Romar, Suggs Return as Huskies play at St. Louis
Nov. 18, 2011
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Lorenzo Romar's routine trip to St. Louis Friday was nothing like the cajoling it took to get him on a plane to Missouri more than a decade ago.
Sunday, Romar returns to the school he left in 2002 to take over at Washington. His Huskies (3-0) play at Saint Louis University (2-0) at 9 a.m. Pacific time on CBS College Sports cable television, the Washington IMG College radio network and here again on GoHuskies.com with a live game chat from courtside at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis.
It's actually a homecoming for two Dawgs.
Romar and his staff scheduled the game to follow through on a promise made to Scott Suggs when the senior sharpshooting guard signed with UW. They told the former high school star in Washington, Mo., about 45 minutes west of St. Louis he would play a game in his home state when he was a Huskies senior.
This game had been scheduled to be at Missouri. But that deal fell apart when the Tigers had a coaching change this spring. UW assistant coach Jim Shaw, who does much of Washington's scheduling, then arranged for the Huskies to play at Saint Louis.
Suggs will be on the bench in front of about 40 family members and friends, still weeks away from making his season debut following surgery to repair a broken foot.
"It meant a lot. Coach Romar promised me when I came here, he said `you stay here the whole time, you will play back home in front of your family at least once,'" Suggs said, though still sick over not being able to play Sunday.
"He stayed true to his promise."
If Romar had done the same thing 11 years ago to himself, he would never have coached at Saint Louis for three seasons. He would have never have had the Conference USA tournament title that helped springboard him to his self-described "dream job" at Washington, where he had played in the 1970s.
"Doug Woolard, who used to be an associate athletic director at Washington State, had spoken to me about the Washington State job before (in the mid-1990s), when I was an assistant," Romar said, noting he was just in his second season on the staff of UCLA coach Jim Harrick at the time. "At the time I thought I needed to be an assistant a little longer."
Woolard eventually became the athletic director at Saint Louis.
"He called me one day. He said, `Lorenzo, how you doing? This is Doug Woolard.' And I have always liked Doug Woolard," Romar said Thursday. "He says, `There is a job opening in the Midwest. I know you know a lot of coaches. I was wondering if you knew anyone that would be interested.'"
Woolard - now the AD at South Florida in Tampa -- told Romar, who by then was the head coach at Pepperdine, "it is a good-paying job in a high-level conference. Any recommendations?"
Romar gave Woolard a few names. Then the Saint Louis AD asked Romar, "By the way, you wouldn't have any interest if I can let them know, would you?"
Romar said no, that he and his wife Leona loved Southern California.
"About a week later I read that Charlie Spoonhour (Saint Louis' coach) had retired," Romar said. "Sure enough, a day or so later (Woolard) called back asking if I was interested in it."
Romar wasn't. He was enjoying building his program at Pepperdine, not far from where he grew up in Compton south of Los Angeles. The Waves went from 6-21 in Romar's first season there of 1996-97 to 17-10 and then 19-13, second in the West Coast Conference.
Yet Woolard persisted. Romar listened, but kept saying how much he and his wife didn't want to leave Pepperdine.
Woolard said it "just happened" that he was going to be in Southern California and that he wanted to meet. Romar told the AD he had a state junior-college tournament to recruit that weekend that wouldn't end until 10 p.m. or so. Woolard said that would be OK, that he'd meet Romar near the JC campus at 10 p.m. on a weekend night.
They met, and Romar told Saint Louis' AD, "Thanks, but I am fine at Pepperdine. `Fine at the `Dine,' as Coach Harrick used to say,'" Romar said.
Still, Woolard invited Romar and his wife to fly to Missouri, just to check out the SLU campus and program. Romar, ever the gentleman, agreed so as to not offend.
But when Romar got to the airport, the tickets Woolard had arranged for the Romars weren't there.
A-ha! A chance to turn down Saint Louis for good, with an excuse.
"That's it. We're not going," Romar told his wife. Then he called Woolard to explain what had happened.
