Climate Still Seems Foggy in Westwood

Times Staff Writer

For one day, the tables turned at UCLA.

Steve Lavin appeared in control and Dan Guerrero was grasping for answers.

Lavin, the embattled Bruin coach, denied he is considering resigning and acted as if he didn't have a care in the world. He described the hours after the Bruins lost to St. John's on Saturday to drop their record to 4-7 as if he went on a picnic.

"My girlfriend and I ate turkey sandwiches and had some Diet Coke," he said. "We watched NFL football and a little college basketball."

Guerrero, the UCLA athletic director, appeared taken aback Tuesday by the barrage of questions from television, radio and print reporters, many of whom believe he is poised to fire Lavin immediately after the season, if not sooner.

Associates of Lavin have indicated the coach was considering resigning soon if he was able to negotiate his $1.3-million buyout in his favor. Lavin said he told Guerrero in a meeting Monday that he had no intention of doing so and Guerrero said they discussed "who [Lavin's] friends are."

Reports that Lavin might resign "created a dynamic that is interesting," Guerrero said.

The dynamic included something of a role reversal, with the coach gaining sympathy from the usually critical media and the athletic director struggling to explain his leadership.

Can the climate around the team get any worse?

"It's hard to say," Guerrero said. "You are talking about 18- to 20-year-olds under enormous pressure."

Can Lavin be effective when everyone from fans to players believe he is a lame duck?

"I can't tell you what the players think," Guerrero said. "Steve has been a players' coach and kids have rallied behind him. When you make a change in the middle of a season, there is no guarantee the team will be more productive."

While athletic director at UC Irvine, Guerrero allowed basketball Coach Rod Baker to finish a 1-25 season before firing him. But the day-to-day scrutiny at UCLA is much greater than at Irvine.

Is that something Guerrero underestimated?

"It's hard to gauge, not having been here before," he said. "What I've found is that people who support UCLA are passionate, and they articulate it more freely than at Irvine. I see it in the e-mails, letters and catcalls."

Pauley Pavilion has become a house of horrors for Lavin and the team. UCLA is 2-5 at home, not including two exhibition losses, and with each loss the crowd becomes more vocal in its unhappiness.

"I don't know how bad it can get," Guerrero said. "When we were 1-25 [at Irvine], I spent a lot of time with the coach and the players. They never stopped working hard and we made sure everyone stuck it out."

A one-for-all, all-for-one approach has been difficult to sustain at UCLA. A few players were openly critical after the most recent losses, but after a team meeting Monday during which Lavin told them he is staying, they appear rejuvenated.

A couple of victories, of course, would do wonders for everyone. But is it realistic?

Arizona State (11-4) visits UCLA on Thursday, followed by No. 2 Arizona (11-1) on Saturday.

Lavin reminded reporters that he predicted the team would struggle early. However, the season is now almost at the halfway point.

"I was very concerned that with our nonconference schedule we could be 3-6 if we didn't play good basketball," he said. "The combination of not playing well, the players losing confidence and this being a younger team, we are playing at a level that is unacceptable."

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