspiration at this point in his career — and at 55, who doesn’t? — he always can look toward the late John Wooden. Before Wooden gained acclaim as “The Wizard of Westwood,” he oversaw several UCLA teams that were good, very good, but not synonymous with the work of a wizard.

Wooden’s 12th season with the Bruins precisely compares to Romar’s latest season, his 12th with the Huskies. UCLA finished 14-12 in 1960, and Washington is 17-15.

Three years after going 14-12, the Bruins won the first of 10 national championships under Wooden with a 30-0 record.

“John was a better coach at 55 than he was at 50,” former California coach Pete Newell once said. “He was a better a coach at 60 than at 55. He’s a true example of a man who learned from Day One to Day Last.”

I’m not comparing Romar to Wooden, of course. I’m merely pointing out that for Romar, Wooden’s first 12 seasons at UCLA provide a template of crazy possibilities.

Here’s the craziest: The best is yet to come.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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