The entire time that I have been old enough to really pay attention, Lorenzo Romar has been the coach of Washington’s basketball team. In my eyes he has been like the highly-respected, quirky father of Husky basketball, and when I was younger, I never once considered that he might eventually be anything else. Following a disappointing trip to the NIT in 2011-2012 despite the presence of five-star freshman Tony Wroten and future No. 8 NBA pick, Terrence Ross, and a straight up bad 2012-2013 year that featured one of the least compelling teams (okay, let’s be honest, the least compelling team) of Romar’s tenure, things aren’t that simple anymore.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that Romar needs to be fired right now. To be honest, I have an issue taking those calling for Romar’s job (or those that called for his job all season long) seriously. Not because Romar’s performance has been beyond reproach, but because Romar has built this program, and should not be fired over two seasons, the first of which was disappointing only when considering expectations, as Wroten, Ross and Co actually won the regular season Pac-12 title. You can’t yank Romar down from atop the program he built so quickly, not until he’s had a chance to show that he can bounce back.
That is why next season, 2013-2014, is so key. In my opinion, it is the year that Romar has to show the Husky faithful that last year was simply a down year, a result of a dry spell in the recruiting cycle that left an awkward mix of personnel and a lack of elite talent, and not the next step in a decline beginning two years ago.
Exactly what does Romar need to do to show this? That depends on one guy: Aaron Gordon. If Gordon chooses somewhere other than Washington, which appears to be the most likely outcome, expectations can’t be crazy high. No one can start freaking out and calling for Romar’s job if he fails to win the national championship. He simply won’t have that type of talent. He’ll have to work on replacing Aziz N’Diaye, Scott Suggs, and Abdul Gaddy, a full 3/5 of his starting lineup, with the new additions: freshmen Nigel Williams-Goss, Darin Johnson, and Jahmel Taylor, as well as newly-eligible transfers Perris Blackwell and Giles Dierickx. While it’s impossible to accurately project how much returning players like Andrew Andrews and Sean Kemp Jr. will improve, whether NWG or Darin Johnson will be ready to make big contributions right away (NWG almost certainly is), or how the two transfers will fit into the rotation, it is pretty logical to presume that that combination of players doesn’t equal elite talent.
That being said, if the team fails to gel into a cohesive unit as the season projects, if they continuously struggle with free throws, turnovers and team defense, as the last two teams have, it will be tougher to excuse Romar. It will be tougher to act as if it isn’t his fault, and it will be sillier to act like he should get unlimited do-overs. As far as a real measuring stick: I would say that if, in this scenario, Romar’s team fails to make it to the NCAA tournament, it will be time to seriously consider whether or not Romar is the team’s best option.
That can’t be set in stone, though. It may be possible that the team starts out horribly in non-conference play, but begins to improve steadily as young players develop and step into their proper roles. If that is the case, the team could miss the tournament based on a weak year-long resume, yet a strong conference performance could make it clear that Romar has put that mediocrity behind him, in which case terminating him would be highly questionable.
Now, the second scenario. Aaron Gordon selects UW. There is much rejoicing. And immediately after that, the hype begins to build. All season it builds, and despite all the starters lost, all the ugly, ugly basketball of the ’12-’13 campaign, by the time Gordon takes the floor for the first non-conference game, expectations will be swollen beyond what is probably reasonable to expect. With one and done talents, it’s pretty much standard procedure.
Even if many people will mistakenly expect Gordon to put the entire team on his back and carry them to a Pac-12 title as a true freshman, there is no denying that his presence would rightfully raise the bar as far as Romar proving himself is concerned. All the sudden making the tournament wouldn’t be the objective, it would be an assumption, and to accept an NIT berth with the No. 4 player in the country (as well as NWG, who is ranked as high as No. 20 overall by ESPN) on the roster would be the ultimate disappointment. To really quiet down the criticism, Romar would probably have to make it at least to the Sweet 16.
That doesn’t mean that an earlier exit would lead to his firing; if the Huskies run away with the regular season title but catch a tough matchup and bow out of the tournament early in dramatic, competitive fashion versus a competent opponent, there would be much teeth-gnashing, but Romar would likely be fine, especially if he puts together a solid Class of 2014.
If, in the first scenario, Romar finds himself in the NIT again, or if, in the second, his team fails to parlay Gordon’s one-year stay into a solid tournament showing, fans will still have to ask themselves one important question before they start screaming for Romar’s job: would his replacement be any better?
Because after a third down year (compared to expectations) there would be little doubt that Washington would have every right to go a different direction. Even great coaches sometimes reach a point of stagnation at a certain program, and everyone benefits from a change. But it isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that Romar built this program. Always, and still, a football school, Washington has never been more successful as a basketball program than they have been under Romar, and no one since Hec Edmundson has even gotten close.
Fans bemoan the lack of deep tournament runs, but forget how rare it has been over the decades for the Huskies to regularly find themselves in the field at all. Similarly, fans shake their heads thinking of all the top-flight recruits that have considered Washington up until the end before choosing to go elsewhere, but forget that in most cases, those recruits wouldn’t even have considered Washington in the first place without Romar at the helm.
Take Aaron Gordon himself for example. Before adding Oregon into the mix in the past few months, Gordon was long considering three programs: Washington, Arizona, and Kentucky. Arizona, a program with a great deal of talent, a terrific history and top-notch facilities. Kentucky, the flashiest, most loaded program in all of the nation. And then Washington. A football school with a small arena and a lack of top-notch talent on the roster. But Gordon has considered the Huskies all along the way, and it’s no mystery why. Romar has been recruiting him for years, and the two have developed a close enough relationship that when Romar talks to Gordon after coming to see him play, the two hug. Gordon is considering Washington because he is considering how much he would like to play for Coach Romar. Take that away, and I’m fairly certain Gordon would have cut Washington from his list long ago, if he ever included them in the first place.
Those in favor of Romar’s firing will point to young, promising coaches like VCU’s Shaka Smart. Thing is, if a guy like Smart decides to leave his current school, it simply won’t be to take the Washington job. I don’t mean to harp on UW, but it’s logic. Take UCLA, who will probably have an opening to fill this offseason. There is nothing UW can offer Smart that UCLA can’t. In reality, upon firing Romar, the administration would either have to settle for a well established mid-level veteran coach, or they would have to pick up a young, unproven coach with lots of potential and hope he works out. Sure, there would be a chance he takes the program far beyond where Romar could, but it’s far more likely that he wouldn’t even begin to replicate what Romar has done here in Seattle.
Not only would he have trouble attracting mega-recruits to the school without the patriarchal, mentor-like allure that has led so many recruits to consider playing for Romar, he also wouldn’t have a proven track record of sending kids to the NBA, something Romar is able to point to despite the lack of historical success for the program.
Why point all this out? I honestly think that when it comes to calling for Romar’s job, fans do not understand how lucky they are to have Romar, and how tough it would be to even find someone capable of replicating his level of success at Washington, let alone surpassing it. That being said, if Romar fails to make the tournament next year (assuming no Gordon) or fails to meet expectations (assuming yes Gordon) similar to the way the presence of Tony Wroten and Spencer Hawes didn’t translate into deep tournament runs in year’s past, and it will at least be time to consider rolling the dice.
All of this has been almost entirely hypothetical, but now that we’ve entered the long offseason for both football and basketball, hypothetical is the new concrete, and predictions and projections are really all we have. So, if you feel differently about Romar’s job security, feel free to comment below (be respectful) or tweet us at @HuskyHaul. As always, thanks for reading.