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Sports >  UW basketball

Former UW men’s basketball coach Andy Russo sees himself in Mike Hopkins. But he hopes Hopkins’ fate with Huskies will be different

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 2, 2021

Washington head coach Mike Hopkins instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Las Vegas.   (Isaac Brekken)
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins instructs his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Las Vegas.  (Isaac Brekken)
By Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – From his home – over 3,000 miles away in Boca Raton, Florida – Andy Russo feels a strange kind of kinship with Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins.

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Russo said. “But I see a lot of me in him and the similarities in what’s happening there. I sure hope things turn out a lot better for Mike than it did for me.”

In many ways, Hopkins is following a similar path as Russo, who had a four-year tenure at UW that began with so much promise and potential before a sudden reversal and a sooner-than-expected ending.

Thirty-five years ago, Russo parlayed a 124-55 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances at Louisiana Tech, including a Sweet 16 run in 1985 led by Karl Malone, into a four-year contract at Washington where he replaced Husky legend Marv Harshman.

Russo’s arrival on Montlake was somewhat controversial at the time because Harshman was something of an institution at UW, where he compiled a 122-102 record during a 14-year tenure, including trips to the NCAA Tournament in his final two years.

The UW administration pushed Harshman, then 67, into retirement and Husky Athletic Director Mike Lude brought in Russo, a 37-year-old Chicago native who won over skeptics with an affable personality and a high-energy, can-do attitude.

And the Huskies won early with Russo.

Washington returned to the NCAA Tournament in 1986 and finished with a 19-12 record, including a 13-5 record for second place in the Pac-10.

The next year, the Huskies landed in the NIT and ended with a 20-15 record and a third-place finish in the Pac-10 at 10-8. After the season, UW rewarded Russo with a two-year extension.

“I thought that was a big deal,” Russo said. “I figured now I got four more years to get it done.”

But here’s the caveat, UW’s success came with players recruited by the previous regime.

Four of the five starters on the 1985-86 team played for Harshman, including UW’s all-time leading scorer Chris Welp, Paul Fortier, Shag Williams and Clay Damon (Lewis and Clark High).

“Personally, Russo was a blessing because he opened up the offense a little bit and the guards and little guys who handled the ball had more freedom,” said Williams, who averaged 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds as a senior during the 1985-86 season. “As a team, it was a tough transition. We had an established group and felt if Harshman stayed around, then we would have had a pretty good run.

“After we left, they started going on a decline.”

Fortier, Williams and Damon graduated after one year with Russo. Welp returned for his senior year in 1986-87 where he averaged 20.8 points and 9.0 rebounds.

After he left, UW’s fortunes dropped dramatically.

The Huskies went 10-19 and 5-13 in the Pac-10 in 1987-88 before a 12-16 record that included an 8-10 conference record in 1988-89.

Published reports at the time say Russo resigned in response to tensions between him and former and current players.

Russo acknowledged “we had some chemistry problems my last year there with kids,” but said he was “kind of surprised,” when asked last week about his departure.

“We gave UCLA a great game (in the Pac-10 Tournament), held the ball and almost beat them in the first round and lost,” he said. “I headed out recruiting and when I came back, they called me in and that was that.

“Only being there four years, that was kind of tough. I’m not the kind of guy that’s going to quick-fix things with JC (junior college) kids and all that. We were trying to build a program and they felt like they needed to go a different way. They had a lot of problems with the next guy. Then had some success after that. But it’s a tough place. It really is.”

Russo cited recruiting as the No. 1 challenge and still harbors a bit of animosity toward Arizona for poaching coveted prospect Sean Rooks away from Washington near signing day.

“There was not one prospect in the state of Washington while I was there except the one kid that went to Pepperdine (Doug Christie),” Russo said. “The facility wasn’t great. They promised me a new one, but that never happened.

“It just didn’t work out. I went to Italy after that and loved it. My wife got pregnant and we had a boy over there. It was time to downsize my career. She’s a dentist so we upgraded her deal and settled into Division II coaching for many years and that was great.”

Following a three-year stint in Italy, Russo spent eight years (1991-99) at Florida Tech where he compiled a 125-94 record and four years (1999-2003) at Lynn University where he was 66-42.

Recently, Russo coached his daughter’s high school basketball team before leaving for St. John Paul II Academy where he’s the freshman boys basketball coach.

“After 51 years, I still enjoy it,” said the 72-year-old Russo, who also runs a basketball camp in Boca Raton, Florida. “And despite everything that happened at UW, we loved it up there.

“I don’t know whether I would have done anything differently.”

Russo sees the parallels between him and Hopkins, who had two successful seasons (21-13 in 2017-18 and 27-9 in 2018-19) before a dramatic downturn.

The Huskies were 15-17 last season, including a last-place finish in the Pac-12 at 5-13.

This season, Washington is off to a 1-6 start, which includes a handful of lopsided losses.

After amassing a top-10 ranked class in 2019 featuring one-and-done stars Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, UW’s recruiting has become nearly nonexistent while signing just one prospect (Olympia’s Jackson Grant) in the past two years.

Furthermore, the Huskies have been hit with off-the-court controversies the past two years. Point guard Quade Green was declared academically ineligible and missed 16 games last season while senior guard Nahziah Carter was suspended from the team on Dec. 2 after a UW investigation upheld two allegations of sexual assault.

Now there’s speculation about Hopkins’ job security less than two years after guiding UW to a Pac-12 regular-season title, the NCAA Tournament and winning his second straight conference coach of the year award. Hopkins agreed to a six-year, $17.5 million contract extension in 2019 that expires following the 2024-25 season.

“Hopefully, Hop can get it turned around and I hope they give him the time to turn it around,” Williams said. “Russo didn’t get that. Once things started to turn, it went from bad to worse real quick. And then it was over.”

When asked what advice he would give Hopkins, Russo said: “Just be yourself. And recruit good players.

“I’ve followed Mike for a long time,” added Russo, who recruited Hopkins, a San Mateo, California, native, before he played at Syracuse. “He did a lot of things that I would do as far as engaging with the fans and the community. … He had his honeymoon period and now things have hit a bit of a patch. But Mike is easy to root for and I’m rooting for him and the Huskies.”

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