On the afternoon of the NCAA championship basketball game, it’s worth recalling two milestone events in Washington basketball history that are marking anniversaries almost to the day. One is a happy benchmark, the other not so much.
Please, somebody tell me it’s not already 10 years since the Huskies hired Lorenzo Romar as head coach. It almost never happened, but fortunately for UW basketball fortunes, it did.
I was sent to Atlanta to cover the Final Four in 2002, just after Washington had jettisoned Bob Bender as head coach. Part of the assignment was to try to bird-dog the Huskies’ search process, much of which would take place there. (The Final Four is always the site of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches convention, and a convenient place for athletic directors seeking a replacement.)
Barbara Hedges, the UW athletic director, had already screened Missouri’s Quin Snyder, and Gonzaga’s Mark Few was the obvious target as the weekend progressed. I covered the first semifinal between Indiana and Oklahoma, and actually skipped the nightcap between Maryland and Kansas — which was the marquee game of the two — so I could try to track down Few to see what his mind-set was. (Hell of a way to cover a Final Four, right?) I found Few in one of the coaches headquarters hotels, and indeed, it was apparent he would be pulling out of the running, which he did on Monday after flying home Sunday.
That opened up the competition, and I recall on Sunday afternoon calling Romar in his hotel room, knowing he’d had a talk scheduled with Hedges. When I asked him where he stood, he seemed genuinely puzzled about his chances and said, “I really don’t know.”
As Monday progressed — exactly 10 years ago, as we speak — the Huskies were making a run at Dan Monson of Minnesota. And in fact, late that day, Hedges offered him the job and he accepted it. Overnight, he was the de facto new UW basketball coach. Then, early Tuesday morning, he backed out and in a recent Sports Illustrated story on his Long Beach State program, Monson called that move a mistake.
That’s when Hedges turned to Romar, who was named later that week. Like many hires, the fallback choice ends up being the right guy, as Romar proceeded to change the image of the program, build up fan support, establish a base in the burgeoning Seattle-area recruiting pool and make the program more nationally known.
Today, UW basketball is more of a player on the West Coast stage than a lot of observers might have ever thought possible before he arrived.
Ten years before Romar was hired — 20 years ago Saturday, in fact — occurred what my newspaper colleagues and I consider the most extraordinary press conference we’ve ever covered.
Longtime fans of UW basketball will remember the details: Lynn Nance, the Husky coach, had been hired in 1989 by athletic director Mike Lude (in fact, if you want to go one more in this anniversary thing, Nance was announced the afternoon of the title game here in Seattle).
Hedges thus inherited Nance, and was never really a big fan of his. Toward the end of what would become a 12-17 season in his third year in 1992, the parents of players Andrew and Maurice Woods sent an eight-page letter to UW president William Gerberding, alleging racism on Nance’s part in his dealings with players.
Days later, Nance organized and paid for 11 black former players at Iowa State, Central Missouri and Saint Mary’s to join him at a Bellevue hotel for a testimonial press conference. The event and the site were totally independent of the university. This was Nance’s thing, and Nance’s alone. As you can imagine, it was often emotional during the 75-minute event.
That was reflected no more profoundly than in the words of Nicole Nance, an African-American woman who happened to be Nance’s former daughter-in-law. Here’s how it was described in the Times.
“When I was getting ready to go through my divorce, Coach Nance sent me a two-page letter telling me how much he loved me, how much he cared for me and how he didn’t want us to split up,” she said. “I don’t think somebody who is a racist is going to take the time to tell you he loves you and please don’t leave his family.
“This is a very emotional thing because I have an 8-year-old daughter who thinks the sun rises and sets on Coach Nance. I don’t want (children) stopping her on the playground and saying, `Your grandfather is a racist.’
With her voice breaking, she said, “He is not a racist. He is a wonderful human being.”
As a result of the charges, the UW formed a four-person panel to look at Nance’s handling of the basketball program. About six weeks later, the committee cleared Nance of any racism charges, but its other findings hardly did him any good. Its study of the program found an atmosphere of “negative criticism, fear, mystery, rigidity and inexplicable severity.”
The day that report came out might have been a death knell for Nance’s career.
I’ve always believed that Hedges and Gerberding wanted to fire Nance on the spot. His record then was 37-48, and 15-39 in Pac-10 games, so it could have been justified. But I don’t think they could afford the appearance that he was fired for the racism charges, so, with two years remaining on his contract, Nance hung on.
He probably knew he was a dead man walking, and in fact, asked for a contract extension before the end of the 1993 season, saying he needed it to be able to recruit. Hedges refused, he resigned and Hedges was no doubt glad to have him out in 1993.
Nance stayed in the area for a couple of years, then went to Division II Southwest Baptist University in Missouri, near his roots. He’s now an assistant on the LSU staff of Seattle product Trent Johnson.
Hedges hired Bender from Illinois State. He put a much more likable face on the program and the Huskies got to the NCAA tournament in 1998 and 1999 (going to the Sweet 16 in ’98), and that momentum helped Hedges undertake a massive remodel of Hec Edmundson Pavilion shortly after that.
But Bender tapped out in 2002, and that’s when Hedges went looking for a replacement.
Two major benchmarks in UW history, each a bit unbelievable in its own way.