I was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington the first time I met Lorenzo Romar. It was the evening before Valentine’s Day, 2004, and the Husky Men’s Basketball team was getting ready to square off against the hated Oregon Ducks.
In an attempt to encourage students to arrive a) early and b) en masse, the athletic department’s marketing staff held a pregame meet-and-greet with the head coach that also included … wait for it … FREE FOOD. A Qdoba taco bar was set up in an auxiliary gym and, not surprisingly, a good number of students showed up to sample the fare.
My buddy, Charlie, and I had been attending games the entire season, but up to this point crowds had been slow to follow us to Hec Edmundson Pavilion. A string of pivotal conference wins had sparked a renewed interest in the team, however, and the athletic department was looking for every opportunity to capitalize on the sudden success.
So it was that I found myself in the audience of a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing shiny black wingtips, standing much taller than I originally anticipated. He spoke in a calm manner, confident, quiet, commanding, yet still very warm.
“We need to come up with a good nickname for [Oregon star] Luke Jackson,” he suggested.
“Second-hand Luke!” shouted a voice amongst the throng. The gallery erupted in laughter. The timing was impeccable, with Oregon’s more talented star of the same first name, point guard Luke Ridnour, having departed early for the NBA (and your Seattle Supersonics) during the prior offseason. Jackson was, quite literally, Oregon’s second-hand Luke.
“I like that, I like that,” the coach replied. And then he paused as a smile crept across his face. We all laughed once more.
It was this initial interaction that spawned a relationship with Romar and his basketball program unlike most that any fan could ever experience with his or her favorite team. We were the Dawg Pack, a thriving, evolving mass of out-of-control, fun-loving students that wanted nothing more than to enjoy every Husky Basketball game with our friends. And he was the leader of an up-and-coming, exciting, fast-paced ballclub of bourgeoning superstars that not only won games, but also reciprocated the love expressed by the growing contingent of fellow students-cum-fanatics.
We would meet again, the students and Romar, on various occasions. When we camped out before the team’s nationally-televised matchup against an undefeated Stanford team, he delivered boxes and boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts the morning after a chilly, near-sleepless night. After that, he brought his players outside to visit with us. First Tre Simmons, then Curtis Allen, even Nate Robinson. We talked and took pictures, played Xbox, embraced the moment. And after that we were cool with one another. They got us and we got them, those players. We were all students on the same campus, and because of the coach we were no longer strangers to one another. As time passed, they became our acquaintances, our friends.
After each season’s final home game, win or lose, the coach would grab a microphone, stand before a crowd that unwittingly had begun filing towards the exits, and utter an unrehearsed speech thanking all of us for showing up and supporting the team. He’d remain on the court after those contests and hang out with us, talk to us, be amongst us. His players did the same. He even led an entire group of students on an impromptu tour of the facilities after a game once, simply because we were still in the building.
By the time I was a senior, we had begun sneaking into Hec Ed late at night – special thanks to two friends of ours, one who played on the team and another who moonlit as a campus security guard, for getting us in – to play pickup games, often for hours on end. This went on for more than a few weeks before Romar found out. Through an intermediary, he advised us against playing there. But he wasn’t upset. And he didn’t tell us we couldn’t play there. It just didn’t seem safe. We took our games elsewhere anyway.
Over time, he gave us so many speeches that we began to notice patterns. For instance, he would always tell us about his previous coaching stints at St. Louis and Pepperdine, where he had to go door-to-door at each university’s Greek Row and inform students that not only was there a basketball team on campus, but that students were also privy to attend, if they so desired. Washington, he informed us, was different. He didn’t have to tell us to come. We just came. And then we went nuts for his squad. It was the first time in his head coaching career that anything like this had occurred. No one was more grateful for the presence of a bunch of smart-ass know-it-alls than Coach Romar. No one was more grateful for Coach Romar than our bunch of smart-ass know-it-alls.
He defended us in the press when other coaches in the conference wanted to relocate the Dawg Pack. Washington’s students were breathing down their necks, they said. Washington’s students were too loud, too close, too rowdy. Other schools put their students on the baselines or on the opposite side of the court. Washington’s students were right freakin’ there! Romar wouldn’t let them move us. He fought to keep us where we were, where we gave the team a ridiculous home court advantage, where we deserved to remain. And so we remained there. They still remain there today.
He didn’t have to do any of this, of course. He could have just won ballgames and we all would have been happy, we all would have shown up. Secretly, most of us turned out on that evening I first met the coach because a complimentary taco bar was involved. But we kept coming after that, believe it or not, in spite of an absence of free food.
I get it. I get why some fans want him fired. Why certain people would rather see the Huskies guided by someone other than the guy who’s been doing it for the past 12 years. He’s the longest tenured head coach in the Pac-12 now, but it seems like just yesterday that I stood before him as a teenager, slightly skinnier and gawkier than I am now (though equally as motivated by a free meal), when he was in the midst of only his second season on the job. It’s the law of diminishing returns, the fact that his team has lost its grasp on success over the past three years, a quarter of the dozen he’s been at the helm.
And I admit I’m guilty of instigating the masses as much as the next guy, quick to poke fun at the team’s occasional inability to handle a zone defense, to recruit with the best programs in the nation, to win games they should be capable of winning. I’ve joked about some of his players. I’ve cringed when the likes of Andrew Andrews lofts an ill-advised three-pointer, or when the since-departed Abdul Gaddy would choke away a clutch opportunity in crunch time. I’ve been that guy as much as anyone else, as much as anyone who wants Romar gone.
