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Originally published March 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 17, 2009 at 6:58 PM

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UW's Lorenzo Romar: Seldom a starter, now coach of the year

Washington Huskies basketball coach Lorenzo Romar seems the picture of success now — he was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year last week for leading the Huskies to their first outright conference title since 1953 — but the road to the top has been anything but an HOV lane.

Seattle Times

The Romar file

Born: Nov. 13, 1958

Family: Wife Leona; daughters Terra, 24, graduate of North Carolina, applying to law school; Tavia, 22, UW graduate working at Nordstrom in Bellevue; and Taylor, 18, UW student.

Record as head coach: 1996-99, Pepperdine, 42-44; 1999-2002, Saint Louis, 51-44; 2002-2009, Washington, 143-79.

Childhood heroes: Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali. He has posters of each in his home office.

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Lorenzo Romar laughs — something he does easily and often, especially these days — when he says his life really is as simple as some of his friends claim.

Romar, the men's basketball coach for the Washington Huskies who today will be selected for a spot in the NCAA tournament, says he lives by this nine-word saying: "God is first, family is second, job is third."

That leaves time for little else, which he claims can be a good-natured bone of contention with friends and family.

"They are appalled because I am so basic and I don't have any interests," he says. "Even my wife gets upset with me that I don't have any big-time hobbies."

Among Romar's few free-time pursuits is reading biographies, from which he has reached this conclusion: "People who are worthy of having a biography written on them were just basic people with some gifts that ended up being discovered through perseverance," Romar said.

A sentence that couldn't more perfectly describe Romar himself.

The coach seems the picture of success now — he was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year last week for leading the Huskies to their first outright conference title since 1953 — but the road to the top has been anything but an HOV lane.

Just a year ago, for instance, some wondered about the direction of the UW program after the Huskies failed to make the NCAA tournament for two straight seasons. That downturn followed three straight trips led by Brandon Roy and Nate Robinson, players already on the Huskies roster when Romar arrived in 2002.

Few questioned that Romar had revived the program, but one lingering thought remained — could he do it with his own players?

The answer this season is a resounding yes, leaving the easy assumption that Romar might feel some satisfaction that he quieted his critics.

The 50-year-old Romar, though, recalls his past and says he long ago moved away from such emotions.

"I don't feel any vindication, just 'Great, good, this is what we want to do here and how do we sustain it?' " he said. "Through all this, whether there be criticism or doubt or proving people wrong, I've been through all that, not having things handed to me all the time."

Never the first pick

Romar was the prototypical late bloomer growing up in Compton, Calif. — 5 feet 6 as a high-school sophomore, 5-11 as a senior and 6-2 by the time he was a junior at the University of Washington. He had no scholarship offers out of high school. After a growth spurt and dedication forged a decent college career, he was an afterthought NBA draft pick, taken in the seventh round. He again beat the odds to play five years in the NBA.

Still, he never really felt secure.

"I played five years in the NBA, and from the ninth grade on, there was only one team that I started for the whole year," he said of his sophomore season at Cerritos College. "Every other year I either came off the bench or was a part-time starter."

Something of an accidental Husky, he went to Washington only because coach Marv Harshman saw him at a community-college tournament in California after arriving early to watch another point guard.

"Lorenzo just did everything that coaches like guys to do," said Harshman, who admits he wasn't sure Romar could play in the Pac-10 but felt compelled to offer him a scholarship.

Years later, after becoming a coach, Romar applied for the UW job in 1993 but didn't get more than a phone call and a message that he wasn't ready.

And in 2002, after having been a head coach for six years at two universities and again applying for the head-coaching position at his alma mater, he was the fourth choice.

Romar was hired only after Gonzaga's Mark Few, Missouri's Quin Snyder and Minnesota's Dan Monson turned the job down.

If that has ever bothered Romar, he has never shown it. He says he felt an adrenaline rush the moment athletic director Barbara Hedges called to offer him the job.

"I realized that this is what you have been wanting all along," Romar said. "I didn't really know it. Maybe I'd been blocking it out. But when she said that, I was elated."

A kid in Compton

Getting the UW job was the culmination of dreams groomed during a childhood when Romar learned the value of perseverance.

His father, Davis, was a welder and truck driver who, with his wife, Dorothy, moved from Louisiana to Compton in the mid-1950s. The family had two sons — Romar's brother, Wayne, is 18 months younger.

