It is a conundrum like few others in modern-day college athletics, a problem without a clear solution, a looming decision that, either way it falls, is sure to infuriate as many interested parties as it will please.
Lorenzo Romar is in his 15th season as the Washington Huskies men’s basketball coach. He has won more games than any coach in school history, appeared in more NCAA tournaments than any coach in school history, and has consistently produced players drafted by the NBA. He is friendly, gracious and well-liked, traits that have served him well as a recruiter of top talent.
Now for the “but.”
Washington has not played in the NCAA tournament since 2011, and, barring the most miraculous of miracles in the Pac-12 tournament, will not make it this season, either. The Huskies have not finished above .500 in Pac-12 play since 2011-12, and, at 9-16 overall and 2-11 in league play this season, they are in the midst of what could well be Romar’s worst year ever — and that’s in spite of the presence of freshman guard Markelle Fultz, who is projected as the No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft and might be the most talented player in school history.
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Last year, the Huskies had two first-round draft picks — Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray — in addition to the league’s leading scorer, Andrew Andrews, and still managed only a 9-9 record in league play and a second-round exit from the National Invitation Tournament.
The above does not read like the résumé of a man who will be employed much longer. And yet for various, unique reasons, it is not a foregone conclusion that UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen will terminate Romar’s contract at season’s end.
Despite the existence of ample evidence to the contrary, a reasonable argument can be assembled for keeping Romar another year.
That sentence alone is sure to inspire outrage among the growing throng of Romar detractors, those who (correctly) bemoan UW’s about-to-be-six-year absence from the NCAA tournament, those who (accurately) criticize the team’s inability to guard anybody, those who (fairly) wonder how a team with two first-round NBA draft picks can fail to make the big dance (twice).
If this were a discussion about what Romar deserves, it would be a short one. He is regarded as a man of high character, respected and admired by many in the UW community, and not just in athletics. He is revered by many of his former players.
Yet a six-year NCAA tournament drought is unacceptable at any school that even kind of cares about basketball. Romar has underperformed, plain and simple. It is in many ways a testament to his decency as a human being that he hasn’t already been fired.
But this isn’t about what Romar deserves. It’s about what is best for the future of UW’s program — both immediate and long-term — and there are legitimate reasons to believe there is more risk involved in firing Romar than in letting him coach next season.
First, there is his contract, a 10-year extension signed in April 2010 that runs through the 2020 season. The deal guarantees a $3.2 million buyout if the school fires him before the end of March, and that’s no small fee for a department currently operating at a deficit. Add in the possibility of a $300,000 buyout for assistant coach Michael Porter Sr. — the school would owe him his full salary each month for up to a year unless he secures employment elsewhere — and the cost of hiring a new coaching staff, and the finances create a daunting challenge.
There is also the matter of the incoming recruiting class, a five-player group ranked No. 6 nationally by Scout.com and headlined by superstar Nathan Hale High School forward Michael Porter Jr., a consensus top-five recruit and the son of UW assistant coach Michael Porter Sr. (and, too, the godson of Romar, a longtime family friend). The class includes two other top-100 recruits, Garfield guards Jaylen Nowell and Daejon Davis, plus touted point guard Blake Harris — Romar calls him the best passer he has ever recruited — and 6-foot-8 power forward Mamoudou Diarra.
All have signed binding letters of intent, and Cohen would have to grant each player his release in the event Romar is fired and the kids want to play somewhere else. But schools don’t typically choose to hold recruits hostage in the event of a coaching change. And in Porter’s case, specifically, it is difficult to fathom that he would still want to play for a school that just fired his godfather and his dad. Firing Romar would almost certainly mean letting both Porters go, to say nothing of the rest of the class or the current roster.
Think the Huskies look bad now? Imagine what next year would look like without reinforcements.
It would be easier for Cohen to make a change if, say, there were a highly successful head coach at another program with obvious ties to the area and a known desire to coach at UW. But there isn’t, meaning the cost of putting this decision off for another year appears relatively low.
Romar has defended his program in a few different ways the past few years, and there is at least some credence to each argument. The Huskies went 5-13 in league play in 2014-15 after starting the season 11-0, and returned only one scholarship player (Andrews) the following season. They added six freshmen and a junior college transfer, and improved to 9-9, flirting with NCAA tournament contention for nearly the entire season.
If a first-year coach had produced such a result, Romar said at the time, he would be lauded for how quickly he turned things around.
So, how do you explain this season? The Huskies don’t just have a poor record. The optics have been awful, too.
They lost by 41 at home to UCLA before a sold-out crowd, and have lost three other conference games by 22 or more points. They were embarrassed at Gonzaga. They lost at home to Yale. Against Pac-12 opponents, they rank last in the league in field-goal percentage, ninth in defensive field-goal percentage and last in defensive rebounding percentage.
Romar notes the team would look a lot different if it had Chriss and Murray, neither of whom coaches expected to go pro after one season. Because their ascension took Romar by surprise, there was little time for UW to replace those two — unlike with Fultz, who UW knew long ago would be a near-certain one-and-done.
The way Romar sees it, he had to rebuild his program after 2014-15, and he did it with mostly freshmen. But the two best ones left after last season, which forced a step backward this year. That’s why he’s more optimistic about the 2017 class: the 2015 group was talented and highly rated, but this year’s recruits — including a once-in-a-generation talent in Porter Jr. — will be paired with a core of returning juniors and sophomores.
None of that will matter, of course, if Romar and his staff don’t figure out how to motivate their players to play defense and adhere to basic basketball principles. But it appears a distinct possibility that he will at least get the chance.
Even donors and ticket-holders seem split on the matter. In the days following Washington’s 98-71 loss at Gonzaga on Dec. 7, fans voiced their displeasure to Cohen via email, according to records furnished to The News Tribune, many of them calling for a coaching change.
Most acknowledged Romar’s character and past success, but insisted it was time he be fired. One offered no opinion on what Cohen should do, but wanted to plug the name of a potential replacement: Kevin Keatts, the head coach at UNC Wilmington.
Only two of the emailers, though, threatened to cancel their season tickets. And for different reasons.
The first, dated Dec. 7, the night of UW’s loss at Gonzaga: “I will no longer attend any game and won’t renew my families (sic) season tickets until Romar is gone.”
And the second, dated Dec. 8: “If Coach Romar is not allowed to coach this incoming class it will be an easy decision for me to drop my basketball season tickets. I am pretty confident in saying that as long as Romar is our coach I will keep my tickets.”
Cohen replied to each fan, politely thanking them for their interest but noting plainly that she does not discuss personnel matters on her public email account.
“I am very well aware of external issues and opinions,” Cohen wrote to one complainant. “As you probably know I have been around this place for a long time so I am very connected to external voices.”
Those voices are getting louder, and it seems there is no decision Cohen can make that will quiet them all.
UW’s Romar ERA
A look UW men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar’s season-by-season record at UW:
2003-04=19-12=.613=NCAA first round
2004-05=29-6=.829=NCAA Sweet 16
2005-06=26-7=.788=NCAA Sweet 16
2007-08=16-17=.485=CBI first round
2008-09=26-9=.743=NCAA second round
2009-10=26-10=.722=NCAA Sweet 16
2010-11=24-11=.686=NCAA second round
2012-13=18-16=.529=NIT first round
2015-16=19-15=.559=NIT second round