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Act in Progress

Romar has Washington in the NCAA tournament, but he hopes there's more in store for the Huskies

March 18, 2004|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

There's a scene in the movie "Remember the Titans" where the new head coach, having worked all of his tricks and mind games in trying to get the ego-tripping members of his team to actually like one another, finally sees the light burn to life.

"And when Denzel sees it, this smirk comes across his face," said Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar, referring to actor Denzel Washington's character. "That's what it was like for me. I had that smirk. That's when I thought, 'They got it.' "

Remember the Huskies?

Who could forget them?

Especially this season, when Romar's youthful and exuberant team has captured the hearts and minds of the Pacific Northwest with its late-season run to an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament. The 0-5 start in Pacific 10 Conference play has only made the ride sweeter.

But the work is far from finished for the second-year coach and Washington (19-11), which earned a No. 8 seeding in the St. Louis Regional and will meet No. 9 Alabama-Birmingham (20-9) on Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

In fact, it is a work in progress.

Romar, the former UCLA assistant who enjoyed tepid success in his first two head coaching jobs at Pepperdine and Saint Louis, would have it no other way.

Not when he is in such a familiar setting -- Romar was Washington's point guard from 1978 to '80.

"To do it in the same place I played, in front of some of the same people who were watching back then, that's just awesome," Romar said. "But it's only one year. Next year, who knows what's going to happen. But right now, it's just exciting to see it somewhat come together and hit on all cylinders. I'm happy to see what's happening for our guys."

His guys are just as happy for him.

"I think we put our school on the map," junior guard Tre Simmons said. "We haven't done that for a while. Coach Romar did that for us."

But it almost wasn't Romar at the Huskies' reins.

Former athletic director Barbara Hedges entertained Missouri Coach Quin Snyder and Gonzaga's Mark Few and even offered the job to Minnesota's Dan Monson, who reportedly accepted before backing out.

That he was the fourth choice did not deter Romar, who, in three years at each school, had led Pepperdine to an NIT bid and Saint Louis to an NCAA berth.

"I didn't think about [Washington] for the longest time until I was actually here," Romar said. "I guess I was in denial for fear of rejection. I was content at Saint Louis, just going about my business when it happened."

Romar replaced Bob Bender on April 3, 2002, and became the school's first African American coach in basketball or football. His tenure got off to a rocky start that summer when assistant Cameron Dollar, the former UCLA guard, was nailed for recruiting violations. Washington stumbled through a 10-17 season and the Huskies failed to qualify for the eight-team Pac-10 tournament.

"When you go through life and have struggles and then have success," Romar said, "you seem to appreciate things more. But when all you've had is success, the temptation is to take things for granted. We can't feel that way. We tell the guys to never feel they've arrived."

Washington is one victory from its second 20-win season since 1987 and has made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

How can the Huskies be full of themselves?

Well, using a controlled yet free-wheeling scheme to win 14 of their last 17 games, handing Stanford its lone defeat of the season, placing second in the conference, defeating Arizona three times and advancing to the Pac-10 tournament title game would do wonders for one's self-esteem.

"At first, we were just playing," said sophomore forward Bobby Jones, Romar's first signee at Washington. "Now we have chemistry. We're just riding the wave to see where it will take us."

That's exactly the swell of thinking Romar has ridden throughout his basketball career.

Cut from the varsity and junior varsity squads at Verbum Dei High as a sophomore, Romar moved to Compton Pius X High. Unable to garner a college scholarship, he played two years at Cerritos College before transferring to Washington, where his late-blooming game enabled him to become a seventh-round draft choice of the Golden State Warriors.

"Then I tricked them for five years and stayed in the league," said Romar, who also played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Detroit Pistons.

Former UCLA coach Jim Harrick plucked the relatively inexperienced Romar out of the Athletes in Action traveling club in 1993 to help in recruiting, a move that raised eyebrows in Westwood.

By the time UCLA won the 1995 national title, Romar was seen as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks.

A year later, Pepperdine called and Romar answered before Harrick's out-of-whack expense report ended his stay at UCLA. With both Romar and fellow assistant Mark Gottfried having moved on, the Bruin job fell in Steve Lavin's lap.

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