By Ryan S. Clark
The News Tribune
SEATTLE — Nearly every basketball player in Seattle-Tacoma with college aspirations over the last 15 years has crossed paths with Lorenzo Romar.
As Washington’s head coach, he was known for keeping local kids and developing them into something greater. It’s why for any young man from this area, playing at UW is an option. Then, last March, Romar was fired following a 9-22 season on top of missing the NCAA Tournament for a sixth straight campaign. UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen, in less than a week, replaced Romar with longtime Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins.
In real time, the switch from Romar to Hopkins took days. For those involved, the process felt longer. Some players and recruits bolted. The Huskies core, however, decided to stay, and that’s helped fuel a Huskies turnaround under Hopkins.
Saturday marks Romar’s return when UW (16-6, 6-3 Pac-12) hosts No. 9 Arizona (19-4, 9-1) at the Alaska Airlines Arena.
Huskies junior guard and Tacoma native David Crisp remembers the time between coaches as one of uncertainty for players and the program.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do and I was just at home not really thinking about none of it all,” Crisp said. “I was trying to take some time off with my family and my mom told me, ‘Just pray about it.’ ”
Romar and his staff, despite a lackluster season, were building toward what they believed was going to be a strong season. The Huskies had the top recruiting class in America – remember Michael Porter Jr. and Daejon Davis? – along with an experienced core of Crisp, Noah Dickerson, Dominic Green and Matisse Thybulle.
Cohen knew she needed to act fast. She said the timeline was “laser-focused” because the administration wanted to get a coach in place so the players didn’t have to stay in limbo for a long period.
She said having assistant coach and former UW point guard Will Conroy around helped the program navigate all the uncertainty.
“He was so loyal. His heart was broken and he loves Lorenzo,” Cohen said. “Lorenzo’s like a father to him and yet he stepped in and became the rock for those student-athletes during that short period of time.”
The father of UW’s starting point guard, David Crisp Sr., said he appreciated how Conroy took a “personal interest” in his son throughout the process.
And like so many people, the elder Crisp was sad to see Romar leave.
“He called me before he was hired at Arizona,” Crisp Sr. said. “He apologized for not being able to say goodbye in person. He was a great guy and someone who really loves his players.”
Crisp Sr., who played college football at Marshall, said he wasn’t sure what his son was going to do.
All he wanted was for his son to make what he believed was the best possible choice.
“I know some other guys were going to be leaving,” he said. “But I’ve always been one to believe you finish what you start.”
For Green, losing a coach was an all-too-familiar experience.
Green, who is from Renton, signed with Arizona State out of high school but was granted his release when the school fired then-coach Herb Sendek. Such an experience made Green realize there was value in staying home and playing for the Huskies.
Faced with another firing, he was faced with another tough choice.
“Some people weren’t talking about what they were going to do. They were trying to keep it personal at first,” Green said. “For me, I just thought, “OK. Let me see how everything goes.’”
Green said he still wanted to stay home and not leave UW.
Junior guard Matisse Thybulle, who is from Issaquah, said the experience was “scary.”
Part of Thybulle’s inner struggle was his attachment to Romar. He knew Romar from his childhood and had strong feelings about wanting to play for someone else.
Wanting to stay in Seattle also played into Thybulle’s decision.
“I didn’t know if this is where I wanted to be if coach Romar wasn’t going to be here,” Thybulle said. “I spent a lot of time talking to my dad, and when we came and met with coach Hop, he had us sold pretty quick.”
Hopkins’ hire answered one question about who the university would seek to replace Romar.
Other questions still remained. Players wanted to get a feel for their next head coach, assuming they were going to stay long enough to be mentored by Hopkins.
Green said he jumped on Google and did some research about Hopkins. Once he found out what the 48-year-old achieved at Syracuse, it put him at ease.
“I talked to him for a little bit on the phone and he sparked my interest,” Green said. “I was like, ‘I think this is somewhere I would want to stay.’ ”
Crisp said first met Romar as an eighth-grader playing in a AAU tournament. He grew up watching the Huskies and even after playing a year of prep school ball in New England, the need to return home was great at the time.
This, however, wasn’t like when he first came to college.
A man he knew for years was gone and these new-look Huskies with a first-time head coach was taking over the program.
“I talked to some of the guys we had,” Crisp said. “I told them, ‘I’m ready to ride this thing out and if you’re with me, I’m going to do everything within my power to improve my game.’”
Washington lost reserve forward Matthew Atewe and it initially appeared as if it would lose Dickerson too.
Dickerson eventually opted to return after taking a few visits to other programs.
Months later, Hopkins has made the Huskies one of the biggest surprises in college basketball. Picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, they’re sitting in third place in the conference.
And with four wins over potential NCAA Tournament teams, there’s a chance the Huskies could be playing in March.
“The way Hop is, there were never any worries. Never any doubts,” Crisp said. “He came in first day and told us he came here to win. He didn’t come here to rebuild and were all on the same page.”