Romar remembers a home filled with laughter, music and sports. His father was a guitar player, his mother loved to dance, and they often attended performances by Ray Charles and others, then played the music they had heard at home for their sons to appreciate. Romar also remembers backyard barbecues and playing catch with Wayne and their father, with Vin Scully's voice in the background bringing to life Dodgers baseball games being played just up the road.

Romar quickly fell in love with all sports, avidly buying bubble-gum cards of his heroes. He remembers years later meeting former Sonic Don Smith and telling him how he recognized him from the basketball card he owned as a kid.

Romar played Little League with future major-leaguers Hubie Brooks and Ken Landreaux, but said basketball was always his first love. "I'd go to baseball or football practice and as soon as there was a break, I'd go shoot," he said.

Idyllic as much of it was, Romar didn't have to go far to learn some harsh realities.

He remembers that to the right of his house was the schoolyard where he played sports. To the left "you had a chance of getting your money taken from you. You just knew where not to go."

Booted off the team

But while basketball was his sport of choice, the sport didn't always choose him.

He was cut from his Verbum Dei High School varsity team one day, the junior varsity the next, as a sophomore. He moved on to nearby Pius X High School and made the varsity as a junior and senior, though never as a consistent starter. As a senior, he was briefly suspended from the team after players visited a restaurant for a pregame meal. Some of the players took the cheaper receipts, leaving Romar and a couple of others with the more expensive bills. He had only $1.50 in his pocket, not enough to cover the others, so he left without paying and was suspended.

He was ready to give up basketball until an assistant coach urged him not to a few months later. That event ingrained in him the difference a coach could make in the life of a young person.

He ended up at Cerritos College, and as a freshman found himself competing with 10 others at guard. Late in the year, Romar became academically ineligible. "I was a knucklehead, not going to class like I should," he said. Staying with the team to practice, he took an elbow to the eye one day, suffering a nasty cut, reaching another crossroads.

"When practice ended, I was just sitting there in a daze," he said. "I was ineligible, I couldn't play basketball, and this thing I loved the most didn't seem like it was going to work out."

Once again, a few words from a coach — this time, Cerritos head coach Bob Foerster — kept him going. Foerster offered him a job opening and closing the gym that summer, allowing Romar to work out as often as he liked.

By then, Romar says, he also began to fill out, and the next season he was a full-time starter, attracting the attention of Harshman, the UW coach.

He spent two years at Washington, earning most-inspirational-player honors both seasons.

Coming to Christianity

His five NBA years followed, during which Romar made a life-changing decision in 1983 to become a Christian. He had some free time after suffering a knee injury and decided to read the Bible. As he did, he realized "I'd been missing the boat" on what he said proved to him to be an instruction manual on how to live.

"I think the way he viewed his outlook on life — who was in control of his life — definitely changed," says his wife, Leona. "He realized he has to do what the Bible says and not what Lorenzo wants to do."

Lorenzo and Leona, who had met in high school in Compton, were married about that same time. She is four years younger than Romar, and the relationship didn't blossom until after he was in the NBA and returned home one offseason.

After his NBA days ended, Romar embarked on a career encompassing all of his passions, as a player-coach for Athletes in Action, the athletic division of Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational ministry. He did that for seven years, then entered coaching full time as an assistant at UCLA in 1993. College coaching, he decided, was a way he could stay in basketball while continuing to have an impact on young people at "maybe the most pivotal time of their lives."

Four years at UCLA, where he helped put together a championship team in 1995, led to stints as a head coach at Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif., and Saint Louis, before the Huskies came calling.

Now the fourth-winningest coach in UW history, at 143-79, he's earned undying support from his players and UW administrators.

"He's a kid that grew up in Compton, so he knows the reality of the street," said athletic director Scott Woodward. "But he's also grounded in his faith and what guides him. So he has that street sense and his concept of what a higher moral being is."

Players talk of his easy manner off the court, storytelling in the locker room, and firm, consistent discipline. "I don't really look at him as coach but as a close friend, a role model, really," said guard Venoy Overton.

With a contract that runs through 2016, he has established real roots for the first time in his coaching career, and says he has no serious thoughts of leaving.

"I've always maintained this is where I would like to retire," he said last week. "I've had opportunities to leave and the conversation never lasted beyond two minutes."

Finally having earned a starting role, he's in no hurry to give it up.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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