Clock winds down on UCLA's Lavin

College basketball: Despite his past success, coach Steve Lavin will almost certainly be fired because of the Bruins' subpar season.

February 10, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Beyond the 11 national championship banners at Pauley Pavilion, beyond the 92-year-old living legend named John Wooden who still attends some home games, there's another distinction between the UCLA basketball program and every other Division I team.

Where else would a coach whose teams have made six straight NCAA tournament appearances, reaching the Sweet 16 five times and Elite Eight once, and who hasn't run into any trouble with the NCAA, get fired before he finished his seventh season?

Steve Lavin hasn't officially been fired, but he has essentially been a lame-duck coach most of the season. New athletic director Dan Guerrero mostly has been silent about Lavin's status, but even the 38-year-old coach catches himself referring to his tenure at UCLA with some sense of closure.

"The final days," he called them last week.

On Saturday, after UCLA ended a nine-game losing streak with a 71-70 win over Georgetown at MCI Center in Washington, Lavin was speaking about a team he knows he will not get to coach past this season. The 5-14 Bruins are threatening to become the worst UCLA team since a 5-18 finish in 1941-42.

"The future of this team is really bright, and that's nice because you'd like to put something in place in terms of the foundation," Lavin said. "It's been a very difficult and long season. You can see the glimpses, the sneak previews, the coming attractions."

Yet the nine freshmen and sophomores on the youngest team in school history will not grow up with Lavin. Barring an unforeseen turnaround, UCLA won't even be among the eight teams to qualify for the Pac-10 tournament, let alone the NCAA tournament.

Short of another miraculous run in March, Lavin will be gone.

It will end one of the most successful yet tumultuous coaching stints in recent years.

Lavin has been under fire throughout a head coaching career that began when Jim Harrick was fired in 1996 for falsifying expense accounts. At the time, Harrick was one season removed from winning the school's first national championship in 20 years.

It was the first indication to Lavin, who had been an assistant for five years at UCLA, that the other Wooden shoe would drop on his head someday. The reason it took this long was because of Lavin's success in the NCAA tournament.

Unlike Harrick, whose championship run in 1995 helped overshadow a string of postseason failures, Lavin's teams played well in March. He was the only coach aside from Duke's Mike Krzyzewski to have led his team to the Sweet 16 five times in the past six years.

Though his relationship with Harrick disintegrated when he accepted an offer to coach the Bruins on an interim basis in 1996, the years Lavin spent watching his former boss battle with the media, fans and former athletic director Peter Dallis helped the coach through his own skirmishes.

"I was fortunate to watch my boss go through it on a day-to-day basis for five years and then through my seven years," Lavin said. "It's really been no different for 12 years. At some point, the outcome is a little different and you really are fired."

When the Bruins lost at home to San Diego and Northern Arizona early in the season, Lavin could hear the whispers that have followed him ever since he followed Harrick.

But to many, including Lavin, the day he became a lame duck was Dec. 9. That was the day Guerrero fired UCLA football coach Bob Toledo, once hailed for a 20-game winning streak in 1997 and 1998 but since maligned as the Bruins went 24-24 the past four seasons.

Though Lavin knows his fate will be the same, he is taking a diplomatic road toward the inevitable outcome.

"In no way do I feel like I've been unfairly treated," Lavin said. "That's just the culture and the climate."

Who the next UCLA coach will be is a hot topic on Southern California talk radio. The most prominent names being mentioned are Pittsburgh's Ben Howland, Gonzaga's Mark Few and Pepperdine's Paul Westphal, a former Southern Cal star who would balance the equation of ex-Bruin Henry Bibby coaching USC.

Lavin said he doesn't think it will matter, as long as the mind-set remains stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, when UCLA was college basketball's last dynasty by winning 10 championships in a 12-year stretch under Wooden.

"The last 14 years have been the closest thing to relative stability," said Lavin, referring to his and Harrick's reign. "I don't think it's coincidental that [UCLA made] 14 straight tournaments [and] the national title was won during that run."

Whoever succeeds Lavin likely will get more support from the administration and the fans, yet happy marriages at UCLA are much like those in neighboring Beverly Hills: They don't last very long, and it's hard to keep the names of the next spouses out of the papers.

"If you pull the plug the first time the team has a losing season or doesn't go to the tournament, you'll never collect the residuals," Lavin said. "Like a good IRA or a good trust fund, if you keep pulling the plug, you're not going to get the residuals on the back end.

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