Washington's Lorenzo Romar comes to Pullman on Sunday riding the hottest seat of his career. His coaching opponent this weekend, WSU's Ernie Kent, knows how he feels.
Romar has brought the Huskies to greater levels of success than was ever reasonably expected when he was hired in 2002, including three Sweet Sixteen appearances and a .630 winning percentage, nearly 200 percentage points higher than his predecessor.
He made the Huskies competitive against some of the conference's best teams, beating UCLA at home for nine consecutive seasons and a 13-14 record against Arizona despite not beating the Wildcats since 2012.
But as Kent would say, he created a monster of expectations and has lately been unable to feed it. Despite winning the conference in 2011-12 the Huskies are about to miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season, have lost seven consecutive games and the fans, and even some local media, are wondering it it's time to see if another coach can do more with what Romar built.
If UW athletic director Scott Woodward fired Romar it would be a similar story to what happened to Kent at Oregon after he took the Ducks to two Elite Eights and was then fired after a couple subpar seasons with the pressure that came from expectations and with a sweet new arena on the horizon.
Though they coach rival schools, Kent and Romar have much in common. Like Kent, Romar is also coaching at the Pac-12 school he used to play for, they favor transition offense and they have similar histories of success sending guards to the NBA.
Kent says he hopes that Romar, a friend who Kent says he helped get a spot on the National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors, doesn't suffer a similar fate to his own.
"I've been there before. With a lot of coaches if you look at guys that have coached in this business for a long time sooner or later you're going to have a season like that," Kent said. "So I don’t think it's anything but a matter of refocusing, reloading the program and getting it moving again, quite frankly."
Today, Woodward seemed to imply that Romar's job is safe, for now, and the Huskies do have a pretty nice recruiting class coming in. But if those recruits take too long to develop and the Huskies remain in the bottom half of the conference then the highly-ranked prospects Romar recruited just might finish their careers playing for somebody else.
"At Oregon – and I don't know if he is feeling this – at Oregon there came a time when I felt they stopped celebrating your return and started tolerating it, "Kent said. "And that's not a good position as a coach to be in."
Before WSU's afternoon practice on Wednesday spoke to the media about a number of topics. The transcript is below.
Question: What was your relationship with Jerry Tarkanian like and what do you think of his legacy?
Ernie Kent: I think there are just a few coaches throughout college basketball who because of their uniqueness in the way they recruited, the way they played, the way they carried themselves and he is one of those guy. John Thompson has the towel on his shoulder, Jerry Tarkanian had the towel in the mouth.
You call him a Shark, you call him Coach K. There's just so many things about him that exemplifies this game, how it started and where it's grown to. His defense was something to behold and how they got after people and the fact that he did it in an environment with so much pizzazz and flare in Vegas, there's just so much that he brought to the table to put a stamp, put a face on our game. Played against him as a player and they beat us in Vegas, we beat them by 20 in Eugene.
Played against him as a coach when we coached against him at Saint Mary's and had a down-to-the-wire game that we lost to them there and there's always, you had to get prepared for his teams because he was not only just a great recruiter but a great basketball coach, too.
Q: How big would a sweep of Washington be for recruiting in the Puget Sound region?
EK: I think in this conference, not just the Huskies, anybody that we've beaten has kind of given us an opportunity to get a gauge where we're at and where we need to get to. Obviously to have the opportunity to beat them on their home floor with the style we play and we were in such a great rhythm, was huge. This will be a different ballgame over here for them and for us but it would be big for our program to play the tough game we had against Gonzaga and have an opportunity to beat Washington twice in your first year, it would be huge.
But it's not going to be an easy game by any means. They're rivalry games for a reason – you really, really do throw the records out the window. The fact that it's a rival game, there will be a different intensity on their part that we're going to have to handle as well. Would it be big? What I would hope for it to do – Lorenzo's a good friend of mine – I think the have an outstanding program over there. They have an outstanding program up in Spokane. I want to be able to show all those young players over there that there's another outstanding program option in this state. Eastern's there, here we are sitting over here. Now the style of play and opportunity to have success and win, and the fact that we've had some success this year early on, I think it sends a huge message that you can win over here and you can play exciting basketball. So the have struggled as of late, so have we, but you throw both of those things out the window, it's going to be an excellent college basketball game.
