Having made the bold decision that underscored the aplomb of somebody who means business, Washington athletic director Jen Cohen now faces an equally difficult quandary: identifying a replacement for head basketball coach Lorenzo Romar.
When Cohen announced that Romar would not get a chance to return the Huskies to the prominence they once achieved under him, you can be sure Plan B options already were in place.
“ADs always have lists,” she said Wednesday. “I need to be prepared, and I’ve done my homework.”
Cohen’s list presumably includes the usual suspects who’ve enjoyed success at mid-major schools, such as Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. Gonzaga’s West Coast Conference rival, Saint Mary’s has flourished thanks to Bennett’s ability to span the globe for gems hidden 10,000 miles from the West Coast.
South Dakota State’s T.J. Otzelberger is another intriguing candidate. His team didn’t belong on the same court Thursday against Gonzaga, but Otzelberger, a former UW assistant, readied the Jackrabbits for a fight they had no chance to win. Were Romar able to exert that kind of effort out of the Huskies this season, Cohen would have been spared the pain of firing a friend.
Randy Bennett and T.J. Otzelberger aren’t yet household names, but get used to them. These guys are going places.
Which brings me to Will Conroy, who’s been places. Many places. When I glance at his pro basketball résumé, I start humming Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.”
Conroy has played in Tulsa and Turkey and Albuquerque and Germany, with some brief NBA sojourns in Los Angeles, Memphis and Minneapolis. Upon the conclusion of his world tour, Conroy ended up where he began: in Seattle, as an assistant coach for the Huskies.
Cohen thought enough of Conroy to appoint him the “point person” who’ll hold down the fort during the coaching search.
“A fabulous Husky,” Cohen called Conroy. “His No. 1 priority is to focus on our current student-athletes and our incoming freshman during this difficult transition.”
Cohen emphasized the transition will hinge on hiring “somebody that has has a high standard of excellence. Somebody that has a vision and a plan and an understanding of what Washington’s all about, and that they know they can build a championship culture here.”
If Conroy knows anything (and I happen to believe he knows a lot), it’s how to nurture a championship basketball culture in the Seattle-Tacoma area. Elite players come and go from these parts — Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford — and Conroy is the glue that keeps the superstars together.
The case against promoting Conroy from “point person in transition” to “Lorenzo Romar’s successor” is obvious: He’s 34, quite young for a first-time head coach in a power conference. Aside from all the years he spent globetrotting between Turkey and Memphis, he’s got no experience.
But to remember Conroy as a point guard — Washington’s all-time assists leader — is to recall a coach on the floor, the main man whose knack for distributing the ball made everything click.
Firing Romar put Washington in jeopardy of losing of one of America’s most ballyhooed 2017 recruiting classes. Michael Porter Jr., projected as the top pick of the 2018 NBA draft, happens to be Romar’s godson. There’s no chance Porter stays firm to his UW commitment.
But Conroy’s presence in front of the exit door could impede the parade of exiles behind him. We’ve got some history here, Conroy can tell them, and we’re on the cusp of making more history.
Washington doesn’t need Bennett’s magic touch to import players from countries bordering the Indian Ocean. It doesn’t need Otzelberger to scour the nation in search of junior-college prospects desperate to prolong their star-crossed careers.
Washington needs a head coach entrenched in the basketball-rich community surrounding it.
“I think this program can win a championship,” Cohen said, ‘and I think this program can have sold-out arenas. This is a basketball town, and I think there’s a ton of potential here. I think this is a special, special city and I think it’s a special school, and we’re excited to get somebody in here that’s going to build off that.”
Somebody is already there, Jen. Will Conroy is a fabulous Husky capable of cultivating a ton of potential.
My favorite item about the Conroy File: When he was toiling in the NBA’s Development League, going nowhere and yet going everywhere, he was named its Sportsman of the Year.