Job a Plum, Pressure Is the Pits


There is a coaches’ creed, and it’s as it should be: As long as somebody still has his job, you back your brethren, even if you’re already taking mental measurements of his office.

Steve Lavin has genuine friends in the coaching business, as well as genuine detractors. Some never got over their resentment of an inexperienced coach landing one of the game’s most hallowed jobs; some simply don’t respect his tactical abilities.

But as Lavin hangs by a thread with Dan Guerrero’s scissors at the ready, one thing is clear.


The UCLA job still has its aura even though the Bruins have reached the Final Four only once in the last 22 years, when Jim Harrick’s team won the 1995 title.

Despite the derision heaped on Lavin even though he has reached the Sweet 16 five times, despite expectations that might be as outdated as the salary, and despite a Pauley Pavilion that seems more full of enmity than fans, the allure is still there.

“UCLA is still one of the top five spotlight jobs,” said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who would not be a candidate to replace Lavin.

Pressure? Of course.

“There’s always somebody who thinks they can handle it,” said Purdue Coach Gene Keady, who considers Lavin, his former graduate assistant, “like my son.”

“I think he’s fighting alligators,” Keady said. “You can’t ever copy what John Wooden did. Steve’s handled it about as well as anybody. It’s just an impossible job.”

Impossible, yet coveted.

That wouldn’t make it as easy for Guerrero as plucking his choice from among coaches who have been to the Final Four.


The risk he faces is a scenario like the one that played out in 1988, when Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and Larry Brown ultimately turned down the job and UCLA settled for Harrick, then the Pepperdine coach.

Everyone wants to be courted for the UCLA job. Not everyone would take it.

“I hope Steve turns it around and doesn’t leave,” Calhoun said.

But if this is Lavin’s final season ...

“Pauley Pavilion, UCLA, there’s a lot of incredibly attractive things about that,” Calhoun said. “But I think people have become smarter and understand you can win elsewhere. All you have to do is look at where the national championships have come out of -- Maryland, Duke, us, Michigan State. They aren’t necessarily the Kentuckys and the UCLAs.

“Guys are much more careful. Most people still have to be paid very well to take that quantum leap, if you’re going to potentially shorten your career. So I think maybe UCLA needs to recognize that. Let’s put it this way, finances should not be a consideration for them hiring a coach. If they are, it’s foolish.”

Lavin’s $578,000 salary is a mint for a former restricted earnings assistant coach. Paying less than $1 million to the next coach could restrict UCLA’s ability to complete a deal.

Some people see a former NBA coach such as Tim Floyd or Lon Kruger as a way around the financial issue: They’ve already made their money and they’re available, should Lavin decide to resign before the season ends -- something he now says he isn’t considering.

But consider Floyd: His NCAA tournament record at New Orleans and Iowa State was a combined 4-5, and his best Iowa State team reached the Sweet 16 in 1997 -- before losing to Lavin’s Bruins in overtime.


Kruger would seem a better choice: He had success at three schools, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, reaching the Final Four with Florida in 1994 and laying the groundwork for the top-10 team Bill Self has at Illinois now.

Minimum requirements? It would be nice if having reached a Final Four could be one.

That could lead to someone such as Kelvin Sampson, who knows the Pacific 10 Conference from his days at Washington State and took Oklahoma to the Final Four last year. But Sampson might have his sights on someday replacing Lute Olson at Arizona, where former Washington State athletic director Jim Livengood is AD.

People will mention Rick Majerus, who took Utah to the national championship game against Kentucky in 1998 and recruits heavily in the Los Angeles area. Two players he exported to Salt Lake City? Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller.

Though Majerus has turned down jobs at Nevada Las Vegas and San Diego State in the past, UCLA is another realm. He might also be an exception to the cadre of dollar-driven coaches: A basketball junkie who has lived in a Salt Lake City hotel for years wouldn’t necessarily need a house in Bel-Air.

“I really think Lavin can make it,” Majerus said. “He should not resign, he should just fight it through.

“I think it’s a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s a great job, but you have to be careful what you wish for because if you go in there you have to do very well.


“I still hope [Lavin] will make it.”

