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Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball

Romar's road: Nothing has come easy for UW coach

Seattle Times staff reporter

"What was going on here?" Leona Romar thought. Her insides were churning over her husband's job. Things got a little worse each week. Tensions were mounting as fast as the defeats.

It comes with the territory for the wife of a college basketball coach. She had seen this before during her 20-year marriage to Lorenzo Romar, coach of the Washington men's basketball team. But this one perplexed and worried her.

Romar, in his second season with the Huskies, was expected to show something. But they started Pac-10 play at 0-5 and were in last place. Attendance was sagging. Television ratings had flat-lined. Leona believes in her husband, but this was hard on the heart.

"It looked pretty dismal," she said. "We needed that one win, but we were 0-2. Then we said we just needed just one win, and we were 0-3. Then it goes all the way to 0-5. I kind of got scared.

"I asked him at one point, 'Are we going to win?' He said, 'We're going to be OK.' I didn't see it, to be honest with you."

Romar, positive by nature, was the embodiment of actor Gene Hackman, who played coach Norman Dale in the movie "Hoosiers." Like Dale, he gave the appearance of man in control, a man of vision. The problem was that he was acting. He was anxious as well.

"While I was saying things will be all right to my wife, I was up all night watching film," he admitted. "I was calling people, talking to my assistants on how we can change things around. I don't know how many more games we could (have lost) and weathered the storm.

"But it was just like my experiences in other tough situations — UCLA, Saint Louis. If you put in the hard work, things will work out."

One game, one shot changed it all, like a warm wind sweeping them to heights they had not conceived. Things fell into place in extraordinary fashion over the final six minutes of UW's Jan. 17 game at Oregon State. The Huskies overcame a 16-point deficit to tie the score on Nate Robinson's last-second three-pointer. They won in overtime.

That began the most successful run in the program's history as the Huskies won 14 of their final 17 games. They went from last to sole possession of second place in 41 days. They beat Arizona three times. They upset unbeaten No. 1 Stanford. They reached the finals of the Pac-10 tournament. It was a most improbable turnaround, way back from a 10-17 record and ninth-place finish a year ago to an NCAA berth this year.

"I have a good staff. We continued to tinker," Romar said. "We had each other's support. We had confidence as a staff that together we can come up with a way to be successful."

Path of most resistance

It's funny, because Lorenzo Romar never had the conviction he could be a basketball coach. He quite nearly didn't even have a playing career. During tryouts his sophomore year at Pius X High School in Compton, Calif., he was cut from the varsity basketball squad. The next day he was cut from the junior-varsity squad.

Such is the road Romar has taken. It has generally been the path of most resistance. At nearly every crossroad in his life, he has had to maneuver around a detour.

His basketball career was restored his junior year, coming off the bench for the varsity. When some of the prominent players on his team got interest from college recruiters, all he could do was imagine what it would be like having a famous coach call him or come to his front door.

"That'd be awesome if I could ever get recruited," he thought then.

He never was. No one believed he was good enough for Division I out of high school. He took another avenue, playing for Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College. He played well, setting the school record for assists and helping Cerritos to a 23-8 record his second season. He improved so much that after one summer tournament then-UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian told him, "I don't have a scholarship to offer, but if I did I'd want you to be my point guard."

How he had been waiting to hear something like that from someone like that. All of a sudden, his career was validated. Then Washington coach Marv Harshman, seeking to fill a need at point guard for the 1978 season, brought him in to run the Huskies' offense. UW finished with an 11-16 record in Romar's first season. The following season they went 18-10, including a victory over No. 1 UCLA, and were invited to play in the NIT. Romar was the captain and was named the most inspirational player.

Romar loved the university and his time in Seattle. He secretly hoped to play for the Sonics, but they passed him over in the draft. But the guy who had been cut from his high-school team and ignored by recruiters ultimately had a five-year NBA career with Golden State, Milwaukee and Detroit.

Marriage and faith

It wasn't until he approached the end of his pro career that Romar found the real essence for his life on earth. And it wasn't basketball.

He met Leona at a charity function and they hit it off immediately, although Leona admits that she had had a thing for him since high school.

"I was a freshman and he was a senior," she said. "I had a little crush on him, but he wasn't interested."

They were married in June 1983, and three months later they both devoted themselves to "walking with the Lord."

