Commentary

Dement, Rompola honeymoon includes lots of phone calls, airline miles

Originally Published: January 17, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

If he wanted to, Mike Dement could toss sweaty socks and sneakers around the house, spend hours riding in circles without asking directions and never ever put down the toilet seat.

Dement's wife wouldn't mind.

If she wanted to, Rhonda Rompola could spend two hours getting ready to go to work, spread her makeup and hair products across the entire width of the bathroom counter and infuse her home with sweet-smelling potpourris.

It's never easy. The more time we spend together, the more you think, 'We're married. We're supposed to be together.' But he's got a good situation. I've got a good situation. Ultimately we want to be together, but for right now we're trying to survive.

--Rhonda Rompola

Rompola's husband would never complain.

Married since June, Dement and Rompola have what cynics might call the perfect recipe for a long and happy marriage. They live 1,100 miles, one time zone and a three-hour American Airlines flight apart. She has her house, he has his, and for much of the year, they each lead their own separate lives.

The crossover in their worlds is an affinity for the crossover; Dement is the head men's basketball coach at UNC Greensboro, and Rompola is in her 17th year leading the women's team at Southern Methodist.

"Other people in the world have similar business jobs with a lot of traveling so they're apart,'' Dement said. "Our jobs just happen to be basketball. To us, this is just life, just the two of us trying to do our jobs and spend as much time as possible together.''

Division I basketball is not built for homebodies. Between practices, games, road games and recruiting, even coaches married to spouses who share the same address struggle to carve out family time. Trying to mix the demands of two head coaches plus two schedules, one in the Southern Conference and one in Conference USA, is a near impossibility. Dement and Rompola plot their time together like a guerilla soldier would plot a hostile takeover, poring over schedules, day planners and flight prices.

Spontaneity is a near impossibility, replaced instead by pinpoint planning and near tactical organization. On Sunday, Dement zipped to Dallas to watch SMU play Southern Miss, the first time husband and wife had been together in nearly three weeks. By Monday, he was gone. They may sneak a short visit in on Friday, when SMU plays at East Carolina, but after that is anyone's guess right now.

The obvious question is why bother? When they aren't even cohabiting, why get married in the first place?

"It's funny, my mother actually asked me that,'' Rompola said. "Part of it is it's the right thing to do. I grew up in a Catholic family. I wanted to be married. I wanted a husband. And also, even though I'm not with him every day, I have somebody I look forward to seeing, someone who is there for me.''

For nine years Dement and Rompola actually shared the same address: 6024 Airline Road, Dallas, Texas.

As the head men's coach at SMU, Dement's office sat a few doors away from Rompola's in Moody Coliseum. They were colleagues who occasionally sparred over practice time and court availability, but nothing more.

His program struggled to find a foothold, failing to make the NCAA Tournament in his nine seasons there. Despite just two losing years, the Mustangs let him go before the 2003-04 season ended.

Not long after Dement and his wife divorced and in 2005, he went back to Greensboro, where he was head coach before leaving for SMU. Until he was settled, Dement decided to leave his golden retrievers, Taz and Preston, in Dallas. Rompola and her assistants agreed to care for the lovable beasts.

"I'd take them on a walk; it was more like they were taking me on a drag,'' said Rompola, who's more accustomed to handling her somewhat less frisky terrier, Skye. "But they lived the country club life here, playing in the pool. I told him they'd never want to leave.''

[+] EnlargeMike Dement
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiUNC Greensboro coach Mike Dement can vent coaching Xs and Os with his spouse and maybe even pick up some of her tricks against the zone defense.

The dogs eventually headed east but before they did, the pups had sparked a closer friendship that ultimately blossomed into a romance.

"It isn't something you plan,'' said Rompola, who had been divorced years earlier. "It's a situation where two very good friends and colleagues who were compatible and maybe a little lonely, it's one of those things that happen. The thing about it is, we knew each other beforehand. We're friends. I've always felt that it's important to be friends first.''

Sports fans, coaches and workout aficionados, the pair spend even their rare time off in some sort of sporting activity. The hotel workout room is a favorite spot when they do vacation together. Both golf -- he's better, but she can "hit it a mile,'' according to Dement -- and like to take lengthy walks.

And of course, there is basketball.

The notion that Dement and Rompola sit in their den with whiteboards and markers diagramming plays, arguing about the merits of the pick and roll while a game tape spins on the television is a stretch.

But only slightly.

Most phone conversations begin with how practice went or what went right or wrong in a game, and they do pick one another's brain for coaching suggestions and advice.

"It's usually situations, like if you have 1:15 left, do you play defense or do you foul, things like that,'' Dement said. "Neither one of us has come to a conclusion. I stole a couple of things she's used against the zone.''

More, though, it is the comfort of a sounding board who knows what to say and better, when to say nothing. Rompola knows if she receives a post-game text that says UNCG has lost, Dement won't be calling. She gets it. She wouldn't call either.

Fortunately there haven't been too many disappointed calls this season. UNCG is 9-6 and SMU 12-4. SMU's 85-72 win over Southern Miss gave Rompola her 300th career victory and pushed her atop the record books at her alma mater.

It also will cost Dement a dinner at Bob's Steak and Chop House, a favorite Dallas restaurant. They bet who would win No. 300 first. Dement is stuck at 297.

There's no denying that Dement and Rompola are still in the honeymoon period of this long-distance marriage. The planning is taxing and at times, frustrating. A missed plane can mean a missed weekend, but between million-mile flier status with American Airlines and a smart text messaging and cell phone plan, they're making it happen.

They enjoy what in-season time they get together and long for the offseason when NCAA rules force them off the recruiting trail and into vacation mode. Dement is currently building a lakefront house in North Carolina, a future getaway spot that will be perfect for unwinding and relaxing for them and Dement's two children.

The one thing Dement and Rompola haven't figured out is the future. They intend to have one together -- really together -- but aren't sure how or when that will happen.

Dement is currently in the middle of a three-year contract at UNCG and in discussions with his athletics director about an extension. Rompola, who has spent her entire coaching career at SMU, can't imagine coaching anywhere else.

"I'd be thrilled if she did well and then she could take care of me,'' Dement said with a chuckle.

"Trust me, he'd love that,'' Rompola laughed. "He could stay home, play with the dogs. He'd be very content.''

Jokes aside, it's a problem without a simple solution. Coaches crave nothing more than the unattainable brass ring of job security, but job security for Dement and Rompola as individuals means sacrifice for them as a couple. Yet time as a couple likely means one of them has lost a job.

At the risk of acting like ostriches, the pair said they're not going to worry about that right now. Dement admitted it's difficult to come home after a long day to an empty house, and Rompola agreed that a voice on the phone, no matter how supportive, isn't the same as a person in your living room.

"Sometimes it's harder, sometimes it's acceptable but it's never easy,'' Rompola said. "The more time we spend together, the more you think, 'We're married. We're supposed to be together.' But he's got a good situation. I've got a good situation. Ultimately we want to be together, but for right now we're trying to survive.''

In the meantime, excuse her while she lingers at the makeup mirror.

And her husband hurls a sweaty sock across the living room.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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