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.
A stony silence has emanated from the athletic offices at the University of Washington regarding the future of basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, and we can only assume that shortly, a puff of white or brown smoke will drift skyward from the Graves Building.
(This is a blog that usually addresses some aspect of Gonzaga basketball, but occasionally, will riff on other related topics in college hoops. And since the Zags have re-engaged with Washington on a four-year deal, what the hey, indulge me.)
It’s probably no great surmise on my part that without Washington’s lingering financial commitment to Romar, he’d probably be gathering cardboard boxes to stuff office possessions into, so to vacate for the next guy. That’s the inevitable fate of coaches from Power Five conferences who fail for six straight years to get a team into the NCAA tournament.
Big picture, it’s staggering that the matter is even debatable anymore, never mind that Romar has this all-galaxy, all-universe, all-constellation recruiting class coming to Montlake (probably to stay together for, oh, a season and a half, given the roster churn that has besieged the program over those six years). And of course, that debate is framed by the contract that ex-athletic director Scott Woodward hitched to Romar years ago, subject of today’s treatise.
Romar is said to be due some $3 million if the Huskies decide to fire him, result of Woodward having thrown himself mindlessly at the feet of the likable coach back when the Huskies were, you know, relevant.
For the life of me, I don’t know what the hell these people are thinking. But then, I don’t know what they’ve sometimes been thinking at places like Washington State and Oregon State, either.
The arms race, see, is not limited to the building of facilities to keep up the Joneses. It also has a lot to do with salaries, or it must, or we’d more often see evidence of some vague fiscal responsibility instead of athletic directors acting with the forbearance of guys at a weekend bachelor party in Las Vegas
Somehow, Woodward decided that Washington’s life would be destitute without Romar, so he gave him a 10-year contract in 2010. Yes, there were murmurs about NBA coaching, and there was always the possibility of a college program poaching him, but isn’t six, seven, even eight years a sufficiently solid commitment?
Maybe Woodward was only taking a cue from his regional colleagues. At Washington State in 2009, Jim Sterk concluded that Ken Bone had to have a seven-year deal to replace Tony Bennett, all of it guaranteed. There was even a time when Sterk was paying Bone more than his football coach, and no matter how difficult things were under Paul Wulff, that should never have happened.
Anyway, would the whole thing have fallen through if Sterk had offered a five-year deal, with, say, a liquidated buyout the last year or two, to a coach whose only Division 1 coaching experience was at Portland State of the Big Sky?
(Sterk had left Pullman by the time Bone was let go after the 2014 season. At San Diego State, he dodged my e-mail and voicemail on the subject, and only when buttonholed in person by the Spokane Spokesman-Review at a subsequent NCAA basketball regional did he offer an explanation about the Bone deal. He said he had done the same thing for women’s coach June Daugherty and needed to be equitable. Oh.)
So it was left to Sterk’s successor, Bill Moos, to make a change from Bone to Ernie Kent, who had been out of coaching and was dying to get back into it -- badly enough to take the bait at one of college basketball’s most desperate outposts. Bone had made $850,000 annually. So wouldn’t $1 million or $1.1 million have been a reasonable starting salary, especially at a place where the cost of living is cheaper than the average Pac-12 stop?
No. Kent would get $1.4 million. No low-rent program, those Cougars.
Down at Oregon State a few years ago, athletic director Bob DeCarolis finally pulled the plug on Craig Robinson after six failed seasons of OSU basketball. But not without a sledgehammer buyout of $4 million. What was it that drove DeCarolis to fling himself at President Obama’s brother in law? Was it that crowd of 1,352 home fans for the loss to Radford in the College Basketball Invitational?
Alums have only so long to scratch heads over decisions like these. Some of their effort has to go to guarding their wallets in the face of the inevitable, and plaintive, pleas from their favorite athletic department that they need to step it up financially. The message: Please, save us from ourselves.
Aside from the arms-race component, I’m not sure how to explain these blunders, other than to suggest that (a) athletic directors often don't have any more certainty about hires than the guy who changes their oil; and (b) they hate the process so much that when they think they’ve got the right person, they lock onto him like barnacles.
Exhibit A: Sterk hired Tony Bennett, who, with his dad, authored the most astonishing rebuilding job in the history of Pac-12 basketball. And he hired Wulff, who went 9-41 in four years.
Anyway, we ought to know more on Romar shortly, right after the Huskies complete the season with a 13-game losing streak.
Who knows, a long extension may be coming his way.
The new year has brought a deepening of the Lorenzo Romar conundrum, the one in which the Husky men’s basketball coach’s future is clouded by the ongoing wrangle between his coaching and recruiting acumen.
(This blog typically deals with happenings around Gonzaga basketball, but it will occasionally address the nearby programs and college hoops in general.)
On New Year’s evening, the Huskies started Pac-12 play with a home loss to Washington State, punctuated by the usual heroics from freshman guard Markelle Fultz, plus a lot of vacant looks by the other guys on the floor. Three nights later, 15th-ranked Oregon came to town, and the Ducks won by 22, pretty much treating Washington like a cat batting around a dead mouse.
