People Are Just Drawn to Him
Thus, the inexhaustible Romar carved out a pro career that lasted five years with three teams. He left the NBA to play for Athletes in Action, the athletic division of Campus Crusade for Christ, a non-denominational ministry. While in his mid-20s, he decided to take religion seriously, and credits it with changing his life. For example, while living in Cincinnati, where Athletes in Action was based, he decided to go back to school to finish his bachelor's degree in criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. (Athletes in Action plays exhibition games against college teams, followed by ministry to those in attendance. The organization also develops and runs ministry-based social services in various communities.) Romar's play was stellar, and he was growing a reputation as a solid coach. In 1992, UCLA's Harrick called to ask him to join his staff as an assistant coach.
At first, Romar wasn't sure if he wanted to go into college basketball, especially a pressure cooker like UCLA. He loved playing for AIA and running his inner-city ministry, where he helped underprivileged kids get tutoring and other social needs filled. But in the end, he couldn't turn down a chance to work at a basketball school he idolized growing up. (As a teen-ager, he took the bus from Compton to the UCLA campus to catch a glimpse of pro players who worked out at the UCLA gym.)
Romar had an immediate impact there. As an assistant coach, he recruited many of the players on the 1995 team that went 31-2 and won the national title when the Final Four was held in the Kingdome.
"His strength is in the relationships he forms," says Cameron Dollar, a player on that '95 UCLA team and now Romar's top assistant. "He had this way of making you want to do right by him. As a player, you never wanted to let him down."
Adds Jelani McCoy, another member of the '95 UCLA team who now plays for the world champion Los Angeles Lakers: "Coach Romar tries to get the maximum out of his players. If he had told me to run through a brick wall because it would have made me a better player, I would have done it."
"He's as dynamic a personality as you will find," adds current UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who served as a Bruin assistant with Romar and is one of his closest friends. "He has great charisma and character-and the ability to inspire and motivate people. People are just drawn to him.
"He wants to see things through. He's a builder. He likes to build relationships with everyone from the star player to the janitor."
The fun-loving Romar (he does killer impressions of basketball coaches and players) takes his relationships very seriously. That's why it was so hard for him to leave UCLA after the 1996 season for his first head coaching opportunity at Pepperdine. With the Waves from 1996-99, he became a beloved figure, engineering a dramatic turnaround after a 6-21 inaugural season, going 17-10 and 19-13 with an NIT berth by his third season. The future looked even brighter, but he couldn't turn down a golden opportunity to take over at Saint Louis University. In the spring of 1999, when he assembled his Pepperdine players to say goodbye, he broke down in tears several times.
The Southern California native took to the Midwest in no time. Romar led Saint Louis to a 51-44 record and an NCAA Tournament berth in three seasons. Just like at Pepperdine, he set up the Saint Louis program for even more glory, with all starters returning for the 2002 season, when the phone rang. UW Athletic Director Barbara Hedges was on the line to talk about the Husky job.
Despite his impressive credentials, Romar was not Hedges' top choice to replace Bender. She reportedly talked to Missouri's Quin Snyder, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Minnesota's Dan Monson before she turned to Romar and named him the UW's first African-American basketball coach (not to mention its highest paid hoops coach at $700,000 a year).
"Lorenzo Romar is a terrific fit for the University of Washington," Hedges said. "He played here, he knows the Pac-10, and more importantly, he has the character and leadership to lead the program."