March 20, 2013
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
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PROVO, Utah - You saw the Huskies miss chances at the end of their loss to eventual champion Oregon in last week's Pac-12 tournament, a defeat that ended Washington's string of four straight years winning a league regular-season or tournament title.
You saw a second consecutive subpar season end when UW got run out of the National Invitation Tournament Tuesday night at Brigham Young.
What you didn't see is some of why Scott Woodward is steadfastly behind Lorenzo Romar as the leader of Washington basketball.
For now. For the foreseeable future.
Those looking for the Huskies' director of athletics to rebuke Romar - or at least fire a warning shot at the coach following a second consecutive season out of the NCAA tournament -- have the wrong AD.
"I had a real poignant moment last week in Las Vegas after we lost in the Pac-12 tournament. I was on the sixth-floor lobby of the MGM Grand and was reflecting on our season, and all the people I respect in the program came walking by," Woodward said hours before Washington lost 90-79 loss at BYU Tuesday night.
Woodward was speaking to me by telephone from a UW athletics development event in Palm Springs, Calif.
Players, coaches, UW associate athletic director for student development Kim Durand, and Romar walked by a reflective Woodward in that hotel lobby last Thursday night.
"As down as I was about the loss to Oregon and how we could have won that game and moved on, I had a smile on my face. Kim Durand reported to me that only three of our players were required at study table the day of that game. And nine showed up," Woodward said.
"I'm proud of that. I'm proud of what Lorenzo has done with the program.
"I couldn't be more pleased with Coach Romar and the job he's done. It's tough to meet our expectations. We are going to get back to doing that."
Those who see two consecutive seasons of Washington not making the NCAA tournament already forget UW went 14-4 to win the school's second outright regular-season conference title in 59 years last season. Those folks are part of what Woodward sees as heightened expectations at UW, expectations that only got this high because Romar has led the greatest era of Huskies basketball. Ever.
Woodward often talks of the "three-legged stool" upon which he wants each program in Huskies athletics to sit.
Do the right thing. Do well in school. Graduate and achieve in the classroom, and be competitive at the highest level of that sport.
"Do the right thing," Woodward said Tuesday, describing each leg.
"Do well in school. Graduate and achieve in the classroom.
"And be competitive at the highest level of that sport."
Woodward's assessment: "We're firing on two of the three cylinders. And, frankly, for that third one Lorenzo has raised the expectations.
"He and I talked how on we can get better, on how he can get better. We need to get back to competing at the highest level."
Yes, it's one day after a maddening, 18-16 season ended, one Romar called his "most unique" of his 11 at Washington. His team with three seniors rarely played well in every phase of the same game.
This afternoon, a day after the NIT loss and a week after the Pac-12 tournament bow out, it's easy to lose sight of this: UW has been to six NCAA tournaments, three Sweet 16s and has won five conference regular-season or tournament championships since Romar got here in 2002.
It's easy to forget that Washington had been to 10 NCAA tournaments and won one conference title of any kind in the 64 years immediately before Romar returned to the Huskies, for whom he played in the late 1970s. It's easy now to forget that the only other time the Dawgs haven't been to the NCAA tournament in consecutive years under Romar, 2007 and '08, he then led UW to 100 wins from 2009-12. That's the most ever for the program in a four-year span.
The 2012 Pac-12 coach of the year has six 20-win seasons at Washington. That's more than Marv Harshman, who has a practice gym named after him. It's second only to legendary Hec Edmundson, for whom the Huskies' home building is named.
Romar has taken a program with near-zero expectations and turned it within a decade into one in which NCAA tournaments and Sweet 16s are now the standard. It's a feat only the top coaches in the sport have done. Mike Krzyzewski did it at Duke. It's what Lute Olsen did at Arizona, Jim Calhoun did at Connecticut, Billy Donovan did at Florida.
Think of this, too: Bob Huggins is like Romar. He played at the school he's come back to after other coaching stops - in Huggins' case, West Virginia. Like Romar, Huggins has had recent runs to the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. Like Romar, he recently got a contract extension.
This season, Huggins' Mountaineers didn't even make the NIT. But his seat isn't even approaching mild in Morgantown.
As Woodward notes, Romar's success has raised our expectations. They are now higher than they've ever been at UW for basketball.
Maybe unrealistically so.
This, after all, isn't Kentucky. It isn't Kansas or North Carolina or even UCLA.
The number of national basketball titles Washington has won remains what it was when Romar arrived from Saint Louis in 2002: Zero.
Yet it's a standard of excellence Washington's AD wants - and wants Romar to be the man to attain.
"I'LL BE HERE AS LONG AS THEY WANT ME TO BE"
Any day now, someone somewhere with unknown validity is going to mention Romar as a candidate for a college or NBA job. It happens almost every spring. It happened last year, in Chicago around the vacancy at Illinois. It happened two offseasons ago in Minneapolis, about him potentially becoming coach of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves.
Rumors continue to grow that Ben Howland is on shaky ground at UCLA. The Bruins aren't selling enough tickets in their new Pauley Pavilion despite winning the Pac-12's regular-season title and being a fifth seed this week in the NCAA tournament.
USC is also looking for a new coach. The Trojans finished this season under .500 with interim man Bob Cantu leading them.
Romar was raised in Compton, minutes from the USC campus and across town from UCLA. He is a discipline of John Wooden, has the legendary coach's "Pyramid of Success" framed in his Huskies office inside Alaska Airlines Arena. He began his college coaching career as an assistant under Jim Harrick at UCLA, winning a national title with the Bruins in 1995 before becoming a first-time head coach at Pepperdine in '97.