So by now, we know this: For the Husky men, it’s not a question of whether, but how bad. Any real chance of making something of this season is close to having disappeared, and now it’s more an issue of just how far this will sink. After Washington got clocked by Gonzaga four weeks ago, Romar said he was looking forward to seven straight games in Seattle. Ahead of a visit from Oregon State, those first six have produced a 3-3 record and victories over Western Michigan, Cal Poly and Seattle U., significant only in the fact the Huskies didn’t lose to them.
Washington’s record is 7-7 now, and besides the aforementioned three, the wins are against Long Beach State, Western Kentucky, Cal State-Fullerton and Northern Arizona. A reading early this week of the RPI computer rankings of the seven brings us to an average of 271, which means none of the seven is faintly relevant.
It’s gotten so bad that the Wednesday Seattle Times noted that Washington had failed to make the NCAA tournament six straight years. Actually, it’s only five, but by now, who’s counting?
“Lorenzo’s got pocket aces,” crowed a morning talk-show host.
Of course he does. Romar has signed forward Michael Porter Jr., ranked by some the nation’s second-best high school recruit, the centerpiece of a top-five class. And his brother Jontay, a year younger, is committed to Washington.
They’re playing at Nathan Hale High School, where the coach, in his first job, is former Washington great Brandon Roy.
Speaking of first year, a month before Roy was named at Nathan Hale, Romar added Michael Porter Sr. to his staff. In a revealing December piece, Christian Caple of the Tacoma News-Tribune laid out the circumstances of that hire.
Romar and the senior Porter have a long association, dating to when they played together for Athletes in Action a generation ago. And Romar is godfather to Michael Porter Jr.
From there, it grows murkier. Porter Sr.’s coaching background is rooted in AAU circles, then to three years’ each as Missouri women’s basketball operations director and assistant with the Mizzou women, whose roster included two of his daughters. There had been no experience with college men before Washington.
For this, according to Caple’s story, the Huskies decided on a two-year contract for Porter Sr. worth $300,000 a year, plus a $5,000 monthly housing allowance and another $15,000 annually for family travel. Raphael Chillious, Romar’s top assistant, makes $203,016. The other assistant, Will Conroy, makes $144,000.
The Huskies had thought enough of Chillious to bring him back to the UW for a second run after a stint at Villanova. And last April, they announced a promotion of Chillious to the title of associate head coach. That came a month before they made public the hire of Porter Sr., which was a month before the announcement of Roy as coach at Nathan Hale. And in July, Michael Porter Jr. announced he would attend Washington.
In Caple’s story, both Romar and UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen lament some tight finances at the UW as cramping the salary pool for all the assistants, and they cite another unnamed major-conference program as having been desirous of Porter Sr.’s services.
So the solution was to pay Porter Sr. 48 percent more than the top assistant on the staff, ostensibly because of his experience with the Missouri women’s program. Apparently, Geno Auriemma wasn’t available.
The head spins.
We’ll insert here the disclaimer of every treatise on Romar. He has always been a good and honorable man. And there’s nothing known about the saga of the Porters that would violate NCAA rules.
But in the Huskies’ confounding backslide since 2011, Romar has accomplished a jaw-dropping double. Twice, he has had teams that sent two first-round draft choices to the NBA that year and failed to make the NCAA tournament.
Last year, that edition of the Huskies also included the Pac-12’s leading scorer -- a third player, Andrew Andrews -- and still it didn’t happen, a non-feat of majestic magnitude. It came in a Pac-12 Conference that sent seven teams to the NCAA tournament, which means (a) the games were consistently challenging, and (b) there was opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to build a resume.
All of this leaves some Husky fans behaving like a classic drug addict. Just one more fix. Just one more. Just give us one more recruiting class, and everything will be all right. Just as it was going to be all right when Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss entered school in 2015. Just as it was going to be all right when Fultz enrolled for this year.
So far, what Fultz has brought is breathtaking ability, surrounded by a bunch of guys who don’t play defense and don’t seem to fit particularly well. The sum is less than the parts, which means Fultz, if he goes No. 1 in the 2017 NBA draft, is Ben Simmons 2.0, minus the dissension.
Here’s a suggestion, then, for Jennifer Cohen: Forget that Husky basketball has signed anybody for next year. Pretend that the recruiting rankings don’t exist.
The Huskies have 17 games left. Evaluate Romar not on the basis of Michael Porter Jr., but on the development of this team -- you know, the one that actually plays and practices at Alaska Airlines Arena, the one with three four-star recruits around Fultz. By March, make a reading on whether they’re getting better, and growing more cohesive, and defending more competently, and playing like they care.
Because what Lorenzo Romar has shown he’s really good at, in the enigmatic recent years of his coaching career, is getting guys to the NBA. Cohen is going to have to decide whether, in the big picture of Husky basketball, that should be the endgame.
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