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College game suits Huskies’ Romar perfectly

University of Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, center, is at his best when offering advice to his players. (Associated Press)
University of Washington men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, center, is at his best when offering advice to his players. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Lorenzo Romar would be the perfect coaching hire for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This is a young, energetic team that slowly is piecing together talented players such as power forward Kevin Love, first-round pick Arizona forward Derrick Williams and rookie-to-be point guard Ricky Rubio.

Coaching the Timberwolves would give Romar the chance to be with Martell Webster, an opportunity Romar missed when Webster chose to go to the NBA rather than accept a scholarship to Washington.

The Timberwolves want to play the kind of style Romar coaches. They want to be up-tempo on offense and high-pressure on defense. His strategy would translate well to the Timberwolves’ personnel.

And Romar is cool. His personality would sell the game in Minneapolis at a time when the Timberwolves are continuing their slow climb back to respectability.

But Romar, 52, is staying at the University of Washington.

“I’d love to be able to retire here,” Romar said, sitting in his Hec Ed office Thursday morning.

Romar, who came to Washington in 2002, spoke with Minnesota general manager David Kahn in April, but they didn’t talk about the coaching position. Kurt Rambis still nominally is the Wolves’ coach, but he’s expected to be fired soon.

Kahn said he called Romar to ask about certain college players before the NBA draft.

Still, I believe Romar could have the job if he wanted it and, if ever there were a time for a change, this would seem to be it. Romar has built Washington’s program into a sustainable, perennial conference contender. His legacy on Montlake, both as a player and a coach, is firmly established.

And after the black eye that former point guard Venoy Overton, arrested twice this year, has given the program, the NBA could seem alluring.

After all, an NBA coach only coaches. He isn’t a surrogate parent. There isn’t the intrigue of recruiting, or the potential for overzealous booster involvement that can make college coaching a metaphorical minefield.

But Romar is a college coach. He is a teacher, a mentor. In many cases, he is that surrogate parent.

“This is more than just basketball to me,” Romar said. “This basketball thing, for me, is more of a platform to help change lives. Of course, it doesn’t always work.”

Take Overton.

He is one of those players who hasn’t listened. He was given an education, given every chance to make something good out of his life. But at this point in his life, he is closer to jail than he is a job.

Earlier this year, after a long investigation, he was charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor. In late March a judge agreed to drop the charge if Overton did community service and stayed out of trouble.

But earlier this month, just after his graduation from the university, he was charged with promoting prostitution.

Overton let down the program, let down his coaches, his teammates and the school that provided him an education.

The arrests have been deeply disturbing to Romar. But in our hourlong interview, he declined to talk specifically about Overton.

“This is a Division I basketball program at one of the top universities in the world,” Romar said. “It’s not a rehab center. So we’re not recruiting kids to rehabilitate them. But kids are going through ups and downs at this time of their lives.

“To me it’s kind of awesome to be in a position to help them through it. To get them where they are comfortable enough to open up so that you can help point them in the right direction is a great responsibility, but a very gratifying position to be in.”

In their time together, Romar disciplined Overton. After the first arrest this year, Romar suspended the backup point guard for the Pac-10 tournament.

I wrote at the time that Overton, a senior, should have been suspended for the rest of the season and shouldn’t have been allowed to travel with the team to Los Angeles.

Still the suspension was substantial. At the time, the Huskies weren’t a lock for the NCAA tournament. They believed they needed a win over Washington State in the conference tournament to get an invitation. Overton’s absence could have (but didn’t) cost them their ticket to March’s madness.

At times, Romar saw growth in Overton. But no coach can save every troubled player. A coach can pour his heart into a player the way Romar did with Overton, and not get rewarded.

“You always feel like you could have done more,” Romar said about Overton.

His critics have said that reinstating Overton for the NCAA tournament showed that Romar was “all about winning.” But I know that Romar didn’t bring him back merely because he considered Overton his ticket to the Elite Eight.

Ideals are as important as winning to Romar, whose team lost to North Carolina in the second round of March’s NCAA tournament.

“I don’t care how well you do in any area, you won’t have a job very long if you don’t win, so it is important that you win,” he said. “As a competitor it is important to me to win. I want to win. But that is not the only reason that I coach. There are other things that come into play.

“For me, coaching, teaching, mentoring, they all go hand-in-hand. But to me, it’s a lot more difficult to be successful if you have a group full of bad-character guys, or if you have a group of guys who don’t want to be accountable. And making kids accountable is all part of teaching, coaching and mentoring to me. It’s all under the same umbrella.”

Because of what happened recently with the football programs at Ohio State and USC and because of the past indiscretions of so many college coaches, the word “coach” has become a pejorative in many people’s minds.

But at their best, coaches play an important role in higher education. Good coaches can make better people out of their players. And, despite the precipitous fall from grace of Overton, I think Romar represents coaching at its best.

“My background is more than in coaching,” Romar said. “I was in full-time ministry (with Athletes in Action). I was enjoying that. I was excited about what I was doing. That mindset hasn’t changed.”

Romar isn’t leaving for the brighter lights and heftier pay checks of the NBA. He’s a college coach who has found exactly the right calling.