The four seniors who will play their final home game Saturday had options when Lorenzo Romar was fired. But the new coach sold them on his plan — and his character.
You might look at the four seniors set to play their last home game tonight and think they weren’t Mike Hopkins’ recruits. You might think the Huskies coach who replaced Lorenzo Romar in March 2017 simply inherited that core.
The truth is, Hopkins’ biggest task upon arriving at Washington was to recruit the players he already had. Two years later, he won a Pac-12 title — but only because he won those seniors’ trust.
Any one of those guys could have transferred penalty-free after Romar was ousted. And given the affinity they had toward Romar, there was a real fear that some of them would.
And so began Project Retention, an undertaking that would shape the immediate, and perhaps long-term future of Huskies men’s basketball. And the first victory was guard David Crisp.
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Crisp admitted he wasn’t sure what his plans were upon Romar’s departure. He said his mom advised him to be patient and wait to see what Romar’s successor would say.
Then came a phone call from Hopkins almost immediately after accepting the job. Thirty minutes later, Crisp was committed to returning.
“It was such a genuine conversation. I could feel that he was a really genuine guy. I’ve never felt that way over a phone call,” said Crisp, the point guard averaging a career-high 12.9 points per game while shooting a career-high 38.7 percent from beyond the three-point line. “I was like, ‘You know, I’m willing to stick it out with you.’ “
Dominic Green didn’t need much time, either. Like Crisp, Green is from the area, having played at Hazen High in Renton. And like Crisp, Green only needed one conversation with Hopkins to pledge his loyalty.
He remembers the specificity in which Hopkins laid out his plan for the team. He wasn’t telling Green what he thought he wanted to hear — he was telling him exactly what was going to happen.
“What really sold me was the scheme,” said Green, who confessed he started looking at other schools when Romar left. “He wasn’t telling me, ‘We might do this or we might do that.’ He was telling me, ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.’ “
Hopkins had to work a little harder to persuade Matisse Thybulle, who’s on the verge of becoming the first player in NCAA Division I history to average at least three steals and two blocks in a season. And he had to work doubly hard to persuade Thybulle’s dad, Greg.
Shortly after Hopkins got the job, Matisse sat in his office with a list of questions typed out on his phone. But after posing one or two of them, Greg asked his son to leave and conducted a one-on-one.
About 24 hours later, Greg called Hopkins to say Matisse was going to stay, prompting the coach to start “screaming at the top of my lungs.” But the most poignant moment came the next day, when Greg handed Hopkins a card covered with pictures of everyone in Matisse’s immediate family, including his mother, who succumbed to cancer when Matisse was a high-school senior.
“That’s a brain tattoo,” said Hopkins, who describes himself as a “crier at heart.” “He was basically saying, ‘I’m giving my son to you.’ I lost it. It was pretty incredible.”
There was no Hallmark-movie moment in the case of Noah Dickerson, but he was the last of the four to make up his mind. The big man actually asked for a release after Romar left and visited Virginia and LSU.
It’s not that he had one foot out the door, per se, but unlike his aforementioned teammates, the Atlanta native had no Pacific Northwest connection before coming to UW.
But then he started talking to Hopkins. Sometimes on the phone. Sometimes in person. Sometimes for hours on end. Finally, in late April — more than a month after Hopkins took the job — Dickerson decided he’d finish his college career as a Husky.
“Coach Hop is a genuine guy. I needed to make sure I could trust my coach,” said Dickerson, who’s averaging 12.8 points and 6.9 rebounds this season. “The thing my mom used to tell me is that in order for me to even think about a school, the coach has to be a great man. That was a big thing. Coach Hop fit the part.”
Dickerson, Thybulle and Crisp all said that Hopkins’ “genuine” personality was what helped draw them back, and Green implied as much. Now they’re genuinely the best team in the Pac-12 with a genuine shot at making some noise in the NCAA tournament.
None of these seniors had to stay when Hopkins arrived at UW. Two years later, none can imagine having left.