So the University of Washington has hired longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, which is, at the very least, a provocative hire. Among other things, it tells me that UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen had been working this transition for awhile. You don’t just decide to fire Lorenzo Romar after the Huskies’ 13th straight loss in the Pac-12 tournament, and then commence a national search which lands on somebody other than a head coach.
At minimum, Cohen was working back channels days and weeks ago. Maybe about the time Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski rumbled down the floor and got behind the insouciant Husky defense for a layup in the Zags’ easy victory early in December.
Although Hopkins had been a candidate for other jobs on the West Coast, it’s an out-of-the-box hire. I went back through half a century of UW basketball appointments (six of them), and in every case at least since Mac Duckworth coached in the ‘60s, Washington always named a sitting head coach to the position. So it’s a bold move on Cohen’s part, and she deserves props for not doing the rote, pat thing, which is hiring the coach who happens to be making a hot NCAA-tournament run in front of millions of TV viewers who normally couldn’t tell you what state Purdue is in.
Still, it’s fraught with questions, partly for the same reason. There are major unknowns about any assistant coach.
To me, one of the most intriguing ones is the long-term fate of the abundant talent pool in Seattle. Of course, that’s a dynamic that directly impacts Gonzaga.
As I documented in “Glory Hounds,” (chapter 10), the Seattle inner-city market has remained mostly closed to Gonzaga, except on the rebound with transfers from Washington like Dan Dickau, Erroll Knight and Nigel Williams-Goss. It’s a confounding fact that the Zags have done more business in Chicago (Jeremy Pargo, Zach Norvell) than they have in recent years with high school kids in Seattle.
The Zags, and others, explain it as: Only a percentage of the available talent fits what Gonzaga does. And only a percentage of that group is interested in Gonzaga.
I can’t guess what goes through the minds of 18-year-olds, but my sense is that to most Seattle kids, Gonzaga is still an outlier in their world, no matter that the Zags have far outdistanced the Huskies as a basketball program.
Casey Calvary, the productive Gonzaga forward from Tacoma on teams that started this 19-year, NCAA-tournament streak, told me for Glory Hounds, “Dragging a Seattle kid away from the UW . . . they’ll go to the UW even though they know it’s a bad basketball decision. Like, ‘This is my town, all my buddies are around here, I’m a Seattle guy.’ ’’
I think Calvary hit the nail on the head. Yes, the UW is a powerful force in Seattle. Yes, the Huskies have put a flock of players into the NBA. And yes, Romar was a role-model figure skilled at recruiting.
In some cases, to choose the UW became the path of least resistance. After two waves of success keyed by people like Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas, the Huskies weren’t winning big (and in recent years, weren’t winning at all), but a recruit could rationalize: I can change that losing. And I can get to the NBA. And, at the very least, I’m with my homies.
The culture is thick, and dare I say, occasionally suffocating.
Years ago, Washington State got a summertime commitment from Mark McLaughlin from suburban Inglemoor High. Within a month, McLaughlin -- who would go on to an itinerant career that landed him briefly at Washington -- had bailed on the commitment. WSU’s staff, then under Tony Bennett, believed McLaughlin’s AAU buddies had dogged him for choosing a place that wasn’t hip.
Gary Bell Jr., who had a rock-solid career at Gonzaga, used to say that he got the same inquisition from AAU teammates and rivals in Seattle.
When Daejon Davis decommitted from Washington for a period and began canvassing other schools, one of the places he visited was Gonzaga. The Zags’ staff was of the opinion, gained either from Davis himself or by impression, that Washington was out of the picture. It wasn’t; he recommitted to the Huskies.
Under Romar, the trend of gaining recruits -- both local and national -- and losing games became almost unfathomable. Earlier this season, I researched the past 10 NBA drafts and discovered that Markelle Fultz will become the seventh Husky in that timeframe to be a first-round pick and not play in the NCAA tournament in the year in which he was drafted. Incredibly, no other school in the country had more than two.
Until Romar was cashiered last week, I was ready to forecast that Corey Kispert, the Gonzaga wing recruit from King’s High just north of Seattle, would leave a greater mark on his college program than Michael Porter Jr. would at Washington. Wherever Porter ends up, whether Missouri or elsewhere, let’s ride that proposition out.
Now it’s Hopkins’ job to retain the local talent. He has a reputation as a good recruiter, albeit minus Romar’s godfather persona in Seattle. The guess is, he’ll succeed with city kids. And Gonzaga will keep being Gonzaga.
Old habits die hard. If it does happen, maybe Hopkins will actually win with those guys.