LAS VEGAS — Once, they were a Montlake dream team, a coaching trifecta that lifted the Huskies to heights the program had rarely seen.
With Lorenzo Romar at the helm, and Ken Bone and Cameron Dollar by his side, the Washington men’s basketball program soared in the mid-2000s. They had it all covered, it seemed — coaching savvy, recruiting chops, motivational sensibilities.
In 2004, the Huskies shocked No. 1 and undefeated Stanford, advanced to the title game of the Pac-10 tournament, and made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999. In 2005, they won the conference tournament, earned their first No. 1 seed in the NCAAs, and advanced to the Sweet 16.
Bone left after that season for a job at Portland State, but Dollar stayed on with Romar as Washington achieved more success in the ensuing years — another Sweet 16 in 2006, and a tourney berth in 2009.
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That’s when Dollar departed the Huskies, but not the city, to help lead Seattle University on its return to NCAA Division I. The Huskies kept winning — a third Sweet 16 berth, then another foray into the second round — before hard times hit.
And now, nearly a decade after their last season together, all three coaches found themselves in Las Vegas this week leading programs in varying degree of disrepair.
Romar’s Huskies were ousted Wednesday by Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament and jetted home to Seattle before night had fallen on the Vegas strip. It will be their third straight season out of the Big Dance amid growing unrest among Husky faithful over Romar’s ability to pull them out of their tailspin.
Bone, meanwhile, is a Dead Coach Walking, his first-round ouster later Wednesday almost certainly ensuring that the Cougars will soon have a new coach.
Asked after the game if he would be the coach next year, Bone gave a mirthless laugh, and said, “I sure hope so. I have two years left on my contract.
“That’s what I would hope to be, but I don’t make that call. There’s actually someone higher up than I am at the university, so I don’t know.”
By all accounts, in the upcoming days athletic director Bill Moos will survey Bone’s 29-61 Pac-12 record, the dwindling crowds in Pullman, the growing apathy over the program, and pull the plug on Bone. That will require a $1.7 million buyout, but so dismal was this year’s 10-21 season that no other outcome seems fathomable.
DeVonte Lacy, the Cougars’ top player, praised Bone for not letting the growing speculation over his future be a distraction.
“There was a lot of backlash, but there was no letup or letdown,’’ Lacy said. “He hasn’t given up on us. He comes early every day to work, and I applaud him for that.”
But after noting a series of injuries and other “unfortunate breaks” that have plagued the Cougars in Bone’s tenure, Lacy noted, “You can make excuses all the time, but at the end of the day, winning is what’s important. Unfortunately, we didn’t, so someone has to take the blame.”
Dollar has experienced mostly diminishing returns as he navigates the Redhawks into their new world as a member of the Western Athletic Conference the past two seasons. As an independent in 2009-10, Seattle U had an encouraging 17-14 record, and Dollar’s tenure was peppered early with highlight moments — two wins over Oregon State (one by 51 points on the road), triumphs over Virginia and Utah, other strong showings against quality opposition.
But since that winning start, Seattle U has gone 11-20, 12-15, 8-22 and 13-17 after a tough 70-68 loss Thursday night in the WAC tournament to New Mexico State. The Redhawks put forth a tremendous effort in their upset but fell just short.
The talent pipeline Dollar had hoped to create with his strong local ties has yielded only occasional benefits (one being leading scorer Isiah Umipig out of Federal Way). He has yet to find a way to bring buzz to the Redhawks’ off-campus home at Key-Arena.
To his credit, Dollar remains passionately committed to a job he knew from the beginning would be daunting.
“No matter who the coach is, it’s a tough task not for the faint of heart,’’ Seattle University athletic director Bill Hogan said.
Now we’ll see if Hogan has the patience to allow Dollar more time to make it work. Speaking before Thursday’s late game, Hogan said, “This is actually fairly typical. For men’s teams, (the transition to Division I) tends to be a longer process. Of all the schools that went with us, we have the second-best winning percentage.”
As for Romar, with six years left on his 10-year contract extension, paying him $1.7 million a year through 2019-20, he’s not going anywhere. Athletic director Scott Woodward told Percy Allen of The Seattle Times last month, “He’s the right man for the job. … In every way, Coach is a great ambassador for this program — those kids, our school and this community.”
Frustrated fans might not want to hear it, but past success, plus integrity, should count for something — superseding a few down years (one of which resulted in 24 wins and a regular-season Pac-12 title).
That said, it’s not unreasonable to turn up the heat on Romar going into next season, and to carefully explore the reasons for the downturn. But he’s earned the opportunity to fight his way through this.
All three beleaguered coaches are men of high character, with enough coaching chops in their bank to believe that better days will be ahead for them, wherever they land.
But as Romar, Bone and Dollar find themselves leaving Las Vegas, those halcyon days together at the UW must seem like fond memories, indeed.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry