Romar, who is the associate head coach at Arizona, on his 15-year tenure with the Huskies: 'It was a season in my life that I really enjoyed that is now in the rear view mirror. I am not a bitter coach that got fired and is always bringing it up in every conversation.'
A year ago the University of Washington fired men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar in a move that wasn’t necessarily a surprise considering the Huskies had fallen into despair after, but still shocking because he had become a fixture in Seattle during his 15-year tenure.
Romar landed nicely and found a new home in Arizona as the associate head coach with the No. 9 Wildcats.
On Saturday — 10 months after being released — Romar returns to Alaska Airlines Arena with Arizona to face his revamped former team that’s bubbling into NCAA tournament conversations under the direction of first-year coach Mike Hopkins.
Ahead of what’s sure to be an emotionally-charged game, we caught up with Romar who sat down fan extended interview to reminisce about the good old days, rehash what went wrong during his final days and reflect on the new chapter in his life.
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(I have to ask, do you still have the purple suit?) “I do. I can’t think of where it is, but yeah. And again, it’s not a purple suit. It’s a blazer. But you know what, people all the time tell me I have a purple suit.”
(The older we get, folks will say you walked on court wearing purple from head to toe.) “It will be a purple tux in a few years.”
(How do you like Arizona?) “Man, it’s been a seamless transition. The town is laid back. It’s been cool. My wife and I are here. Obviously, the weather is great. It’s just been a seamless transition. The staff here has embraced us and made us feel comfortable. It’s been good.”
(Do you miss this Seattle weather?) “We still own our home in Seattle and our youngest daughter Taylor and her husband still live there. My wife, whenever I leave to go on the road, she goes to Seattle. So she keeps me up to par with how the weather is.”
(What are your duties during the day compared to the past 15 years?) “Obviously, as a head coach you’re overseeing everything, including doing that we’re doing now. I don’t speak as much as an assistant. We meet during the season. We meet quite a bit as a staff. We obviously watch a lot of film together. Recruiting is still on table. Those things take up the majority of your day, including practice.”
(Is it enough for you?) “Oh yeah. I’m being fulfilled if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t have a whole lot of down time I’ll say that.”
(There’s been some time since your departure at Washington. Have you had a chance to process it all?) “I think so. Yeah. I think so.”
(Have you come to grips with it? Or maybe a better way to ask this is how are you with how everything went down?) “I want to make it clear that it hurt to no longer be the coach at the University of Washington. But as I’ve said before and I feel even stronger this way, I have no complaints. Zero. When I first took the job at Washington — you know all of this because we’ve talked about this before — I played for Marv Harshman and I looked at Marv Harshman as an icon when I played for him. And he coached at Washington for 14 years. And when I first took the job, you’re thinking about goals and all. And I thought, if I could be the coach here at Washington for 14 years that would somehow mean things went pretty good. Well, we were there 15 years. If you’re somewhere at a Big 5 conference for 15 years, to me you need to be more gracious and grateful than you are bitter. And I’m grateful that I was there for 15 years. We had a ball. To watch the guys that came through during that time experience success and get to a point where obviously we fell off at the end, but there was a point where winning was an expectation and not a surprise. To see our guys go through that and be successful. To see the family that was created like at the alumni game back in (2013). To see the guys come back and be excited. I still stay in touch with those guys. I look back at that, man, it was awesome.”
(I promise I’ll ask about the beginning and the good time, but I want to start with the end. What happened and if you could go back in the time machine what would you change, assuming you would change anything?) “We talked about this as much as anything, in 2012 and 2013 we made some gambles in recruiting that we lost. Aside from that, when I think about our time at Washington, I think about just two years ago — not last season but the season before (in 2015-16) — we were 7-3. And not only were we 7-3, we were getting ready to play of all people Arizona at home. And we lost that game by 3. And then we didn’t finish after that. But we were 7-3 at the time. We had Andrew Andrews as our lone senior and in terms of our future, we had everybody back. We played that year — other than Malik Dime — with a bunch of freshman. And Markelle Fultz was coming the next year to join that group. And we were 7-3. That was two years ago. I think about that and we just didn’t finish. [UW finished 9-9 in the Pac-12] As a head coach, I wasn’t able to finish that situation and get that done. That led to the decision to let us go.”
(Did you go through a grieving process?) “You know for me, I wouldn’t say that I have. But every now and then something will happen to strike a memory and then you start to reflect a little bit. But I would say at this point, it’s something that’s happened in my past. It was a season in my life that I really enjoyed that is now in the rear view mirror. I am not a bitter coach that got fired and is always bringing it up in every conversation. [Laughs]”
(Like, man that Romar, he just won’t shut up about his time at UW.) “Like the guy that people hate to see. Aw man, he’s going to talk about him getting fired. [Laughs] Number 1, I don’t believe I was treated unfairly. Number 2, I’ve always said I just wished we would have had a chance to coach that team that was coming in this year. That’s the only thing I’ve ever said. But I’ve never I don’t think ever said no way they should do this and I don’t deserve this. I don’t think I’ve ever said that. We didn’t do well at the end and that’s what happens.”
(I’m going to ask you to pick your favorite kid with this question, what’s your best memory?) “There’s several of them. One is being there with everyone on the floor. We just won the Pac-10 (regular-season) championship for the first time in 53 years. And being up on the ladder and cutting down the nets with all of our fans and our guys. That was a great memory. Our first year, I don’t know if people realized but Nate Robinson didn’t join us until December because he was playing football. Brandon Roy didn’t join us until January because he didn’t qualify yet. So we were just kind of playing. Our culture wasn’t right. And a year from then, beating the No. 1 team in the nation Stanford on our home floor, which kind of got us real close into getting into the NCAA tournament. We obviously played in the championship of the Pac-10 tournament then, but that game was huge. That was a great memory because that was one of the first time that Washington basketball became nationally recognized. The night that same year when we beat Arizona, when Nate Robinson had that alley-oop dunk. And then that same year with Nate’s shot to break the 0-5 streak. Those were great. Isaiah’s shot when we won the conference championship. Those were great moments. The alumni game was very special to me. But to sit there with CBS saying they want to talk to you right before the selection starts for the NCAA tournament and then asking me where do you think you should be seeded. My response was no way I think we should be a 3 seed. We should definitely at least be a 2 seed. Not knowing they already knew what the outcome was going to be. Then going back out there and them saying we were a No. 1 seed, that was pretty special. From a basketball perspective, those were all great moments in terms of team stuff.”
(Conversely what are you most memorable heartbreaking moments?) “No. 1 would be UConn, the Sweet Sixteen with the right to go to the Elite Eight to play George Mason with the right to go to the Final Four. That will always be No. 1. No. 2 might be Oregon State at Oregon State two years ago. That controversial ending.”
(Man, y’all got robbed on that one.) “[Laughs] You look and we’re talking the difference of 1-2 games and we’re going to the tournament. That was one. We were in second place and we were playing at Stanford in ’05. We ended up winning the Pac-10 championship tournament, but if we had won and beat Stanford we would have won the Pac-10 (regular season) title also. And we lost that game. That was a heartbreaking loss. I would say, those are probably in order, the top 3.”
(I would add the year you guys won the Pac-12 regular-season title and didn’t make the NCAA tourney.) “Well, you’re talking one game. That year you could point to our 1-point loss to Marquette in New York. You could point to us up 3 against Nevada on the road, we didn’t foul the right way. We tried to and we didn’t execute it and we lost that game. There were probably 3-4 games that if we win one of them, we’re in the tournament. But we didn’t have quality wins.”
(It always amazes me that you coaches have this encyclopedic memory and great detail on games 10 years ago when I can barely remember what I had for dinner last week.) “Well, when you live this stuff. It stays with you.”
(For some reason, I wish you would have gotten 300 wins. Don’t know why, but that 298 looks strange.) “Oh yeah. It looks incomplete. I’ll tell you another great memory, we had won 32 straight home games over a three-year period. That was pretty special because that not only involved our players, but the Dawg Pack too. They became such an important part of what we were doing.”
(What do you think ab0ut this current UW team?) “They’re playing really well. They’ve adjusted to the zone. You can tell they’ve embraced it as a team. They believe in it. They know what they can do within it. Offensively, they kind of know their roles. The veterans whether it be Matisse (Thybulle) or David Crisp, who is playing the point now. Even Dominic Green has come in and those guys have made progress. They’re upperclassmen now. So that jump — you and I have talked about this so many times — that jump from a freshman/sophomore to an upperclassmen is so big. To see that happen with those guys and to see them having fun and embrace what their coach wants, it’s been fun to see how they’ve done that.”
(Have you kept up on UW’s original 2017 recruiting class?) “Oh yes. Definitely.”
