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Westhead Vows to Take Running Game to Denver : Basketball: Former Loyola Marymount coach is introduced as Nuggets’ new boss, but officials at the school had yet to hear from him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the start of basketball practice about five weeks away, Paul Westhead’s sudden departure as coach has left the Loyola Marymount athletic program scrambling like a Lion fast break.

Although Westhead was introduced as coach of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets Friday, succeeding the fired Doug Moe, the Loyola administration, coaches and players still had not heard from him and were awaiting his return.

Athletic Director Brian Quinn said that because Westhead’s name came up so often in job rumors, he had a contingency plan to hire a new coach. But he was unprepared for the suddenness of the change. The Nuggets approached Westhead Wednesday night, and the deal was done by Thursday evening.

“It’s a complete shock,” Quinn said. “It came out of nowhere. I’ve always prepared for the day this would happen, but I didn’t think it would happen this suddenly--in one day.”

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It is believed by some that part of the reason Westhead was willing to leave on such short notice was the annual dickering on his handshake contract he faced with Fr. James Loughran, the school president.

And those sources said that Loughran, although friendly with Westhead, felt the basketball program was outgrowing the scope of Loyola athletics.

In any case, neither spoke critically of the other.

Loughran issued a statement, saying: “Paul’s many friends and fans at Loyola Marymount join me in wishing him and his family every success in his new position. . . . He brought us five exciting basketball seasons and established an enviable record for the Lions. With his reputation and talent, we are not surprised that he was sought for an NBA coaching position, and we are pleased that he leaves us as such a good friend. . . .”

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Speaking at a news conference in Denver, Westhead said: “I have a great love for the college game, and perhaps I would have stayed at Loyola Marymount forever if not for the opportunity to coach in the NBA. This was a chance I could not turn down.”

Terms of Westhead’s multiyear contract were not disclosed. Bernie Bickerstaff, the Nuggets’ new general manager, said his plan for rebuilding the team would take three to five years, and Westhead said his contract “puts me in the thick of those years.”

Westhead said he had not learned until Wednesday night that the Denver job might be available. That’s when he met with Bickerstaff.

A Shakespearean scholar, Westhead quoted Macbeth, saying, “If it is done, when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

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Quinn said he hoped to name a coach quickly.

The favorite is Jay Hillock, Westhead’s top assistant during his five years at Loyola. Hillock was formerly head coach at Gonzaga.

Hillock spoke with Westhead Thursday and Friday. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen something like this happen,” he said.

But Quinn and Loyola probably will consider applicants.

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Westhead’s Loyola teams set NCAA scoring records, and he said at the Denver news conference that his up-tempo style would be just as effective in the NBA.

“In college, my team scored as many as 181 points in a game,” Westhead said. “Now we have eight more minutes. You haven’t seen anything yet.

“We’ll be the fastest-paced team on offense and defense that you’ll see. We’re going to knock your socks off. If you wear a neck brace, you won’t be able to stay for all of our games. . . .

“I’ll work diligently to have the best conditioned team in all of professional sports. Starting out, win or lose, I can promise you our opponents will be very tired.”

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Westhead is expected back Monday to meet with the Loyola team. Players and coaches met Friday.

“I’d heard the rumors, but I thought once we got back to school he was in for the season,” said junior forward John O’Connell. “I didn’t believe it at first, but we’ve been through worse.

“Everybody was upset--we didn’t want to lose him. But we’re as happy for him as anybody. It’s a great opportunity, and we’ll go on, like usual.”


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