But I can never want anything but the best for Lorenzo Romar. This dude has treated people well for as long as I’ve known him, for over a decade now. He has been and continues to be the ultimate human being. He is a good person who deserves good things to happen to him. How could I ever wish bad upon someone who has inspired so much greatness?
Some may not understand it, some may not care to understand it, some may not be moved by the man’s charisma or his heart, but I am. He will get a free pass from me. Not because he used to land the best players around. Not because he used to coach a perennial tournament contender. Not because he’s governed a clean program in an era when that’s an increasing rarity – though it’s certainly nice to know he stands for righteousness in the face of rampant artifice.
No, for me it’s simpler than that.
Romar was good to me and to all of my fellow students when he didn’t have to be. He paid attention to us when no one else did. He made the entire athletic department recognize and acknowledge our importance. He forced the institution to treat the students – not the adults, not the boosters, not the family men, nor the wealthy glad-handers – with the utmost respect. He had our backs when there was no reason to have our backs. He’s no hipster; he loved the Dawg Pack before it was cool to love the Dawg Pack. And I guarantee you he still loves the Dawg Pack now, even if it isn’t so cool to love them once again.
There is nothing I want more than to see the Husky Basketball program thrive. And there is no one else I want to see lead that program to greatness than Lorenzo Romar.
Filed under: Husky Basketball
My entire adulthood has been spent hating the Oregon Ducks. That day in 2004 when the Ducks beat Washington 31-6, kicking off a nine-year (and counting) win streak against the Huskies? That was my 19th birthday, October 30, 2004. Since then, the closest the Dawgs have come to knocking off their johnny-come-lately rivals is a 34-17 defeat at Husky Stadium in 2011. Suffice it to say a great deal of vitriol has been built up over nine years of losing.
Anytime an opponent waxes the floor with you for nearly a decade, it’s hard to tolerate just about anything having to do with that opponent’s existence. I’ve learned to loathe Oregon with a passion outweighing similar levels of disdain held for any other rival in any other city in any other sport. Nothing evokes pure disgust, pure detestation, pure revulsion quite like the University of Oregon. I don’t want to beat them every year; I want to destroy them. I want to run up the score on them. I want to embarrass them, to crush them, to make them look as inferior as inferior can be. And yet my team hasn’t supported me on this quest for a proverbial mountaintop borne out of spite. They, like so many others, have been unable to topple the mighty Ducks. And so each year as the annual matchup with our hated foes arrives, we sit here and stew in a cesspool of frustration, anger, and hope.
It is the hope that allows us to expect the improbable each passing season. Beating Oregon would surely be unanticipated — they’re ranked second in the nation for a reason — but more likely to occur this year than in any year among the nine prior. Consider the circumstances:
Washington gets to play at home, in a newly-renovated stadium, in front of what will be a raucous, sellout crowd. The last time these two teams played at Husky Stadium, in the aforementioned 2011 matchup, the final score was as close as its been in any meeting throughout this streak of futility.
Then there’s the Gameday factor. Having ESPN Gameday on campus for the first time in school history will certainly ramp up any ordinary excitement Husky fans would possess for this contest. By the time the masses hit the turnstiles at the stadium, energy should be at its absolute peak for the day.
Finally, we have the team itself. This is without a doubt the most talented roster the Huskies have fielded in a decade. Ranked 16th in the country entering Saturday’s game, Washington will be better equipped to pull off an upset than at any time in recent memory. Playing a fifth-ranked Stanford program down to the final drive on the road a week ago has tested this squad and prepared them to handle the potential adversity they’ll be facing against a superior opponent.
But it isn’t all sunshine and roses here on Montlake. The Huskies have their warts, and those warts are not insignificant.
For all its talent, this Washington team is incredibly undisciplined. The Huskies may have been able to thwart Stanford a couple days ago were it not for 10 penalties that amounted to 89 yards in favor of the Cardinal. On the year, the Huskies have been penalized for more yardage than their opponents in every single game they’ve played. That includes a season-high 16 penalties for 130 yards against a lowly Idaho State team. Their penalty averages, as a result, aren’t pretty: 10.6 penalties per game for 91.8 yards over five contests is nothing short of disappointing. But it gets worse.
Rather than publicly taking blame for their shortcomings, coaches and players alike have been looking for excuses. Pointing fingers at officials, making claims about the morality of their adversaries (Are they or aren’t they faking it? Does anyone even care?), and setting a precedent for shoulder shrugging and responsibility shirking has put the Husky program in a precarious position. If Washington wins games, there’s no blame to go around and therefore no need to find a scapegoat for the blemishes on the team’s résumé. But should losses occur, it’s up to the coaches and players to shoulder the burden of their own mistakes — at least in the public spectrum and within the media — and avoid the potential of any future distractions down the road. In excusing some of the more blatant offenses of the ballclub’s performance thus far, the program has set itself up to be unnecessarily interrogated for what we can all agree is stupid, mindless shit. Whaddaya think about David Shaw’s comments about your comments, Sark? Huh, huh, huh? Whaddaya think, huh?
The good news: this story can be entirely rewritten in just a few short days. Conquering Oregon would alter the course of the entire 2013 campaign for Washington, putting the team in line for a BCS bowl berth and officially returning the program to a level of status they haven’t enjoyed since Y2K was still a thing we all made jokes about.
This is it. This is your season’s turning point, Huskies. My entire adulthood can be changed for the better thanks to the outcome of just one game. I would like nothing more than to see you go out and throttle the Ducks…I’ll settle for a nail-biting win, though.
Put distractions aside, avoid mistakes, avoid costly penalties, tighten up everything, be accountable, be active, be fast, be perfect for a day and win. Win. You can do this, Dawgs.
Filed under: Husky Football
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