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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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UW Men's Basketball

The Right Calling: Romar to the rescue

Seattle Times staff reporter

On the surface, it seems more confounding with each passing season.

What was Barbara Hedges thinking in that spring of 2002, going after Quin Snyder (fired at Missouri before this season even finished), or Dan Monson (in the midst of a middling run at Minnesota), or even Gonzaga coach Mark Few? And the whole time, Lorenzo Romar was right there.

Just sitting in St. Louis, waiting for the call to rescue his alma mater.

But consider that Snyder had led Missouri to the Elite Eight that year. Monson still had an afterglow of Gonzaga's success hovering over him and an apparent desire to return to his home state. And Few, well he was, and still is, the hottest coaching candidate around.

Romar? He had a career record of 93-88 in six years at Pepperdine and Saint Louis, had been to one NCAA tournament — and only when the Billikens won the Conference USA tournament after finishing seventh during the regular season in 2000 — and was coming off a 15-16 season.

Some close to the program have suggested since that Romar wasn't really the fourth choice — timing, location and circumstance just made it appear all the others were offered the job first.

Either way, who can really blame Hedges, the UW athletic director at the time?

Who knew then that Romar would turn out to be not only the best coach the Huskies could have hired, but also one of the best in the country?

As the Huskies prepare for a first-round NCAA tournament game Thursday in San Diego against Utah State, Romar has never been hotter.

A recent poll of Pac-10 players in Sports Illustrated called Washington "the team with the most respect for its coach," and Romar the "opposing coach you'd most like to play for."

Those plaudits come with UW completing its best two-year run in half a century, having gone 53-12 the past two seasons. It's the most wins over a two-year period since the 1952-53 teams also won 53 games (the latter team making UW's only Final Four appearance).

"It's very hard to predict, obviously," said Ron Crockett, the owner of Emerald Downs and a major Huskies booster who has been on search committees for previous coaches (though not for Romar). "I knew that we would do better. But I don't know that I could have expected this. That was a great find."

Consider, too, that UW's third straight NCAA appearance also ties a school record — the only other time it has been done is from 1984 to 1986. And this is likely just the beginning, with a four-man recruiting class that's ranked as one of the best in the country (led by Seattle Prep center Spencer Hawes) ready to take over next year wherever Brandon Roy and crew leave off.

All coming at a school that had one 20-win season from 1988 to 2004. A school where the loudest cheers at basketball games were often reserved for the football players who would saunter into the gym after a practice.

"All those years we went to the games just hoping for a winning season, to be quite frank," Crockett said.

The person who seems the least amazed by all of this, however, is Romar himself.

Asked about the record of 67-16 since the Oregon State game in 2004, largely regarded as the program's turning point, he says, "I think it's pretty special."

But then, in the kind of comment that might sound arrogant coming from others but sounds humble coming from him, he said: "If you are a competitor, you go in with the attitude that this is going to be special. I don't see how you are going to be successful if you don't — you've really got to believe that way."

And belief may be at the root of it all.

Romar credits a conversion to Christianity when he was 25 years old and nearing the end of a five-year NBA career for creating the foundation for all that has come since. A knee injury, he said, made him ponder his own mortality and read the Bible in earnest for the first time, and led to his conversion.

Romar said he doesn't subscribe to any specific denominational belief system, just a general faith in the word of the Bible.

"I don't go around spouting Scriptures all day long, but I do build my life around the message the Scriptures say," Romar said. "Which are the simple truths that if you lead your life the right way, you have stress, but less stress. You have a little more joy about yourself. You have problems, but you are able to deal with those problems. I think that has helped me in terms of coaching."

It was that moment of change that put his coaching career in motion, though he didn't know it at the time.

Growing up on the rough streets of Compton, Calif., Romar had been a baseball player first, because that was the sport his father favored. He said he fell in love with basketball at age 10, but he didn't attract a lot of attention as a high-school player, in part, he said with a laugh, "because I was a late bloomer in everything. Dating, everything. It's always taken me longer to catch on."

