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Bruins End Up With Best Coach Their Kind of Money Could Buy

Peter Dalis’ decision to tear off Steve Lavin’s interim tag two days before UCLA might fall to 13-8 with a loss at No. 11 Arizona was shrewd, smart, prudent, politically correct and expedient.

It was also a risk.

Was Lavin the best coach money could buy?

No.

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Was he the best coach UCLA money could buy?

Yes.

Short term, this gets Dalis off the hook. No more painful national coaching searches that end with a prominent name saying, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the most storied program in college basketball.

Dalis has been through this with Larry Brown, et al., and again last year in his search for a football successor to Terry Donahue. That ending with Northwestern’s Gary Barnett respectfully declining.

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John Wooden’s winning 10 national championships on a dock worker’s salary sort of set the tone in Westwood.

Former coach Jim Harrick--remember him?--once complained about wanting to be paid what other top coaches were making and, well, we all know where that led.

Open checkbook has never been UCLA’s style.

Dalis might have gone through motions, wined and dined some of the nation’s top coaches at next month’s Final Four in Indianapolis, but the conversations would have always turned to money and Dalis would not have been able to pony up and pay what it would have taken to get Brown, or one of his ilk.

Dick Weiss, college basketball writer-guru for the New York Daily News, called Lavin’s hiring “a common sense decision.”

And it was.

But Bruin fans should be asking why the best coaches in the world are not pounding at UCLA’s door when the greatest basketball job in America opens.

“It’s not a privilege to coach at UCLA, it’s a business proposition now,” Weiss said. “You’ve got to come up with money to get the best guys.”

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And that wasn’t going to happen.

Harrick didn’t get his salary bumped to $440,000 until after he had won a national championship, and 440 grand these days doesn’t get you a return phone call from Kentucky’s Rick Pitino.

Given the parameters, Lavin, even at 32, was the obvious, logical choice.

“Unless you’re going to hire one of the guys that has proven that they cannot fail, and those guys are few and far between, there’s always an element of risk,” CBS basketball commentator Billy Packer said of Lavin’s hiring.

“If Larry Brown was still coaching at UCLA, no question he’d be doing a great job. The point is, Larry Brown moved on.”

Dalis didn’t need that pounding headache again.

Ask Kentucky Athletic Director C.M. Newton what it’s like having to make a counteroffer every time Pitino considers leaving for the NBA.

This is not to say Lavin will not become a great coach.

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But since when was the UCLA basketball hire supposed to be a crapshoot?

“You never know,” Packer said. “It’s just like every other walk of life. A guy may be a great assistant and not a great head coach. Then, there are guys who don’t impress you as assistants, get the chance to be a head coach and are really terrific.”

Will Lavin be terrific?

Too soon to tell.

There is no guarantee UCLA, with its four future NBA players, will even make the NCAA tournament this year.

If the Bruins don’t, will Lavin be ready for those Saturday letters?

Utah Coach Rick Majerus, a former longtime assistant, is happy for Lavin, thought he deserved the shot, but also warned of the ulcers that await in sliding one foot down the bench into the head coach’s hot seat.

“That’s the longest 12 inches of your life,” he said. “It is as wide as the Grand Canyon. Suddenly, you make all the decisions. You are the responsible one. You can delegate, you can micro-manage. You’re not one of the boys anymore.”

Here’s what little we know about the executor of UCLA basketball: Lavin inherited a mess in the Harrick aftermath and, despite an on-court perspiration problem, has been impressive in a very brief, public audition.

Packer has watched UCLA grow since he witnessed an early-season blowout to No. 1 Kansas.

“The main thing he had to create is an attitude,” Packer said. “Not a swagger, but the attitude that we’re going to do the hard work necessary to do what those three seniors [Tyus Edney, Ed O’Bannon and George Zidek] did. That was definitely missing before the practice I attended before Kansas.”

Packer also liked the way Lavin imposed his will on UCLA’s cast of stars in benching moody forward J.R. Henderson for the start of the USC game.

Purdue Coach Gene Keady, one of Lavin’s mentors, was impressed with the way UCLA responded to beat California two days after a 48-point loss to Stanford.

“He adjusted, came back and beat Cal,” Keady said of Lavin, one of his former assistants. “That was a great comeback.”

Lavin calls Keady weekly for advice. The two have talked the rookie coach through his first season as head Bruin.

“He’s been very mature about the whole situation,” Keady said. “I’m so proud of him. I figured he’d get it after what he’s done.”

Weiss thinks last week’s UCLA revenge victory over Stanford put Lavin over the top.

“After the Stanford loss, I thought he had no shot for the job,” said Weiss, who has co-written books with Pitino and John Calipari. “It is not a team without talent. Last time I checked, they had four guys who will be drafted.”

Keady is convinced UCLA did the right thing.

“Oh yeah, he’s got the right stuff,” he said. “Right attitude, work ethic. And he’s going to learn.”

You wonder how the UCLA basketball job became an an apprenticeship program?

Dalis fired Harrick in November, poisoned the recruiting well, asked Lavin to rush into the tumult, and such is the present state of the UCLA union.

At least the one or two recruits still considering UCLA--Baron Davis, this hire was for you--know who will be filling out the lineup card next season.

Coach, here are the keys to the UCLA Caddy.

Don’t mess it up.

“He’s awful young,” Weiss said of Lavin. “He’s a kid. But he’s done all the right things.”


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