Is Lorenzo Romar the next Bob Bender? A Three-Part Series


Back in 2002, Bob Bender was fired as the head coach of the Washington men’s basketball team following three straight losing seasons and a combined record over 9 years of 116-142. When Bender took over for Lynn Nance in 1993, he was a young coach with a lot of excitement and seen as someone to turn the program around. When in his third year at the helm he lead the Huskies to the NIT and then in his 5th year to the Sweet 16 and a 20-10 record, things really seemed to be looking up in Montlake. Especially after another NCAA tournament followed in 1999. But, things fell off a cliff shortly thereafter and the Huskies realized that heightened expectations from those two NCAA tournament berths meant that they need to go in a new direction. No longer would that level of mediocrity (11-18 seasons) that the Huskies experienced from 1987-2003 be acceptable any more.

After a difficult coaching search, the Huskies eventually settled on Saint Louis coach Lorenzo Romar, a UW alum, but only after going after some big names at the time like Quinn Snyder and Dan Monson. Lorenzo Romar arrived on campus with an impressive recruiting class that Bob Bender left behind featuring Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson, and Bobby Jones (all players who would go to the NBA). In addition, there was some other talent already on the roster Bob Bender left including Mike Jensen, Curtis Allen, and Will Conroy.

In Romar’s first season, the team would go just 10-17 and 5-13 in the Pac-10. Of course, after three straight losing seasons, this wasn’t really a surprise. First year coaches often experience a difficult transition season as they try to get all the holdover players to buy into the new system. But, in Romar’s second season with Brandon Roy, Bobby Jones, and Robinson as sophomores, senior Curtis Allen, Mike Jensen and Will Conroy as juniors, and an in-coming class of Romar recruits that included Tre Simmons and Hakeem Rollins, the Huskies improved to 19-12 and make the NCAA tournament for the first time, losing to UAB in an exciting shootout 102-100. Things were looking up!

Now the excitement really began in 2005, with perhaps the greatest Husky team ever assembled containing Roy, Jones, Robinson, Conroy, Simmons, Jensen, Rollins, and Jamaal Williams (That’s 4 NBA players right there), the Washington Huskies went on to win 29 games, win the Pac-10 tournament, earn a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and advance to the Sweet 16.

Clearly expectations were raised dramatically and Romar was being praised as the next great college basketball coach. Their up-tempo style and in your face defense also made for an exciting form of basketball at a time when Washington football was on a downhill slide. Was Washington becoming a basketball school?

Things continued nicely in Brandon Roy’s senior season of 2006 with another Sweet 16 appearance and a 26-7 record. While the last Bender holdovers in Jones and Jensen were having big senior seasons, exciting freshmen like Jon Brockman and Justin Dentmon were coming onto the scene. In addition, Romar had assembled what appeared on paper at the time as the greatest recruiting class in Husky history with Spencer Hawes, Quincy Pondexter, Adrian Oliver, and Phil Nelson all signing LOI’s.

But, then things surprisingly began to fall apart. Without the leadership of Roy and Jones and Conroy, the Sportscenter top plays of the freakishly athletic Nate Robinson and smooth composed shooting of Tre Simmons, the Huskies seemed to lose their identity. These newer Romar recruits didn’t seem on the same page. They didn’t have the team chemistry. The defense was not as strong and they lacked a real leader who could put the team on its back when the going got tough.

2007 was a difficult and awkward year. Spencer Hawes was sick or injured throughout the season and even when he was in there, his play (while solid) didn’t seem to reflect the identity of the team Romar had built. Justin Dentmon and Adrian Oliver struggled to handle the guard duties and the team limped along to a 19-13 record and missed the post season.

The funk was exacerbated in 2008 when the Huskies struggled to find any identity all season and went just 16-17, losing at home to Valparaiso in the first round of the CBI. Spencer Hawes, who never really had the chance to show what he could do at the college level left the team to collect a paycheck in the NBA and other than Jon Brockman’s yeoman-like efforts, just seemed to lack leadership. This was a team that had three eventual NBA players on it (Brockman, Pondexter, and Dentmon), but when Adrian Oliver left the team early in the season, it really caused all kinds of problems.

Were these two lackluster seasons, following the excitement of the three year run from 2004-2006 just a blip in the rebuilding process or a sign of things to come? Looking back, Romar’s initial success seemed to have been triggered by the quality of players Bob Bender left him and Romar’s coaching philosophy that seemed to mesh well with those players.

Would Bob Bender also have had as much success with those same players (Roy, Robinson, Jones, Conroy, Jensen, and Allen) had he been allowed to keep his job? Of course, it is impossible to say. It might be that Romar’s coaching philosophy on offense and defense better suited those players natural talents. Or, it could be that Romar got lucky to inherit that much talent early on?

Either way, I think Romar is a bit of a victim now of heightened expectations, the way Bob Bender was in 2002. In the next post, I will consider what happened when the Huskies returned to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and whether Romar’s more recent success (3 straight NCAA tournament appearances) is a real sign of emergence of his own coaching and recruiting philosophy or a bit of a window dressing over a systemic problem that may eventually lead to the demise of the program.