Q: Is UW a program on decline?
A: Boyd Grant once told me, the good and bad for being in coaching for 30-plus years, "The good thing is you've been in coaching for 30-plus years," – now think about that, Lorenzo's been in coaching for a long time and had a tremendous amount of success – "the bad thing is, if you've been in it that long you're going to have one of those games and you're going to have one of those seasons." And he's going through it now. I've been there before, with a lot of coaches if you look at guys that have coached in this business for a long time sooner or later you're going to have a season like that. So I don’t think it's anything but a matter of refocusing, reloading the program and getting it moving again, quite frankly.
Q: How different is their team without Upshaw?
A: I think they're a better scoring team because of having the guards on the floor. They're a quicker team, faster team up and down the floor. I would almost want to say a better defensive team on the perimeter but they don't have the inside presence, you talk about having the No. 1 shot-blocker in the country. So to his credit and to his staff's credit, they have made the necessary adjustments to give them the opportunity to be in games.
The Cal game was a close game, Arizona State game – close game, Oregon State game – close game. So it's not like they're just getting dominated by teams, they're right there to win the game and that's how close he is but in this business that's how close you can be but still not be over the hump and everything because we've been through this same thing ourselves.
Q: Can you empathize with the position Romar is in?
A: I can, just because again, that's his alma mater and he has a tremendous amount of love, respect, a connection to it very similar to what I had at Oregon. But at Oregon, and I don't know if he is feeling this, at Oregon there came a time when I felt they stopped celebrating your return and started tolerating it and that's not a good position as a coach to be in and that's what I felt in Eugene to where you've given so much of your life and your energy to build a program.
You build this monster and then you've got to continue to feed it and people have to realize where those two programs were and where they've gone to and the reason for that is who's been at the leadership and what they exemplify. And in Lorenzo's case not only have they had outstanding recruiting success, outstanding basketball success, outstanding winning success, look at what he's done with them in the classroom. Look at his character and the character that he wants him team to exemplify. That's very difficult to do in this age of college athletics and there is a man that passed the test of time.
Q: How do you view this rivalry from a coaching standpoint?
A: Well, we certainly don't look at it the way you just explained it, because we don't. I'm sitting on the board of directors with a gentleman that I helped recommend to get to the board and we have an opportunity to have a voice as African-American head coaches, have a voice as representatives of the Pac-12 conference, have a voice as representatives of the west, have a voice as to what goes on in college basketball. Recruiting, scheduling, all of it. You have to have a voice to state an opinion. Whether they listen to it or not doesn't matter but at least we're there. I look at him as a very dear friend, nothing more or less. The game itself is another game that we have to play and we want to win the game, they want to win the game, I'm going to get my team ready and he's going to get his team ready but all intensity of the rivalry and stuff like that, that's for fans and they go through that. We tend to go through more just building character and building men and having them ready to play.
Q: Do the players get restless when they don't play until Sunday?
A: Kids are different than coaches. I think any time they can get some downtime they welcome their downtime and we've been on a schedule the last three or four weeks of giving them a couple of days off and we get an opportunity to do that again this week. We get a lot of work in, a lot of conditioning work in, we get them ready for the final push, final stretch of the season.
So the more important question is not of restlessness but to make sure they don't have rust and make sure they're ready when the game comes on Sunday and make sure we're paying attention to detail to do that. But in the same sense they need some times off also.
This is a big push for them academically to make sure they're organized, there's a lot of basketball coming in the next month or so as you head into March Madness, as you head into the Pac-12 Tournament and if we're fortunate and blessed enough and can win enough games, maybe even play beyond that. That's a good thing so the more rest you can gain now, the more organization you can do now the better.
Q: Where's the confidence of the team right now?
EK: I would say it's really good because we've never allowed it to go bad. I think if I was a coach that berated the guys, beat them up, put them down all the time, it wouldn’t be that way. With this group especially and with young people in this day and age you hold them accountable but it's also very important you help them grow, and help them understand better how to handle adversity and come back from it.