A two-year stint at Cerritos Junior College, where he finally began to "catch on," led to a scholarship offer from Marv Harshman, and he became a Husky. He was most inspirational player both years at UW, and those intangibles helped make him a seventh-round draft pick of the Golden State Warriors. He played for the Warriors for three years, then had brief stays with the Bucks and Pistons.

His new-found Christianity led to a job with Athletes in Action, the athletic division of Campus Crusade for Christ. He was initially just a player for the team — which would spend the fall traveling the country playing against top college squads — but gradually began to take on administrative duties such as scheduling and recruiting players.

It led him toward becoming a coach, he said, without really thinking about it.

In fact, he fought the idea of becoming a coach for a while. AIA was more than just playing basketball to Romar. He was based in Cincinnati, where he helped set up a basketball league for underprivileged junior high school kids. When they weren't playing games, Romar would help them with study table or etiquette lessons. He felt it was satisfying and important work.

"I had this mental block of not wanting to be just a jock or looked upon as just a jock," he said.

Then one day, he watched an interview with then-NBA coach Mike Schuler, who was accepting a coach of the year award, and Schuler mentioned that he didn't know anything about politics or who was running for president and that "all I know is basketball."

Says Romar: "It hit me that if that is what you are gifted to do, what is wrong with doing that?"

So he became head coach of AIA in 1989, then in 1992 accepted an offer to become an assistant for Jim Harrick at UCLA, whom he had gotten to know through regular games between the Bruins and AIA.

Romar said he came to consider college basketball the closest thing in coaching to his previous ministry work.

"You are dealing with kids at maybe the most pivotal time of their lives," Romar said. "That two-, three-, four-year period where they know that, after this, I am really on my own. They may realize that they don't have all the answers that they thought they did and you may be in a position to help push them in the right direction."

UCLA led to his first head coaching job at Pepperdine in 1996, where he built a team that qualified for the NCAA tournament the year after he left for Saint Louis in 1999.

He thinks he was on the verge of a complete turnaround at Saint Louis before leaving for UW as he had signed, or was on the verge of signing, some big-time players, such as center Ryan Hollins, who got out of his letter after Romar left and is now at UCLA.

Still, Romar said, he thinks he's inevitably a better coach now than he was then. He's learned what's important and what isn't and how to make his players understand those things. Also, he already knew the territory at UW.

Despite that, there was a brief blip at the start, some violations of NCAA recruiting rules by his staff before he'd coached his first game that landed the team on two years' probation (though with no ban of postseason appearances). Romar acknowledges that incident highlights the sometimes dicey balance of squaring his personal beliefs with big-time college basketball.

"I know we went through our deal with the violations and all, but the challenge for me is to do it God's way, the right way, and still be successful and show that you don't have to give in to some of those temptations," he said.

By all accounts, he's done just that ever since.

"I've never known a guy that everyone likes so much as Lorenzo," Harshman said. "And rightly so. He just attracts people. He has a great intuition to get into people's minds and reaches the players. I've never heard any players griping about not getting enough playing time."

As proud as he is of the record, Romar sounds prouder of the way his players act. He instituted rules about dress and comportment when he took over — some of which he has relaxed slightly as the program has picked up. There has been little hint of off-court trouble.

"Our guys are not saints — they make mistakes," he said. "But I do think we have good guys. I think you have to be willing to take a perceived lesser player sometimes because in the long run, that player will be better than the guy who has bad character. He will help your team in so many different areas more than the guy with bad character."

In what might make this the biggest win of all for the Huskies, Romar said he is in for the long haul. He signed an eight-year contract worth roughly $1 million per season last year, and he sounds intent on fulfilling every second of it, saying "there is no reason for me to look elsewhere."

The NBA, he said, isn't an option unless he were to be fired and needed work — having played in it satisfied any curiosity about that league.

And, he insists, simply chasing after more money, more prestige, isn't for him.

"I've said this and I really believe this — if it were just about winning and losing, it would get old," he said. "Because the way we operate as humans, the more you win, the more you want to win. The more money you make, the more money you want to make. That's a never-ending chase.

"But when you talk about helping change someone's life or investing in someone's life for the rest of their lives, that's priceless. That is worth more than any amount of wins. Any amount of money you can make."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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