March 9, 2011
Click here to receive Gregg Bell's "Unleashed" column via email each week.
SEATTLE - Maybe it's true that only wins and losses define a coach.
Well, it's a good thing for Washington right now that character ultimately defines a man.
Lorenzo Romar is standing as tall as he ever has, doing the right - if not universally popular - thing. Through the darkest hours of his most difficult season since he took over the program nine years ago, he remains a shining example of what teachers and mentors should be.
That's not to say he's unaffected.
Tuesday afternoon he suspended senior point guard Venoy Overton for the Pac-10 tournament because of an ugly legal issue that has played out for months and isn't over yet. Then he learned senior co-captain Justin Holiday, the team's defensive rock, wouldn't practice again because of a concussion, and that has his playing status in doubt. That means third-seeded Washington (20-10) could have just seven scholarship players available for Thursday night's Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal game against archrival and sixth-seeded Washington State (19-11), which has already beaten the Huskies twice this season.
About an hour later inside Alaska Airlines Arena, Romar stood in the middle of his purple and his gold scrimmage teams as they drilled Washington State's sets. As half of his players huddled to learn more scout plays for Thursday night's Pac-10 tournament quarterfinal game, Romar stood silently with his hands on his hips. He was wearing a purple Huskies T-shirt over black gym shorts.
He was also wearing the heavy look of a man -- a father, a leader, a teacher and a friend -- with far more on his mind than merely basketball.
Sure, he coached and instructed and directed. That's his job, his life. But for most of the afternoon his lips were pressed tightly together. His eyes conveyed a seriousness. His words carried a resolve.
Yes, this season has worn on him. And some threads showed through Tuesday.
"This has been the toughest year since I've been a coach here, for me," Romar said. "You have a certain vision and you work hard for your program to be a certain way. You also want the best for your guys and, if something goes wrong and a guy makes a mistake, it's always a setback. You always hate to see that happen.
"You make mistakes, and there are consequences to deal with that."
The immediate consequence with Overton is that Washington is without its most experienced player and most feisty defender just as the team needs him in its push back into the NCAA tournament. On offense and defense, he played his best game in 12 months in Saturday night's regular-season finale against USC.
But this is bigger than the immediate to Romar. This is about what he's built in nine years with the Huskies. That's why he wrestled with a one-game suspension, or a longer one, and conferred with athletic director Scott Woodward Tuesday before deciding on what could become a three-game penalty, if UW advances to Saturday's conference tournament championship game in Los Angeles.
He could have suspended Overton for the rest of the season. But then he would have been turning his back on reforming Overton, turning his back on his player who has been charged, not convicted. He could have sat him for one game, but that would have minimized the affect this incident is having on his respected Huskies.
"It's something that's against what we teach here in our basketball program," said Romar, a former UW guard who came back to Seattle in 2002 after coaching Saint Louis and Pepperdine.
"I think what's really important is to make sure there are consequences but also for behavior to change. We have to grow from these things and we have to learn from these things. Sometimes there's an outcry by the public that `Something needs to be done'. As far as I'm concerned, behavior needs to change and we have to learn from our mistakes."
While he embarks on his latest and perhaps greatest attempt to mold men, he is pragmatic enough to know the monumental challenge facing the Huskies in L.A. and, they hope, the NCAA tournament: Win with all this turmoil swirling around them, with their co-captain shaking off a concussion, with national-player-of-the-year candidate Isaiah Thomas struggling and thinking so much on the court he says he feels like a freshman. Ignore all that, maximize your talent and motivate your team.
So, you say you want to coach 18-through-22-year-old kids?
"This is the situation we're in. ... We have to attack it," Romar said.
"It's a challenge. Well, I was thinking before any of this happened that it was going to be a challenge anyway, based on how we had finished (the regular season). So we're already in the challenge arena."
In nine years, Romar has taken a previously meandering program and raised it onto the top shelves of college basketball. Five 20-win seasons. Five NCAA tournaments. Three Sweet 16s.
He's made better basketball players. But more important he has made better people.
From senior sensation and All-Pac-10 forward Matthew Bryan-Amaning out of London, from Scott Suggs out of Missouri to Thomas from down the road in Tacoma, ask any Husky why he came to UW. The first words are, without fail, "Coach Romar." The third or fourth word? Usually "fairness" or "trust."
The love isn't just from his own players.
I was with the Huskies flying home from the Eugene Airport following the two losses in Oregon last month. The TSA guy there walked away from his security screening post to come to talk to Romar in the departure lounge of the tiny terminal near the University of Oregon. He congratulated him on having a great program.
Imagine, a Duck going out of his way to praise a Husky.
I have covered multiple NCAA tournaments with coaches from all over the country around Romar for a few days. They don't just exchange pleasantries with UW's coach. They engulf him, swarm him. Amid coaches such as Mississippi State's Rick Stansbury, Purdue's Matt Painter, West Virginia's Bob Huggins, Romar is Mayor McCheese. The warm reunions and hearty laughs portray a deep friendship and respect that runs from coast to coast.
They know what we know: Romar is a man of faith - in God, in himself, in his family at home, and in his self-described family inside the Husky locker room.
These last six months have tested that faith, trust and reputation, have tested Romar personally, professionally and emotionally like never before.
It began in mid-September, two months before the first game. Romar sat next to the doctor that told sophomore forward Tyreese Breshers that he couldn't play anymore because of a still-undisclosed medical issues. Just like that, an medical exam ended the promising career of a rugged rebounder, one the Huskies sure could use right now.
The team with legitimate goals of reaching the Final Four following an appearance in last spring's Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament then suffered two taut, high-profile losses to Kentucky and Michigan State in the early season Maui Invitational. Then, a multi-level meltdown on the road at Texas A&M. A win in any one of those would have the Huskies feeling a whole lot more assured about its place in the NCAA tournament today.
In January, just two games into the Pac-10 season, Abdul Gaddy jumped for a layup in practice and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, costing him the rest of his season and the team its calming, poised maestro.
February brought an inexplicable loss of defensive intensity in three consecutive defeats over six days at Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon. Then came a rebound, a spark from three straight wins and a thrilling, last-second loss at Arizona that seemed to validate UW's worthiness atop the conference and deep in the NCAA tournament.
Until last week, that is. These talented but maddeningly inconsistent Huskies lost two of their final three games at home, where they were previously undefeated and unchallenged.
Now this, Overton's punishment on the eve of the most important weekend of the season.
"It starts when you have to look at your player in the eye when the doctors tell him he can't play basketball anymore, in the case of Tyreese Breshers. You're there with him. You're there with Abdul Gaddy when they tell him he's done for the year. It starts way back then, and goes on and on and on," Romar said. "So, that makes it tough.
"Other programs go through this; we're not the first program to go through these types of things. We just haven't gone through them here very often."
I don't know if these Huskies will prove to be remarkably resilient and beat Washington State for the first time in three tries this season. I don't know if Thomas will indeed "put the team on my shoulders" as he says he's about to do and send UW to a repeat of the Pac-10 tournament championship and another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
What I do know: They have the best man leading them through this.
"It's tough," Romar said of this latest challenge, "but we all have to learn and we all have to grow. Our team, hopefully, can learn from this, Venoy can learn from this, and we can all learn."
Learning and leading. Ultimately, isn't that what college athletics should produce?
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.