Former UW basketball coach Romar reborn as Arizona assistant

Romar was fired in March after 15 years leading the Huskies’ program.

TUCSON, Ariz. — After every loss, one of two thoughts ran through Lorenzo Romar’s mind.

Washington was barreling toward a 9-22 season and a 2-16 run in the Pac-12 all while missing the NCAA Tournament for a sixth straight season.

Romar’s first thought was if UW’s administration gave him one more year, he’d turn things around. After all, Romar and his staff were building the No. 1 recruiting class in America and had the experienced personnel to go with it.

Or he was going to get fired.

“You know if you don’t turn around, there’s a chance you could be let go. Then it finally happens,” Romar said in late December while sitting in the stands at McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona.

“During that period when you realize this is getting closer and closer to this happening, you start to reflect. If we are able to stay, ‘What are we going to differently? What I am going to do differently?’ from there on out. Then you start that process.”

It’s at this point Romar snaps his fingers and then finishes his statement.

“No. It’s too late,” Romar said. “The decision has been made. You’re not going to be able to come back.”

Romar was fired in March after 15 seasons as the Huskies men’s basketball coach. Barely a month later, he received a phone call from Arizona coach Sean Miller about joining his staff as the team’s associate coach.

Life, since moving to Tucson, has been “great” for Romar. He and his wife, Leona, are enjoying what the desert has to offer with its warm weather among other attractions.

“The city has a ton of eating places we enjoy,” Romar says with a laugh. “Great, great support here for the Arizona program.”

College athletics, at times, can be a cutthroat business when it comes to hiring and firings.

Romar, however, never spoke negatively about UW throughout the course of a 30-minute interview.

A Compton, California, native, Romar has known the man who replaced him as the Huskies coach, Mike Hopkins, “forever” as both are sons of Southern California.

Hopkins and his staff have meshed UW’s older core of David Crisp, Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle with younger players like Jaylen Nowell.

It’s led to the Huskies getting off to a 13-5 start and a 3-2 conference record. At the time Romar spoke with The News Tribune, the Huskies had not started conference play.

“They’ve done a great job,” Romar said of UW. “They’re 10-3 in their non-conference schedule. A historic, historic win at Kansas. It wasn’t a fluke. They went in there and did a great, great job. They’ve had some close games they’ve pulled out. It’s been fun to watch.”

Romar said he still keeps tabs on the Huskies basketball program. He said the hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to the family he built there.

Two of UW’s current assistants — Will Conroy and Cameron Dollar — worked for Romar.

“From a basic human point of view, you have to understand there aren’t many coaches that have an opportunity to coach at a Power 5 conference for 15 years,” Romar said. “It doesn’t happen very often. I was able to do that.”

Anyone who has ever met Romar can quickly pick up on his easy-going nature.

Romar said his Christian faith has given him a perspective on life that he values. He doesn’t view leaving UW as a sudden upheaval of his life and that of his family.

Instead, he see his time at as UW one of the best periods of his coaching career. He’d spent three years as a UCLA assistant and became Pepperdine’s coach in 1996.

Three years later, he moved to Missouri to coach Saint Louis University. Once he returned to UW in 2002, it would become the longest place Romar and his family lived throughout his coaching career.

“We had moved quite a bit before we came to Washington,” Romar said. “So this is just another move in terms of something we’d done before. It wasn’t like we were one place sheltered for 40 years.

“We’d moved before. We just hadn’t moved in a while.”

Romar went 298-195 in his time at UW. He reached the NCAA Tournament on six occasions and made it to the Sweet 16 three times.

He produced 10 first-round picks and a second-rounder in Tacoma’s Isaiah Thomas, who would go onto become an NBA All-Star.

The university announced in December it would retire Thomas’ No. 2 during a Feb. 15 game against Utah.

After he was fired, Romar said he went through a bit of a “grieving period.” He considered a number of possibilities.

Romar said people spoke to him about doing some color commentary work. He actually thought about trying to be an NBA scout but there were no openings.

That all ended when Miller, the reigning three-time Pac-12 Coach of the Year, called and offered him a job.

“I always believed a really good assistant coach doesn’t worry about his responsibilities,” Romar said. “A really good assistant coach is an aspiring head coach. Guys that I’ve seen that are really good head coaches, when they were assistants, they conducted themselves like a head coach.”

Romar said he would like to be a head coach again but only if the “right opportunity” were to come present.

Still, Romar said he’s in no rush to leave Arizona because he’s both learning from Miller and is fond of his working environment.

“I’m not looking for a quick exit,” said Romar, who was offered head coaching jobs but declined to disclose the schools he spoke with.

Although Romar isn’t looking to leave Arizona, he will soon make an anticipated trip back to Seattle.

The Huskies and Wildcats only play once during the regular season. That game will come Feb. 3 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

It will be Romar’s first return trip to Montlake since he was fired more than nine months ago.

He’s thought about what coming back to Seattle will be like.

From there, it’s anybody’s guess as to what could happen.

“There’s certain things that trigger thoughts about my time back at the University of Washington,” Romar said. “You watch them play, see certain people in the stands, we have a lot of fond memories there. I am an alum. I didn’t just work there. I went to the University of Washington. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel when we go back.”

Romar, though, reinforced how happy he is to be a part of Miller’s staff and that the transition was seamless.

Ranked No. 14, the Wildcats (14-4, 4-1 Pac-12) are poised to be a Sweet 16 team, and maybe more. It’s also possible Romar might have a hand in molding another No. 1 NBA Draft pick.

He played a role in developing point guard Markelle Fultz, who was taken first in last year’s draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s still early but Arizona freshman center Deandre Ayton could go first this year.

“He’s highlight-worthy. That’s for sure,” Romar said of Ayton. “Been around basketball for a long time … I’ve just never seen anyone his size move with the agility and the gracefulness that he moves with. There are days in drills you just say ‘Did he just do that?’”

With the draft months away, Ayton is one of a few players who has been touted as the potential No. 1 pick. Another player who’s received similar buzz is forward Michael Porter Jr.

Porter, who Sports Illustrated projects going fifth, was the centerpiece of the class that could have changed the dynamic for Romar and the Huskies.

Romar and his staff constructed a class consisting of four-star guard Daejon Davis, three-star small forward Mamoudou Diarra, four-star point guard Blake Harris, four-star shooting guard Nowell and Porter.

Firing Romar created a domino effect. Porter elected to follow his father Michael, who was a UW assistant under Romar, to Missouri.

Porter was ruled out for the year in November after having back surgery.

The 6-foot-10, 215-pound forward was two minutes into his collegiate career when he got injured on Nov. 11 against Iowa State. Porter is expected to make a complete recovery.

“It’s hard to see him go through it,” Romar said. “He hasn’t been totally healthy in two years. He’s been playing with a nagging back. Now, since it’s been dealt with, he feels so much better.”

As for the rest of the class, most of the group parted from UW.

Harris also started the season at Mizzou but transferred to North Carolina State on Jan. 5.

Davis chose Stanford and is averaging 10.3 points, 4.4 assists and 4.3 rebounds. He led the Cardinal with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 73-64 win over the Huskies on Jan. 13.

Diarra opted to play for Cincinnati and has been limited in his first season. He’s played a total of 46 minutes for the Bearcats.

Nowell stayed with UW and is averaging a team-high 16.7 points.

“I stated when I was let go, my biggest regret was we had a really good team coming in,” Romar said. “The young players we had, were going to be juniors. They were older and more experienced. That was going to be a team that was going to be really good.

“I would have loved to have coached that team.”

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