Gonzaga’s Mark Few would get a big raise if he were to end up at UCLA, but he doesn’t make decisions based entirely on money either. If he did, he would have taken the Washington job last year, which might have doubled his salary.

Washington wouldn’t have doubled his chances of reaching the Final Four, however. Few has been convinced it’s possible to reach that level with Gonzaga after two Sweet 16 appearances and a top-10 ranking in his first three seasons, and Washington would have been a step back. The allure of the legitimate chance to win a national championship at UCLA could be plenty to loosen his family ties to the Northwest and Gonzaga.

Another consideration is Guerrero’s history: One of the people he interviewed at UC Irvine before hiring Pat Douglass was Ben Howland, then at Northern Arizona.

Guerrero hired Douglass, who had won three Division II national championships at Cal State Bakersfield and has done well at Irvine but would be a hard sell to UCLA fans who would want a bigger name.

But even though he didn’t pick him the first time, Guerrero has hardly forgotten Howland.

Howland went to Pittsburgh and became the national coach of the year last season and has the once-downtrodden Panthers ranked No. 3 in the nation this season. A former Cerritos High player and UC Santa Barbara assistant, he still has strong ties to Southern California.

“Steve is a friend of mine, and the toughest thing in this whole business I’ve seen happen is when people speculate about people’s jobs and whether they’re getting fired,” Howland said.


The UCLA family tree includes Henry Bibby, of course. But USC’s victory over the Bruins at Pauley was followed by a blowout loss to Penn that would have been considered a disaster at UCLA. (Nor has Guerrero likely forgotten how Bibby’s team pressed throughout the second half of a 107-45 victory over a 1-25 Irvine team in 1996.)

Opinions on Bibby’s disciplinary methods and how controversial they would be at UCLA differ, but this much is indisputable: Bibby’s record against Lavin is 3-10.

Brad Holland at San Diego is another former Bruin player. But his most notable achievement probably was beating UCLA at Pauley this season, and Cal State Fullerton was placed on NCAA probation for violations that occurred under his watch.

However tenuously, the job still belongs to Lavin.

Everyone talks about replacing Wooden, but it has been almost 28 years since he retired in 1975.

“He certainly cast a long shadow,” said Pepperdine Coach Paul Westphal, whose name will be mentioned partly because of the bizarre symmetry if the former USC star ever became UCLA coach with Bibby, the ex-Bruin, the coach at USC.

“Having grown up in Los Angeles and seen where [Wooden] took UCLA, it’s hard for UCLA people to accept anything less,” Westphal said. “It was amazing, even the one game they lost in the [1974 Final Four], he took heat.”


Maybe it’s time the next UCLA coach, whenever he is hired, only has to replace Lavin, not Wooden.

For all his failings -- Lavin has finished higher than third in the Pac-10 only once and is at risk this season of finishing with a losing record or failing to make the NCAA tournament -- replacing him is not so easily done.

No offense to Karl Dorrell, but for Guerrero to hire a basketball coach who had never been a head coach would not be enough.

And think of some of the well-regarded rising coaches.

Alabama’s Mark Gottfried? The former Bruin assistant has a top 10 team, but he might be too closely tied to Harrick. Perhaps more important, he already is coaching at his alma mater, the lifestyle suits his family, and Alabama is earnest about not losing him after losing football coach Dennis Franchione to Texas A&M.;

Missouri’s Quin Snyder? He’s two years younger than Lavin and has won 67 fewer games.

Snyder’s NCAA tournament record is 4-3.

Lavin’s is 11-6, though that includes a Sweet 16 loss to Snyder’s 12th-seeded team last season.

In six-plus seasons, Lavin has won 139 games, far more than any of Wooden’s successors except Harrick, who won 192 in eight seasons.


Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard -- none lasted more than four seasons.

“It’s tough, because people start talking about a coach in the past tense,” Westphal said. “It seems like it’s not right. I remember when Del Harris was still coaching the Lakers, there was a story about Phil Jackson and how the triangle offense would work with Shaq. That’s not the right thing to do.

“This guy has been a punching bag, and he keeps coming back with a smile on his face, and he keeps pulling the rabbit out of the hat. It would be easy to retreat into anger and bitterness, but he hasn’t.”