I tried to get used to the idea. I attempted to see things from her point of view. I considered, to the extent that I could, the extenuating circumstances related to possible behind-the-scenes developments that may not be widely reported.
Four days later, I’m still not seeing it. Washington AD Jen Cohen’s decision to fire head coach Lorenzo Romar is a bad choice and one that has a better-than-reasonable chance to send the program back to Lynn Nance / Bob Bender kind of levels. That is a decision that Jen Cohen will have to own.
I fully acknowledge that Lorenzo Romar had done nothing to justify keeping his job. For all of you arguing that Romar was past his prime, I hear you. The tournament drought and the conclusion of the worst season the he had ever turned in as a college coach were more than enough evidence to justify his sacking.
But the decision to keep or fire a coach cannot be made only for the sake of retribution. There isn’t much value to the program to make these decisions as punitive measures to exacted upon an underperforming coach. Certainly, accountability is important. But so is the need to make choices that put the program in a position to reach its potential as soon as possible.
As the AD, Jen Cohen has to consider not only what has transpired, but what the path to ascension looks like. And how she is going to be able to put butts in seats going forward.
This is where Jen Cohen screwed the pooch.
College basketball isn’t the same as college football. Most coaches can’t take a base roster of average talents and turn them into contenders. There aren’t enough “X’s and O’s” options available to even the best of coaches to overcome competitors that are stocked with A-list talents.
Building a winning program starts and ends with attracting talented players. This really is not debatable. Teams that consistently succeed in the NCAA do so with top recruits - including one-and-dones - who get layered into a roster with other high-talent and, ideally, experienced players.
It is true that Lorenzo Romar has had trouble getting that formula to produce results for himslef. Since he was famously left high and dry with several “national” level recruits such as Terrence Jones and Aaron Gordon in that 2012 timeframe, Romar has been unable to get enough talented players on his roster at the same time to make a meaningful difference in the standings. Critics will point to uber recruits such as Terrance Ross, Tony Wroten, Nigel Williams-Goss and Markelle Fultz as examples of Romar not being able to do much with the studs he did recruit. Fair enough.
But I’d argue that Romar simply didn’t have enough talent around those one or two-and-done types of players in any given year to sustain success. It’s great to have a guy like Nigel Williams-Goss on your 2013 team and, sure, it is just as great to be able to pair him guys like CJ Wilcox and Andrew Andrews. But who were the next best players on that roster? Scott Suggs? Shawn Kemp Jr? Winning consistently in a league that features Arizona and UCLA requires more depth of roster than that. Frankly, it is a testament to his coaching prowess that Romar got that particular squad even to a .500 conference level. There simply wasn’t enough manpower to win.
Romar, obviously, owns the recruiting strategy and is responsible for the talent that deficits on those teams. Those issues became real when Romar attempted to parlay his successes into a national recruiting strategy. That strategy failed miserably and left UW’s roster with a bunch of “Plan B” and “Plan C” kinds of players. He has been working to recovering from that colossal blunder over each of the past four seasons.
Which brings us to our current situation. Romar clearly underperformed with the 2016-17 roster. His plan for building the roster was disrupted significantly when he was left unexpectedly short-handed with the departures of Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray - two players who clearly would have made a difference. Despite this, there really are no excuses for having the consensus best player in the nation (Fultz) available and failing to reach a .500 record. In that sense, the move to separate from Romar was justifiable.
However, the goal is ultimately to get back to winning. Whether or not you feel Romar is capable of getting players to mesh - and we’ll just ignore the fact that, yes, he has demonstrated that capability before - the reality is that he finally had assembled a roster that going into 2017-18 looked competitive. You might argue that you doubt Romar’s capability to make that roster perform to its potential - again, a fair point. But, at the very least, it was to be a roster with the potential to be successful.
At its core, it would have boasted a base of experienced upperclassmen - Noah Dickerson, David Crisp, and Matisse Thybulle - who are great complements to a winning team. The incoming freshman class - currently ranked #2 in the nation by ESPN - brought with it a much needed infusion of game-changing talents. The headliner, of course, is Michael Porter, Jr., one of the best basketball players in the nation. Also included are top local talents Jaylen Nowell and Daejon Davis.
Porter, along with his younger brother Jontay - a top 2018 recruit - are certainly gone. That such a transcendent headliner talent will likely never don a UW jersey is a choice that Jen Cohen made and imposed on UW fans everywhere. Even if you believe rumors that Porter was considering getting out of his commitment before Romar was fired, the odds of him playing for UW fell precipitously after the fact.
I’ll be shocked if UW keeps even two of the players out of this incoming class. Additionally, I can easily envision the current roster losing at least two key contributors to transfer. Replacing those players will be no easy task. Romar, for all his failings as a coach, had a personal brand in the Seattle basketball community and across the country that UW will no longer benefit from. Additionally, UW is in a poor position to take on transfer players in the same way that a program like Oregon can. There aren’t many good options available.
The question of who will have the responsibility of filling those slots is also germane. Many have argued that UW is a “destination job”. I’m having trouble accepting that argument. UW is a football school with second-rate basketball facilities and an inexperienced AD running the ship. Their loyal 15-year coach with multiple sweet 16’s was quite underpaid by PAC 12 standards. While Seattle has a great local basketball scene, the connection to that culture was through Romar and his acolytes. With him gone, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon are much more attractive options for local recruits. There is no reason for a guy like Brandon Roy to keep pushing players to UW over upstart programs like Oregon with that personal bridge to the program burned (and, yes, I’m making a presumption that Will Conroy isn’t long for the job). It’s not realistic.
Replacing Romar means UW will realistically be faced with one of a few choices. They could go with a retread (Eric Musselman, Ben Howland) with no real ties to the community or better resume than Romar. They might consider an “up and comer” (Leon Rice, TJ Otzelberger) with no eye popping track record as a head coach or connection to the community. Or they might roll the dice on someone with even less experience but from the Romar tree (Roy, Cameron Dollar) in the hopes of keeping some of the class together and capturing some of that old magic.
Whichever way it goes, I’m having trouble reconciling the fact that we traded Romar, a couple of key pieces from the roster and most of the #2 rated incoming class in the nation for one of the options noted above. It’s like the contestant that handed over to Monty Hall of “Let’s Make a Deal” the keys to the Corvette he just won so that he could see what was behind door #3.
That was a bad call. And so was this.
This isn’t about Romar’s legacy. it isn’t about whether or not he earned another season. it isn’t even about whether or not you feel like Romar was capable of doing something with the talent he had on hand. The only relevant question was whether or not it is in the best interests of the program to blow it up or to build it up.
Cohen chose to blow it up.
Who knows? Maybe she has a master plan and Gregg Marshall is going to come walking through the door.
Short of that, there is almost no chance that we’ll see a competitive team next season. It could be several seasons, in fact, before we see a return to the tournament given how long it takes to assemble a competitive roster. UW fans are locked into a track where winning again would be a surprise instead of an expectation. The decision to put us down that road is on Jen Cohen.
She’s going to have to own this one.