The AD got on the phone and within 10 minutes had the tickets re-issued to the Romars at the Los Angeles airport. And that's how the Romars first got to Missouri.
Romar was astounded when he got to SLU.
"This is a potential gold mine," Romar remembers thinking. "I had no idea. I had no idea they had a 21,000-seat arena. I had no idea they were sixth in the country in attendance. This is a hub - they had all these surrounding cities for recruiting. Man, this could be a special place."
Romar was surprised his wife also liked St. Louis and was willing to leave Southern California for it.
"Doug Woolard was relentless," Romar said. "He did a great job of convincing us to come."
The Romars stayed three seasons with the Billikens. They soaked up the Midwestern charm, the parades on baseball's opening days for the Cardinals, the times when Rams football tickets were basically given away with coupons placed on windshields of parked cars.
Romar's first season at SLU, 1999-2000, included Saint Louis' first conference tournament championship. The four-wins-in-four-days upset run through Conference USA in Memphis included a victory over top-ranked Cincinnati and Kenyon Martin, that year's top overall pick in the NBA draft.
Three years and 51 wins in 95 games with Saint Louis later, Barbara Hedges, then Washington's athletic director, called Romar asking if he wanted to coach the Huskies for whom he once played.
Hedges had granted Romar what the coach now calls a "courtesy" interview in 1993, before she hired Bob Bender to coach the Huskies. Romar, then in his second season as an assistant coach at UCLA, knew he wasn't ready for UW. So did Hedges at the time.
Turns out, the Washington and UCLA jobs were the only ones that would have gotten Romar to leave Saint Louis.
"I'll say this: When we left, the same way Doug Woolard convinced us to come was the same way he almost convinced us to stay," Romar said. "It was hard. It was hard to say, `Doug, we just can't. This is (where I played). We can't turn this down."
Romar, who turned 53 this month, says it remains the only time in his career the players on a team of his felt he had deserted them.
Romar said one Billikens player had a hard time trusting anyone yet had come to trust Romar.
"And I remember him saying, `Never again. I won't trust anyone again,'" Romar recalls. "He just said it, out loud, when we left.
"I don't want it to ever happen again that your players look at you like you betrayed them. Josh Fisher, from here, Mercer Island (Wash.) signed with us at Pepperdine and we left and went to Saint Louis."
Fisher sat out the year mandated by NCAA transfer rules so he could play for Romar at Saint Louis.
"And then we left him in Saint Louis," Romar said. "That was one of the worst things I've ever gone through in my life, leaving those guys and leaving him."
Romar wasn't even sure the call from Hedges would include a job offer.
"When she finally said, `Well, are you ready to become the coach at the University of Washington?' it all hit me. I don't know why it hadn't hit me before," he said. "I was like, `This is the one job I'd been waiting for. This is my dream job!'"
Now Romar returns to play Saint Louis, remembering Ted Drewes custard ice cream and Portabella restaurant in his old coaching stop. Sunday he will be opposite legendary coach Rick Majerus. Romar calls him "the Einstein of basketball coaches. He's brilliant."
Majerus is 493-208 in 25 years of coaching and has been to 12 NCAA tournaments while leading Marquette, Ball State, Utah and Saint Louis. To keep Majerus from getting career win 494, Romar says his Huskies are going to have to solve "a phenomenal defensive team. I don't know if we will play a defensive team as good this year."
It would help to have Suggs's 3-point shooting to break down that Saint Louis defense.
The pain-free Suggs has shed his walking boot and crutches - "Oh, I through those away. I was tired of those," he said of the sticks he's had since after foot surgery Oct. 14. He is doing some shooting and some exercises on the side during practices.
He will have X-rays taken next week on the foot to see if the fracture has healed. If it has, it's realistic he could make his season debuts Dec. 6 against Marquette and Dec. 10 versus Duke in Washington's two games at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Romar said he was thinking of whether to have Suggs in his road uniform Sunday. He's been in street clothes on the bench for the Huskies' first three games.
Suggs would rather not.
"I don't even want to dress out," Suggs said, before adding with a laugh, "Now, if they let me play a couple minutes I'll dress out."