SEATTLE — After 15 seasons as head coach — a tenure that included six NCAA tournament appearances but ended with six consecutive seasons without one — Lorenzo Romar’s once-charmed run at the University of Washington is over.
The school announced Romar’s firing on Wednesday, one week after the conclusion of UW’s worst men’s basketball season in 23 years. Yahoo! reported last week that the school had decided to retain Romar — a source close to the program also indicated that he was expected to return — but athletic director Jen Cohen instead “determined that a change in leadership is necessary,” according to a statement released by the school.
“Today is particularly difficult because Coach Romar is such a beloved member of our University community,” Cohen said. “I want to thank Lorenzo and his family for 15 years of dedicated service and sacrifice to our University.”
Romar, 58, developed a reputation as one of UW’s most charismatic, well-liked public figures, engaging and relaxed in conversation and popular with players and fans. He led the Huskies to the NCAA tournament six times in his first eight seasons, but has missed it in each of the past six. Washington hasn’t had a winning Pac-12 record since 2011-12, and this season had its worst conference record (2-16) since the league initiated an 18-game schedule in 1978-79.
“As a former student-athlete, and an alumnus of the University of Washington, this is definitely not an easy day for me. I was really looking forward to coaching our team next year and beyond. However, God had a different plan,” Romar said in a statement released by the school. “I am proud of a lot of things we were able to accomplish in the 15 years that we were here. I want to thank all of the coaches, players and staff who played a part in that success. I will always support the University of Washington, and pull for the Huskies.”
There was justification for letting Romar coach another season. For one, UW will owe him a $3.2 million buyout, per the terms of his contract, amid a budget shortfall in the athletic department. And the Huskies now risk losing the most touted recruiting class in school history, a five-player group carried by the top prospect in the nation, 6-foot-9 phenom Michael Porter Jr., who has strongly implied that he would not play for UW if Romar were not the coach (Porter’s father, Michael Porter Sr., is an assistant for the Huskies).
Porter, along with fellow signees Jaylen Nowell, Daejon Davis, Blake Harris and Mamoudou Diarra, signed a binding national letter of intent, and must be granted his release by athletic director Jen Cohen in order to enroll at a different school and be eligible to play next season. Such releases, though, are not uncommon, particularly amid coaching changes. Forcing recruits to honor their letters in this circumstance would be an unpopular decision.
With an overall record of 298-196 in 15 seasons, Romar is the second-winningest coach in school history. He has seen 12 players drafted by the NBA, nine of them in the first round, five of them in the past six years. But none of those most recent five — nor a sixth, Markelle Fultz, who could be the No. 1 pick this year — could lead UW to the NCAA tournament. Thus, the popular narrative told of Romar as a masterful recruiter, a great guy and a fine ambassador for the program. But his coaching seemed to lag behind as the years progressed.
It wasn’t always like this. Hired in April 2002 to replace Bob Bender, who had been fired after winning only 31 games in his final three seasons, Romar, the school’s fourth choice at the time — Dan Monson, Mark Few and Quin Snyder all turned the Huskies down — needed only two years to get the Huskies back into the NCAA tournament, where they had not been since 1998-99. Behind a young roster led by Seattle locals Nate Robinson, Brandon Roy and Will Conroy, Romar’s 2003-04 squad finished 19-12 overall and in second place in the Pac-10 standings (they went 10-17 in his first year). The Huskies lost to Alabama-Birmingham in the tournament’s first round, but returned the next season as a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, advancing to the Sweet 16 before losing to Louisville.
They made it to the Sweet 16 again the next year, with Roy being named an All-American, before sustaining perhaps the most heartbreaking defeat of Romar’s tenure: a 98-92 overtime loss in Washington, D.C. to No. 2-seed Connecticut, in which UConn required a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds of regulation to force the extra period. Romar returned to the tournament three more times in his UW career, but his teams never made it past the Sweet 16. That March 2006 night in the nation’s capital remains the closest he got.
Still, there were good times for the Huskies between 2009-12, a four-year stretch in which UW won 100 games, two regular-season league titles and two league tournament titles. In 2009, the Huskies won the school’s first outright, regular-season league championship since 1953. They won the Pac-10 tournament in 2010 and made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to West Virginia. They won the league tournament again in 2011, Isaiah Thomas swishing a step-back jumper at the buzzer to win the championship over Arizona in overtime, by a mile the most famous shot in the program’s history. And while they failed to make the NCAA tournament in the bizarre campaign of 2011-12 — even with two first-round NBA draft picks, Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten — they still won the Pac-12 title, Romar’s second in four seasons.
Thomas got drafted. Quincy Pondexter got drafted. Jon Brockman got drafted. The Huskies were nationally relevant, they were fun to watch and they were putting guys in the league. Hec Ed was selling out. Players graduated. Scott Woodward, then UW’s athletic director, rewarded Romar with a 10-year contract extension.
Then, slowly, came the fall. An NIT appearance in 2012-2013. No postseason in 2013-2014 (despite producing yet another first-round pick, C.J. Wilcox, the school’s all-time leading 3-point shooter). An 11-0 start and top-15 national ranking in 2014-2015 … then a seven-game losing streak amid the dismissal of shot-blocking ace Robert Upshaw (and a handful of injuries), a 16-15 finish and another year without a postseason. In 2015-16, it was back to the NIT, things looking up a bit with a mostly-freshmen roster highlighted by promising youngsters Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss … until both left for the NBA, leaving Romar little depth with which to surround incoming star Markelle Fultz.
Player defections became an annual problem. Some recruits didn’t pan out; others simply wanted to play somewhere else. Romar pursued some big-time recruits and just missed — Terrence Jones, Aaron Gordon and Jabari Bird among them — and would have signed zero players in 2012 if not for the late addition of junior-college transfer Mark McLaughlin, who subsequently left the program without ever playing a game.
Futility on the recruiting trail triggered a shift in Romar’s philosophy. He decided he was done chasing hat ceremonies, and instead began focusing on players who would be willing to commit earlier and sign in November. This strategy led to a highly-rated class in 2015 (with Murray and Chriss) and the signing of Fultz, the most coveted recruit they’d ever had. But Murray and Chriss gutted the class by going pro after one season, there weren’t any veterans around to fill the gaps, and …
And so the 2016-17 season happened. Fultz was outstanding, but the Huskies did little right otherwise. They often lacked energy and seemed unprepared, particularly defensively. Fultz missed six games due to injury. A roster of mostly sophomores struggled to adapt to new roles with greater responsibilities. The Huskies ended the season on a 13-game losing streak and with a program-worst league record of 2-16.
There was reason to believe next season could have been much better, given Porter’s once-in-a-generation skills, the potential of the rest of the recruiting class and the number of returning players — David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson — who will, at last, be upperclassmen. Romar often pointed to this arrangement as evidence that his program was trending in the right direction — after he had to “hit the reset button” two years ago, to use his words — despite its humiliating record.
But that record simply became too much for UW administrators to bear, the glory days too far in the rearview, the Huskies failing for too long to meet the standard Romar helped establish.