This team has been really good at coming back from adversity. We've faced it quite a bit this year already in some blowout games and some tough losses but they tend to continue to come back and I would continue to expect them to bounce back from this game.
Q: What specific ways do you coach confidence?
EK: Well I think all of you in the room have parents and I think all of you in the room have dads, and when you think about those relationships, from parenting on, the more love, nurturing and encouragement and positive reinforcement they give you to go do your thing and be successful, the better you feel about yourself and that's basically what it is.
You're coaching but part of coaching in my opinion is parenting. It's understanding how to get young people from Point A to Point B and get them there with the accountability to know their job and do their job, but also to get them there with some amount of confidence.
I think the thing about us and I told this team, regardless of how bad it gets in the course of a game or in the heat of a moment because somebody didn't do their job, or the course of a season where you lose a tough game you should have won, regardless we will always, always come back to them and always put our arms around them. And I think that's the thing that's allowed them to know that we can always come back from this and get better. They've been great responding, their energy has been good. Different players at different times have gotten on their game. If we ever get to the point like we were when we played Oregon here, where we have everybody on their game at the same time, you can see the rhythm that this team can get in and we were close to that when we played Washington before. I'm hoping we can get there again this week.
Q: What have you done to prepare for Nigel Williams-Goss?
A: We're hoping he misses the bus over or the plane over. You don't prepare for that guy, he's too good. There's not a lot you can do, he is who he is. We just hope we can keep him in check and hopefully he doesn't have another monster game like he had over there because we had no answers for him whatsoever. He's one of the better point guards in the country. If not, one of the top ones in our conference for sure. And he plays with such a fire, he plays at such a high energy level. You've got to be able to match his energy, first and foremost, but he is an exceptional basketball player and that we did not have a lot of answers for the first time around.
Q: Does UW not having Upshaw change your preparation?
EK: No, it's some things we need to do differently that we're going to do and we have to do. We have to make some adjustments for their personnel, what they have now and what they didn't have before. Without giving away game plans, the week being idle with only one game it gives Washington a chance to regroup, work on some things, maybe add a few things and it certainly gives us a chance to regroup, work on some things and add some new things as well coming into the game.
Q: What has made Josh Hawkinson so much better this year?
EK: Well No. 1, he worked extremely hard this summer and fall with out strength coach and with us once we explained his role. No. 2, he accepted his role as to what he needs to do for this team to be successful. And No. 3, we injected a big dose of confidence in him and then got out of the way and let him go play basketball because to me he has an excellent skillset. He has some limitations but we don't worry about those, we play to his strengths and so far he has responded really, really well and I hope he continues to do that down the stretch. He's logged a lot of minutes but this is a good week for him to take a deep breath and get ready for this final push of the season.
Q: What does it do for the team when he's playing well?
EK: I think very much like DaVonte, they both instill confidence in the other guys when they're on their game knocking down shots, knocking down free throws. Josh has an ability to rebound the ball and start our break, he does a very good job that way. He's one of the leaders but more of a quiet leader who leads by example. When he's leading by example he certainly instills a lot of confidence in our players.
Q: Has the improvement been constant or one step back for two steps forward?
EK: I would say in some areas it's been a constant but overall it's been a step backward to take two forward because we continue with this group to put them in situations they've never been in before so they don't quite know how to handle themselves so therefore they don't handle their success well, sometimes they don't handle individual or even team success well. Sometimes they don't understand the continuity of winning, the day-to-day grind of what you need to do to prepare for the next one.
So, it's all a learning process with this group this year. Learning how to win. Learning how to sustain. Learning how to sustain on a possession-by-possession game-to-game, week-to-week moment, that's difficult to do. This team is growing, they do not have a lot of senior leadership that has been taught by other seniors how to be successful, how to handle yourself, how to close out the year. So everything you have to hand your hands in it. From having hands on in marketing to academics to teaching to coaching, everything as you overhaul your program and get it moving in the right direction. So we feel good about where we're heading but as a coach, boy I feel we let some games get away from us and there are still some out there so for me I still feel like there's some wins left in this team and if we close it out the right way I'll have a much more enjoyable spring and summer. If we don't I'll agonize about every one that we let get away from us.