When Ben Howland was fired in 2013 and the UCLA coaching job opened up, Arizona's Sean Miller had a vested interest in seeing who got the position.
And as coach of one of the Bruins’ biggest rivals, Miller feared the possibility of one particular guy getting the job, sources told ESPN: Lorenzo Romar. Miller told people close to him that a move by the then-Washington coach to Westwood would make it tough to recruit the state of California.
This spring, Miller didn’t wait to see if anyone snatched up Romar when he was fired in March after 15 seasons in Washington. Rumors began circulating at the Final Four in Phoenix, and it became official on April 15: Arizona was bringing on Romar as an assistant coach. He replaced Joe Pasternack, who took the head-coaching position at UC Santa Barbara.
The public reaction wasn’t overwhelming. It was a high-major program hiring a former head coach who hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2011.
In basketball circles, though, this was a massive move.
“It’s tough,” one Pac-12 coach said. “Arizona already owned the West Coast, and now they’re getting Romar.”
“Arizona is about to smash the West Coast in 2018 and 2019,” one AAU coach from the West added.
The knock on Romar was his lack of wins and the fact that he made only six NCAA tournament appearances in 15 seasons -- and zero in the last seven -- despite getting so much talent. But that’s irrelevant now. It’s the talent Romar has consistently recruited that will make him a major asset in Tucson.
Before leaving Washington in March, Romar had recruited a top-five 2017 class to Seattle. In fact, since 2007 (when ESPN’s recruiting database started), Romar had a top-40 class in seven of the last 10 classes. He recruited 12 ESPN 100 players, including five-stars Abdul Gaddy, Tony Wroten Jr., Nigel Williams-Goss and Markelle Fultz. He had another four ESPN 100 prospects in the 2017 class, including No. 1 overall prospect Michael Porter Jr., before it fell apart after his departure.
Twelve Washington players were selected in the NBA draft during Romar’s tenure, including nine first-rounders. In Fultz, the Huskies will likely have the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft. Fultz will be the third lottery pick since 2012 that Romar recruited to Washington.
Romar, a native of Compton, California, has been one of the top recruiters in the country since his days as an assistant under Jim Harrick at UCLA. He recruited the likes of Toby Bailey, Tyus Edney, J.R. Henderson and others to the Bruins.
“Everybody knows him in Compton, everybody knows him in L.A.,” one longtime West Coast AAU coach said. “Parents and grandparents of players played ball with him, played pickup with him. They all know him.”
Romar built a reputation on winning over families and the adults around a prospect, and that won’t change at Arizona. In fact, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported when Romar was hired that he helped convince Allonzo Trier to return to Tucson -- because of the relationship Trier and his mother had with Romar.
“He really gets in with parents on non-basketball things,” the longtime AAU coach said. “He has a very strong religious reputation that people gravitate toward. He always had a reputation as a players’ coach, a guy people can relate to. He had NBA pedigree. He was perceived by a lot of parents as more than a coach, as a father figure, a mentor.”
“Folks will trust Romar. He is a trustworthy man,” another AAU coach added. “He is honest and upfront, no bulls---. You could feel comfortable knowing your son was at Washington.”
The scary thing is that Arizona was already one of the premier recruiting programs in the country, with seven consecutive top-seven recruiting classes under Miller. Pasternack, whose spot Romar is filling, played a major part in that -- especially in California, with the Oakland Soldiers and other AAU programs -- which makes Romar’s hire so important.
“He’s going to be well-respected and accepted because of who he is,” a Pac-12 assistant coach said. “Miller needed Romar for that reason alone, to make the relationships work. He gives Arizona a fresh face. He has a way with relationships.”
No one is saying this is going to be a long-term move, and Romar might get a head-coaching job again next spring or in 2019. But when you combine Romar’s relationships with Miller’s ability to close recruits and the East Coast recruiting acumen of fellow assistant coach Book Richardson, it makes beating out Arizona for top recruits over the next couple of years a daunting task.
“Arizona wasn’t struggling to recruit,” one Pac-12 coach said. “If you’re a top kid on the West Coast, you’re looking at Arizona anyway. Is he now going to give him a chance to get kids from Seattle? Absolutely. He’s going to help. But at the end of the day, Sean Miller was getting five-star recruits without Lorenzo Romar.”
With Romar in the fold, though, that shows no sign of slowing down.