MALIBU — Has the ocean become bluer since 1999? Lorenzo Romar is the only coach in position to know.
On a late October morning, he was sitting outside Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse, looking down at the best picture window in Division I basketball.
Romar would like all potential recruits, especially from the occluded East, to re-read those words: “Late October” and “outside.”
“That was my one thing about getting back in,” Romar said. “It had to be on the West Coast. You’ve got all this. And this is where the players are.”
Romar began his coaching career here in 1996, after his years with Jim Harrick and UCLA. In three years the Waves went from 6-21 to 17-10 to 19-13, and Romar was hired by St. Louis and then Washington.
There, he discovered that Power 5 basketball is like the Pacific that greets him every morning as he emerges from the canyon and the drive from Calabasas: Irresistible from afar, exhilarating once you’re in.
But, eventually, somebody tells you to get out.
Pepperdine has changed, as has Romar. The Waves were 6-26 last year and have had two winning seasons since 2005. Back then the West Coast Conference was up for grabs. Now there’s the “Gonzaga monster and the St. Mary’s monster,” as Romar puts it, plus Brigham Young.
“We’re under construction,” Romar said, as he planned for Wednesday’s opener against Cal State Dominguez and a Saturday date with new CSUN coach Mark Gottfried, who is back to shore after North Carolina State and has hired Harrick, 80, as an assistant.
Harrick was at Pepperdine, too, and came within a foul shot or two of snuffing the Survive-And-Advance N.C. State team in the first round of the 1983 tournament.
Romar pulled out his phone. “I saved this,” he said, and you hear Harrick’s message: “Rowww-mar, you’re gonna be fiiiiine at the Diiiine.”
Romar, Gottfried and Steve Lavin were Harrick’s assistants when they won UCLA’s only NCAA championship in the past 43 seasons (1995). As head coaches they combined to go to 42 NCAA tournaments and had 25 players drafted.
And they were fired a total of five times.
“Jim Harrick in my mind is the most unappreciated coach ever,” Romar said. “He used to warn me that I shouldn’t compromise. He would tell me, ‘Romar, you can’t save everybody.’
“And I learned that. You have to know which guys are redeemable and which aren’t. Now I know which things are non-negotiable. You have to stay true to your values.”
Washington fired Romar after the 2017 season. He was an assistant at Arizona last year and would have stayed, but Pepperdine called, and Romar is 59 and wants at least one more plate appearance.
The Waves are raising money for a new arena, a little farther up the hill. That, in Romar’s mind, was non-negotiable, too.
A fired coach is not always a failed coach. Romar was at Washington 15 years.
“When I got the job I saw that Marv Harshman was there 14 years and I said, that’s unbelievable,” he said. “I remember we had an alumni game in 2013. That was a proud moment.”
It was also a pretty good game, if you remember Brandon Roy, Isaiah Thomas, Nate Robinson, John Brockman, Quincy Pondexter, etc.
Romar coached 10 first-round picks, plus the undrafted Justin Holiday and Will Conroy, who still made the NBA.
In his first nine years Washington won at least 24 games six times and went to six NCAA tournaments, and was left out of the 2011 event after it won the Pac-12 regular season (14-4).
In Romar’s final five years Washington was 34-56 in conference play.
“If I’m the athletic director, based on that, I make a change, too,” Romar said.
He was the beneficiary and casualty of One-And-Dones, the freshmen who wave goodbye after a season. He had five. The killers were Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray, who became first-round picks in 2016. Markelle Fultz, the first-overall pick in 2017, showed up as a freshman but got hurt.
There was no lifeguard on duty.
“If you have one-and-dones with veterans already on your team, you can handle it,” Romar said. “I didn’t know Marquese would be in that position. And neither did he.
“The next year, even with Fultz leaving, we had Michael Porter coming in (later transferring to Missouri) and veterans. We might have had our best team. But then we were let go. I sometimes think what-if, but I have zero bitterness.”
He shook his head.
“That was one season,” Romar said. “On to the next one.”
He looked down at the Pacific. The safer the distance, the bluer it gets..
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