Ex-Lakers Coach Westhead Runs Into the Lion's Den

Times Staff Writer

Paul Westhead, who knows the loneliness of the long distance runner, was out running in the canyons of Palos Verdes last week when Loyola called him in from the wilderness and named him head basketball coach.

The former Lakers' coach has been doing a lot of running since the first of the year--running for jobs, running in a marathon. Indeed, he was about 24 hours from packing up the family and running all the way back to the East Coast when Loyola, looking to repla the departed Jim Lynam, called him for an interview. Twenty-four hours later he was the new coach, with a four-year contract.

For two years Westhead, who has been a coach since the early 1960s, had done little formal coaching, going through an introspective period when he tried to decide where his future lay and if it included basketball.

He was in the running for the Loyola job in late March, but Lynam was selected. His name popped up for vacancies all over the basketball map--Hawaii, Washington, the Clippers assistantship. Westhead says he seriously weighed about half a dozen possibilities, at least one not in basketball. He had decided to head back to Ursinus College in Pennsylvania when the Loyola job opened again and he indicated he was interested.

After all that running, it seems that the job, in the end, almost sought him out. "I had returned from my run when (Athletic Director Brian) Quinn called," Westhead said. "I like to run about seven miles a day. When I was coaching I liked to run about four hours before game time. I'm a late runner."

The irony of the term did not escape Westhead. He grinned. "Let's hope I'm a late stayer."

Westhead, who had already sold his Rancho Palos Verdes home, seemed genuinely pleased to be staying in Los Angeles, particularly at Loyola Marymount. His daughter Monica just graduated from there and Westhead spoke glowingly of the school.

"It's on the verge of becoming a very credible basketball school," Westhead said. "Loyola will now become competitive in its league."

No Assembly Line

Westhead pointed out, however, that success at Loyola does not mean becoming a basketball assembly line. "A school like Loyola Marymount doesn't show its greatness by becoming a basketball power," he said. "I can truly recruit student athletes, young men who will have four great years, win a pile of games and graduate as career people--doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs, and maybe professional basketball players."

Referring to the recent bemoaning of the lack of ethics in college athletics, Westhead said, "I don't know that a 600-page rule book is the answer. . . . The road of correction is that schools like Loyola Marymount begin to live the student-athlete notion and make it work. (Loyola) looks custom-made for that."

Westhead, who won an NBA title as coach of the Lakers in 1980 and then was criticized by players for trying to make the offense too intricate, said he would adjust to the talent on hand at Loyola, but "I have some ideas about what makes good basketball. It'll be a running program--you can mark that down. If Paul Westhead is going to be coaching then he's going to be coaching fast-break basketball."

Westhead, who doubles as a Shakespearean lecturer, said he made a conscious decision to reject professional ranks in favor of collegiate coaching and teaching, and convinced Loyola officials, who felt that Lynam's sudden jump back to the NBA after 2 1/2 months at Loyola was a slap at the program.

'Shot in the Arm'

"Commitment was a concern of the university," said Quinn. "We got a feeling of his commitment. Paul brings credibility to the university. It's a good shot in the arm. It puts us back on our feet in a positive manner."

Quinn said Westhead was hired only 24 hours after the screening committee met because "we had thecandidate we wanted . . . and the recruiting situation, to wait two or three weeks would be a mistake, in my opinion. We really did push for a quick decision."

Westhead, who has not had to deal with the rigors of recruiting since leaving LaSalle University in 1979 for the Lakers, will begin scouting summer leagues immediately and said he is not daunted by the prospect of nearly year-round recruiting.

"I enjoy talking to young fellows about their future," he said. "It will be immensely different now--I really think this is a great place. I had a great experience here with my daughter. I believe that makes the recruiting easier.

"I just have a feeling--you can set a kind of atmosphere within a year or two or three that athletes know what you stand for, then they recruit you as much as you recruit them. That's the atmosphere I would like to establish."

Assistants Can Stay

Jay Hillock and Judas Prada, who were hired as Lynam's assistants, were told by Westhead they could remain and were weighing that this week.

Westhead said he saw Loyola play several times last year but will not really be able to judge talent until he gets the players in practice. "It looks like they have some possibilities to be a fine team," he said. "But you only really know personnel when you coach them. I'll know in mid-October their actual ability level."

Westhead did allow that there were "some obvious pluses--Keith Smith has outstanding ability. Steve Haney and some of the other young guys really developed during the season."

He said he knows Forrest McKenzie mostly by reputation, because McKenzie had to sit out last season because of a controversial grades dispute. "I'd kind of empathize with him when I would read about his situation last year," Westhead said.

Reached the Heights

The 46-year-old coach reached the heights when he took over the Lakers early in the 1979-80 season and guided them to the NBA title, and came to know the depths when he was released by Jerry Buss 11 games into the 1981-82 season after a public outburst by Magic Johnson. A year at the helm of the Chicago Bulls produced a 24-58 record.

Westhead has since been teaching English at Marymount Palos Verdes College and keeping his hand in basketball through clinics.

He said he decided at the start of the year that it was time to make a career move. "I took two years to do a great deal of soul-searching, where I'd been," he said. "I reviewed a half-dozen proposals, a whole spectrum of possibilities, some outside basketball.

"I'm a career basketball coach and teacher--it didn't take me long to realize that. I came to a decision that I want to return to the college game. The professional game is not what I choose to do . . . for good. I'm happy this worked out."

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