Going the Rounds: Huskies’ glass both half-full, half-empty with Romar


Half-forgotten by younger fans and writers, Chuck Knox was the coach who put the Seattle Seahawks on the National Football League map.

Assuming the helm in 1983 after successful stints with the Los Angeles Rams and Buffalo, Knox immediately led the Seahawks to a succession of playoff appearances. His teams played hard-nosed football, were more consistent than Mike Holmgren’s Seattle clubs and more fundamentally sound than Pete Carroll’s.

Although staunchly conservative in his coaching philosophy, Knox was flexible enough to ditch his “Ground Chuck” attack in favor of a pass-oriented offense when ace running back Curt Warner tore a knee ligament in the opening game of the 1984 campaign. The Hawks adapted well enough to earn a wild-card berth and advance to the second round of the NFL playoffs that season.

There was one blot on Knox’s resume. While his track record was good in making the playoffs, his teams seldom did much once they got there. Although he won three NFL Coach of the Year awards, he never guided a team to a Super Bowl appearance.

Nevertheless, there was a strong consensus that Knox was one of the premier coaches of his era.

A co-worker in one of the newspaper’s other departments couldn’t have disagreed more. After every Seahawk loss — and sometimes after wins — he would rail at length about Knox’s shortcomings.

Finally, in exasperation, I asked him what he expected of the Seahawk coach.

“I expect him to go to the Super Bowl and win it,” he calmly replied.

That exchange came to mind recently in the wake of the growing discussion, both in the conventional and social media, over Lorenzo Romar’s performance as the University of Washington men’s basketball coach.

The Huskies will almost certainly miss the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season. That has prompted a surprisingly intense debate over whether Romar deserves praise for taking the UW program to a higher level or censure for failing to lift the Dawgs to an even loftier plateau.

At first glance, the controversy seems ludicrous. There’s little doubt that Romar represents a vast improvement over the vast majority of his predecessors.

One of Andy Russo’s Husky teams lost decisively to Arizona State even though the Sun Devils’ best player, Stevin “Hedake” Smith, later acknowledged that, involved in a gambling scandal, he was attempting to throw the game.

Lynn Nance, another former UW coach, famously failed to acknowledge calls and letters from a Canadian prospect named Steve Nash, who wanted to play for the Huskies but settled for attaining fame at Santa Clara and fortune in the National Basketball Association.

A case can be made, in fact, that Romar is the greatest basketball coach in school history. His record includes two conference championships, three conference tournament titles and six NCAA tourney appearances in 11 years at Washington.

No Husky coach of the past 60-odd years can match the breadth of those accomplishments, although it should be noted that many manned the bench during a period when the conference received only one NCAA tourney bid.

Tippy Dye led the Huskies to three consecutive Pacific Coast Conference titles and a Final Four appearance in the early 1950s when All-American center Bob Houbregs was on hand. But Dye’s record in the six years after Houbregs graduated barely topped the .500 mark.

Marv Harshman was widely regarded as an outstanding tactician but no great shakes as a recruiter. Tex Winter is in basketball’s Hall of Fame, but not because of his relatively undistinguished three years at Washington.

Renowned for his rapport with players, Romar coaches a crowd-pleasing, up-tempo style of ball. When the Huskies are clicking on all cylinders, they can put on a dazzling show. During an NCAA tournament win over a higher-seeded New Mexico squad a few years ago, the Dawgs made the Lobos look like an over-40 rec league team struggling to keep pace with the Miami Heat.

In addition, UW alum Romar has resisted opportunities to go elsewhere. He has repeatedly stated that he considers the Washington post as his dream job. Even his critics acknowledge that he has been a fine role model for his young athletes.

You don’t win as many games as Romar has without possessing coaching skills. Yet there has always been something amiss with the near-flawless picture painted by his supporters.

While Romar has been portrayed as a brilliant recruiter, Gonzaga’s Mark Few has clearly done a better job of securing and retaining high-level talent. Many of Washington’s recent blue-chip recruits have defected to the pros within a year or two.

Romar’s clubs usually rank high in steals but allow a lot of points. Opponents who can avoid UW’s defensive pressure spend a good portion of the game shooting lay-ups.

Under Romar, the Huskies traditionally have problems shooting free throws (ranking dead last in the nation several years ago) and often appear in disarray at the end of tight games.

Washington fans would sooner listen to Bill Walton babble about dancing angels of mercy than watch the Huskies try to protect small leads in the late going (although, given the choice, most would probably opt for neither of the above).

While the Huskies annually pull off a good number of quality wins, they are often sandwiched around stupefyingly bad losses to the likes of Albany and South Dakota State.

Not all of these team shortcomings can be tied directly to Romar. But you don’t see them at Duke, Kansas or even, for that matter, at Gonzaga.

There’s a growing sentiment that, like Knox with the Seahawks, Romar can coach a team to postseason play but probably can’t take them all the way.

In many respects, any debate about Romar’s future is moot. There’s no way UW administrators will pull the plug on their coach only one year removed from a Pac-12 regular-season championship.

As a Washington alum, I’m OK with that. The Huskies can do a lot worse than Lorenzo Romar as their basketball coach.

Unfortunately, they can also do a little better.