Every time Washington plays at UCLA, Romar is Mayor McCheese. He is getting hugs and arm grips from Bruins staffers, coaches, Wooden's family, players, ushers - just about everyone except the UCLA cheerleaders. It's yet another example of how revered he is everywhere he's been and with everyone he's met.
"I've always said I love it here at Washington," Romar said about 20 minutes after the season-ending loss to BYU.
"If that opinion changes from somebody other than me, then something like that (going somewhere else) could happen.
I'll be here as long as they want me to be.
"I'll be here as long as they want me to be."
Romar turns 55 in November. He has said he wants Washington to be his last job. He said it to me again late Tuesday in that hallway of BYU's Marriott Center.
He sees UW as his final job. He's the most tenured coach in the Pac-12, with one year longer at Washington than Howland has been at UCLA. He and his wife Leona, who was with him on the trip to BYU, see Seattle as home. Their three daughters are grown and on their own.
He loves life at UW - though seeing him throwing down a manila folder, stomping his feet and screaming at his guys during a timeout Tuesday because his Huskies weren't getting back on defense showed he doesn't love the results he's been getting lately.
Woodward and Washington gave him a 10-year extension in 2010, at $1.7 million per season. It calls for a mandatory review by Woodward every two years. The next one is due following next season, in the spring of 2014.
"Not many last as long as we've been able to last here," Romar said late Tuesday. "Just, we've got to make sure as long as the support is there, we're good."
Woodward and Romar, though, know there is no such thing as a lifetime contract in college sports. They are too realistic to say the coach has this UW job for life.
"No, you can't say that, of course. And he doesn't think that way," Woodward said.
"I know he considers himself to be blessed to have this job - just like I consider myself blessed to have this job."
Here's today's reality: Stop winning consistently, watch attendance decline steadily over years and years, and a coach can be like Howland - three times in the Final Four, four times a league champion, yet wondering right now if he's wanted.
To be crystal clear: Romar at Washington is not Howland at UCLA right now.
"To have a guy of his personal caliber to do what he's done while representing our university," Woodward said, "he's pretty special."
Known for his easygoing, well-manned public persona, Romar drove, cajoled, prodded, cuddled - did everything he knew how to do and more - this season to try to get his team playing "the right way," as he calls it.
It was what Romar Tuesday night called his most "unique" season of his 11 at Washington. The same Huskies that lost at home to Albany hung with then-No. 4 and eventual Big Ten-champion Ohio State in November's championship game of the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament.
UW started 4-0 in league play for just the fourth time in 35 years, then lost seven of eight conference games.
The Huskies lost at eventual Pac-12 regular-season champion UCLA at the buzzer, then got blown out at middling USC three days later. They had a chance to beat Oregon in the quarterfinals of a Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas that the Ducks would win two nights later, but they flubbed the last chance in regulation and lost in overtime.
Tuesday they trailed 21-win BYU on its home court by nine early but came back to lead at halftime and then twice in the second half. They fell back behind by 11, got within three, but ultimately had their season end because on one of their best offensive nights all season their defense and rebounding failed them.
Asked to summarize it all, senior point guard Abdul Gaddy said: "Up and down. We could not just ever get it all together."
Romar agreed with that.
"I can say this was - I won't say weird - but the most unique year that we've been here, in that there were so many games that we were in but in that we couldn't get over the hump," the coach said.
Romar admitted to some soul searching this season. Then again, that's nothing new for him when Washington isn't playing that "right way" - pressuring on defense, rebounding fiendishly and playing smartly and efficiently on offense.
"One of the curses of a head coach is once you do it you are kind of preoccupied with that year `round. You are always looking for ways to get better, ways that you can get better, ways to improve," he said. "You soul search. You are always trying to do that.
"You do it probably a little more (after) losses. I just think that's par for the course."
Does he see this year as a step backward?
"I wouldn't describe it that way," he said. "We didn't have a very good year. When you say, `backwards' that would imply the direction of your program is going that way.
"We went two years without making the NCAA tournament or the NIT -- then won 100 games in the next four years, with three (conference) championships.
"I don't see it. I see it as a year that we were inconsistent and struggled. But I don't see it as taking a step backwards."
"WE'RE PRETTY MUCH ON THE SAME PAGE"
Men's college basketball is peculiar in how quickly rosters can turn over, how programs can rise and fall depending on huge recruits and underclassmen departing early for the NBA.
Look at Kentucky. The eight-time national champion, the defending one this season, is what UW is today: out of the NIT after one round. UK lost at - gulp - Robert Morris Tuesday.
Romar and the Huskies knew when they signed him last year that Seattle high-school phenom Tony Wroten Jr. may head to the pros after just one season.
They could not have envisioned what became so soon of Terrence Ross. Ross wasn't even the most heralded player on his high-school team in Portland three years ago when Kentucky signed teammate Terrence Jones. But after a breakout season last year for the Huskies, Ross became a lottery pick of the Toronto Raptors last summer.
We've stumbled a little bit, because our expectations are so high.
Those early departures, plus recruiting near-misses last year and then the signing and almost-immediate release of junior-college transfer Mark McLaughlin, who was expected to boost the offense but left school before classes began in September, created a recipe for a down season.
"We've stumbled a little bit, because our expectations are so high," Woodward said, using that "E" word again. "This year we had what we'd thought would be a rebuilding season."
Romar and Woodward meet far more often than that every-two-years clause mandates in the coach's contract. Woodward is by no means an office administrator. He is a man about UW athletics, always out at practices, team rooms, coaches' quarters and locker rooms talking to his Huskies.
The AD does that often with Romar to discuss where the program is and where it is headed.
"Lorenzo and I had a conversation for a long time after the loss to Oregon at the Pac-12 tournament. We reflected on this season and what we need to do from here," Woodward said.
"We talk about it. I talk to Coach Romar all the time. We're pretty much on the same page."
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.