The Lorenzo Romar era at UW didn’t end well, but there is so much more to remember than that. It was 15 years of class and character, and some of the greatest achievements from many of the best players in the history of the program.
No, it didn’t end well. Yes, the team underachieved maddeningly for the last few years, and the NCAA tournament drought was a source of growing frustration for Husky hoops fans.
But there is so much more to remember about the Lorenzo Romar era at the University of Washington than that. It was 15 years of class and character from the head man, and there were plenty of moments of glory on the court — some of the greatest achievements from many of the best players in the history of the program.
Which is why, when Romar shows up at Alaska Airlines Arena on Saturday as part of Arizona’s coaching staff, he should receive an ovation. A standing ovation, a long, loving ovation filled with warmth and appreciation for a decade-and-a-half’s worth of representing the school — his alma mater — with honor.
It’s a no-brainer, even for those who were screaming for Romar’s head when the Huskies continued to struggle despite a succession of NBA first-round draft picks such as Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss and Markelle Fultz. It’s possible to fume over the results and salute the man.
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Yes, the Huskies’ surge this season under Romar’s replacement, Mike Hopkins, is validation of athletic director Jennifer Cohen’s decision to fire Romar last March after a season in which the Huskies went 9-22, won just two games in conference and missed the NCAA tournament for the sixth year in a row.
Yes, Hopkins has taken essentially the same players, minus No. 1 overall pick Fultz and adding super freshman Jaylen Nowell, and has them playing with a purpose and cohesion that was too often missing these past few years. The defensive intensity and execution is a revelation after the sieve-like coverage UW had been putting forth.
But let’s not lose sight of the fact that there were great times at Alaska Airlines Arena under Romar, when the arena was rocking and anything — even a national championship — seemed possible. There’s no doubt the Brandon Roy-led team in 2006 that led Connecticut by four points with 21 seconds to play could have won it all. Had they held on to that game, the most agonizing loss of Romar’s Husky career, they would have had only George Mason standing between UW and the Final Four. UCLA, a team the Huskies had swept, made it to the championship game.
That is just one glorious Romar season to think back upon and savor Saturday night. Think about the eight-year span from 2003-04 to 2010-11, in which the Huskies made the NCAA tournament six times, reached the Sweet 16 three times, won the Pac-12 tournament three times and paraded such compelling players as Roy, Nate Robinson, Jon Brockman, Isaiah Thomas, Quincy Pondexter, Justin Holiday and countless others who played at the next level.
It was no less than the rebirth of what had been a moribund program before Romar arrived. This year’s Huskies, against all odds, now have a shot at making the NCAA tournament. It was Romar who made that a realistic expectation. Hopkins has talked considerably about how gratifying it is to see the fans come back and revive UW’s home-court advantage. Well, in the Romar years, Husky fans learned how to raise their intensity to the next level.
One of great unanswered mysteries of Husky basketball will forever be what Romar would have done this year with the recruiting class he had lured to Seattle, the one topped by Michael Porter Jr. and ranked No. 2 in the country on signing day.
Of course, they scattered once Romar was fired. Porter and his brother, Jontay, went to Missouri (where Michael played just two minutes before suffering a season-ending back injury), four-star point guard Blake Harris to North Carolina State (after first going to Missouri), four-star guard Daejon Davis to Stanford and three-star forward Mamoudou Diarra to Cincinnati.
We’ll never know, of course. But what we do know is that Hopkins has molded the former Romar players who stayed — Noah Dickerson, Matisse Thybulle, David Crisp, et al — as well as the one recruit he convinced to come anyway (Nowell) and a few freshmen he hastily recruited, and turned them into a team gaining national recognition for their startling turnaround.
Maybe Romar would have been able to revive the magic of his early years and ushered in a second act of great success. Or, more likely, it was time for a change at the top to bring new energy and ideas to a flagging program. It’s hard to argue against that now.
Hopkins’ ultimate success with the program, while off to a smashing start, will reveal itself over time. But this isn’t about the Huskies’ promising future, or even their robust present. This is about the Husky past, and all those fun times under Lorenzo Romar, and all the ex-players who will tell you that they are better men for having played under him.
Reflect on that Saturday night, and then let him know what you think about it.