(How is Michael Porter Jr.?) “He’s recovering from back surgery. Who knows what he’ll do at the end of the year and if he’ll come back or not. But he’s certainly feeling better. Mentioning this team this year, it’s really been exciting to watch what Jaylen Nowell has been able to do. He plays like he’s been through this a thousand times. He does not play like a freshman. It’s been good to see him and Noah Dickerson and all of those guys.”
(It’s odd you mention Jaylen. I was talking to Mike Hopkins and says how many freshmen average 16 points and do what Jaylen is doing. I say, well Mike the kid last year (Markelle Fultz) did it and the kid two years ago (Dejounte Murray) did it so it’s not all that rare around here. But the point is taken. I love his midrange game.” “And it’s just because he stumbles across and he makes that shot. No, he knows how to get there. Not many players know how to get exactly where they need to go where they know they’re not going to miss.”
(Let’s transition to this game at UW. Do you know where the visiting locker room is?) “I have an idea. [Laughs]”
(Do you know what it looks like inside?) “I know where it’s at and I know exactly what it looks like. Remember, I was an assistant at UCLA.”
(But that was a long time ago.) “And I was the head coach at Saint Louis and we came to Washington after they renovated the new gym. I’ve been in there before. I could tell you what it looks like. I don’t know what they’ve done since I was there, but it’s better than some of these other locker rooms in the league that we go on the road.”
(I image you guys will practice there on Friday. Do you have any idea what you’ll feel Friday when you walk in that building and step on that court?) “I really don’t know. I have thought about what will it be like and I don’t know where I’m going to be with all of that. It won’t, I don’t know. What I mean by that is, I don’t know if there’s going to be time for much reflection. I don’t know if it’s going to be emotional. I don’t know what it’s going to be.”
(Then to take you to Saturday night. That’s the more public return. You got a sellout or close to a sellout. Pregame warmups. All eyes are on you as you’re walking out with Sean Miller and the other Arizona coaches. The Dawg Pack is there and the UW fans. And here you are probably wearing a red tie.) [Laughs] Well, here’s what I know. I know in the past how the Dawg Pack has been to the opposition. So I know it could possibly be something that, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I know that the Dawg Pack hasn’t been too kind to the opposition before. When I was at Washington, it was pretty fun. But I don’t know what it’s going to be like on the other side.”
(So you think they’re going to boo you? I don’t know about that.) “I don’t know what to expect. I know with the players, they have a game to play. We’re the competition. I don’t know how they’re going to react. I have no idea what it’s going to like.”
(Refresh my memory, but are you an emotional guy in the moment or do you save all of that for later?) “Again, this is not something I’ve ever been through. … I know we’re going there. We’re fighting to win a conference championship. I know that we’re going to be dialed in that way. In terms of everything else from a peripheral standpoint I have no idea what it’s going to be like.”
(Correct if I’m wrong, but in your last game you took the microphone and thanked the fans. Not sure you many people knew what was going to happen, but essentially you were saying goodbye. I could be wrong, but I think you’ll get an ovation on Saturday and it will be warm and sweet. And I think will be a chance for fans to get some closure and properly say goodbye to this guy who gave them lots of good memories.) “I don’t know. I remember that night after the game and we were all disappointed how the season ended up. And I was surprised at how many people were still coming to the games. At the end, we still had — it wasn’t sold out — but a lot of people at the games. And for them to, that’s pretty loyal. That’s pretty loyal for them to still come out and watch us. With the exception of probably Arizona, every other school in the Pac-12, if they had the kind of season that we had, you look and the stands would have been empty. But there were people still there and I just felt compelled to thank them for sticking with us throughout the year. It felt like we had let them down and I let them down. That’s why I grabbed the mic.”
(We’ve talked awhile and I haven’t asked about Arizona. It seems that aside from the Bahamas trip, you guys have played at a high level. Tell me a little bit about the Wildcats.) “We have some good pieces. Obviously, Sean Miller is a phenomenal coach. He and we are a little disappointed that we haven’t been better defensively. But aside from that, Rawle Alkins has been out for a number of games. He’s one of our premier players. He wasn’t with us in the Bahamas and yet, coach still did a good job keeping everybody together and keeping things together. As we continue to work as February approaches us, we can turn that corner and get back to playing the kind of defense that Arizona is capable of playing. I think this team can be really special down the stretch.”