"We were always churchgoers, but we put Christ first in our lives in September that year," Romar said, who added that it has been the guiding force in his life and why in 1985 he joined Athletes In Action, a sports-oriented arm of the Campus Crusade for Christ.

Romar was involved with AIA for eight years, the first four as a player and administrative assistant. Along the way, he discovered something about himself, something he may have had all along. He remembered as a teenager in Compton when he would see a youngster shooting baskets. His technique may have been bad, "and for some reason, I'd have to go over there and show him."

He organized games in his neighborhood and at school. In college, he collected phone numbers of guys who could play when a gym opened.

"I didn't know it at the time," he said, "but all of that was a coach's mentality — organization, recruiting, teaching. I got a kick out of it."

He recruited so many guys to play for AIA that the organization named him player/coach. That's not a role he would recommend to anyone, but it gave him valuable coaching experience and, most important for him, a platform for his ministry.

Romar makes his move

Through the assistance of Mark Gottfried, his best friend in coaching, Romar joined the UCLA staff under coach Jim Harrick in 1993. He had an immediate impact, although not in the manner he had hoped. The two assistants, Romar and Gottfried, brought in no recruits that fall.

"I had no experience, and I'm sure people were saying, 'What are you doing hiring a guy with no experience and you have no recruits?' " Romar said.

That spring, however, they brought in Charles O'Bannon and Cameron Dollar, now the Huskies' assistant coach. The next year they had the No. 1 class in the country, which included J.R. Henderson, Kris Johnson, Toby Bailey and omm'A Givens. By 1995, they put together a national-championship team, beating Arkansas 89-78 in Seattle.

Romar felt the time was right to make his move.

"I had so much to learn," he said, "but I wanted to be a head coach. I was ready to move out and get my own apartment."

He spent three years at Pepperdine, turning that program around. He guided the Waves into the NIT in 1999, then departed for Saint Louis. That Pepperdine team, with the core of his recruited players, went to the NCAA tournament the next two years.

The road to UW

Then he maintained the healthy basketball tradition in his three years at Saint Louis. In his first season in 2000, his Billikens upset No. 1 Cincinnati in the Conference USA tournament and advanced to the NCAA tournament.

But Washington had always drawn his interest, even if the school didn't return that attention. When athletic director Barbara Hedges began her search to replace the fired Bob Bender in 2002, Romar was not at the top of her list. She sought Gonzaga's Mark Few or Missouri's Quin Snyder, but both backed out early in the process. Minnesota's Dan Monson accepted, then changed his mind.

Hedges finally got to Romar, who had been down this road before.

"I've always been third, fourth, fifth choice — in the beginning," Romar said. "That was all right. I go back to my faith in God. God is in control of the situation. I don't feel I have to manipulate or do anything underhanded to get something. If someone is ahead of me, I'm not envious or look down at it. I just do my best."

Leona, comfortable in St. Louis, was apprehensive about whether he should take the job. After all, UW had been a dead end for the previous three coaches — Bender, Lynn Nance and Andy Russo. Would her husband's career plateau in Seattle?

"I did think that," she said, "but he thought he could really win in Seattle."

Romar, 45, said there was plenty of talent in the program; it just needed to be sorted out. Doug Wrenn was the star that first season, but by midseason Romar had the courage to bench him. Wrenn declared for the NBA draft after the season. Jeffrey Day transferred. C.J. Massengale transferred. David Hudson left. Ben Devoe left this year. Curtis Allen, the lone senior this season, accepted a reserve role. Nate Robinson gave up football and fully committed to basketball. Tre Simmons slipped in under UW's academic requirements.

All the disparate elements came together, although the team still struggled during nonconference play. The players were not selfish by nature, but they felt the only way to win was to do it themselves at times. Romar stressed team offense (now five guys in double figures) and defense (514 forced turnovers).

Romar — once dismissed, denied and disrespected — has found his calling.

"They're like our own kids," said Leona, who has three daughters with Lorenzo. "I watched him on the trip to North Carolina State, and I told him, 'You've got 12 sons.' "

Romar said this was the right job at the right time, "But the real reason I like it is because I'm going to be in the ministry the rest of my life. You come it a university, and it's a large platform. I'm not in the corner with a Bible, but I'm not ashamed to let people know the important things in life. Hopefully, that might inspire someone else. That's the underlying factor of everything that I do."

Bob Sherwin: 206-464-8286 or bsherwin@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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