Race for Key to Lavin's Office Appears Wide Open

Handicapping potential successors for Steve Lavin has been a recreational sport for months. Even Lavin got into the spirit at one point, rattling off a list of contenders for a job he still holds. A thumbnail glance -- in alphabetical order -- of the leading candidates:

His top credential is that UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero hired him once before, picking Douglass as UC Irvine's coach in 1997 when Guerrero was AD at Irvine. Douglass, 53, won three Division II national championships at Cal State Bakersfield, but until he gets the Anteaters to the NCAA tournament -- they lost Friday in the semifinals of the Big West tournament and have no hope of an at-large bid -- he would be difficult to sell to Bruin fans.

*--* PAT DOUGLASS

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Another outside candidate in the mold of UC system coaches who have won a Division II title is UC Santa Barbara's Bob Williams, who won a national championship at UC Davis and guided Santa Barbara to the NCAA tournament last year.

*--* MARK FEW

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Gonzaga slipped just a bit this season but probably still is headed for the NCAA tournament, and you can't argue with Few's record. Last season he led the tiny Jesuit school to a No. 6 national ranking, and in four years, he has a record of 104-28, with two NCAA Sweet 16s in his first three seasons.

Few, 40, turned down a chance to become the Washington coach last season even though it represented a sizeable raise, saying it wouldn't put him any closer to making a Final Four than he was at Gonzaga. An office in Westwood certainly would, and the guess is Few could give up his cherished fly-fishing outings for that. His coaching skill and talent-evaluation ability are unquestioned, but how he would make the transition to recruiting at UCLA's level and the megawatt glare could only be answered in time.

*--* BEN HOWLAND

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Howland was national coach of the year at Pittsburgh last season and has the Panthers in the top 10 this season. What's more, Guerrero liked him when he interviewed him for the Irvine job in 1997, when Howland was coach at Northern Arizona. (The Lumberjacks are another team Howland took to the NCAA tournament.)

At 45, Howland has a combination of success, strategic acumen, youthful appeal and comparative affordability that makes him the odds-on favorite. Plus, he has strong Southern California ties from his years as the top assistant at UC Santa Barbara, and his parents still live in Santa Barbara. Never mind that his daughter, Meredith, is a Pitt cheerleader. She could transfer.

*--* ERNIE KENT

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It isn't only that UCLA should consider a minority candidate, it's that Kent, 48, took Oregon to the Elite Eight last season, to the Pac-10 tournament title this season and has one of the sharpest basketball minds around. He understands the Pacific 10 Conference so well that he built the Ducks' 2002 championship team by modeling his recruiting on the combinations that have brought Arizona and Stanford such success -- big, versatile forwards, good three-point-shooting guards and lots of beef inside.

Though not among the first names on the tongues of Bruin fans, he ranks among the smart, savvy and successful coaches around the country -- Marquette's Tom Crean, while not a minority, is another -- who would be intelligent choices if Guerrero's first picks don't work.

*--* LON KRUGER

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The former Atlanta Hawk coach is well-proven. He took Florida to the Final Four in 1994, guided Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988 and deserves much credit for Illinois' reaching the Elite Eight in 2001, the year after he left the school.

What's more, he's available now -- no waiting for the NCAA tournament to play out to talk to him -- and he is on the Hawks' payroll for two more seasons after his firing in December, making him a potential bargain for UCLA.

Bonus points: If Kruger, 50, left his home in Atlanta for the Pac-10, he could see his son, Kevin Kruger, play for Arizona State, where he redshirted as a freshman this season. Potential fly in the ointment: Kruger is an obvious choice for Georgia if Jim Harrick's suspension becomes a termination.

*--* RICK MAJERUS

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On pure basketball strategy and recruiting acumen, it would be hard to beat Majerus, who has never made it any secret he has great admiration for UCLA and loves Southern California. (Among the local players he has spirited away after visits here were Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn.)

Majerus, 55, has a record that speaks for itself: He took the Utes to the Elite Eight in 1997 and then to the Final Four in 1998, where they upset North Carolina in the semifinals before losing to Kentucky in the title game.

Harder to read is the question of style: Majerus dances to the beat of his own drum, living in a Salt Lake City hotel and arranging team travel as he wishes. Whether he would be a candidate for Guerrero's weekly "how-you're-doing" meetings isn't so clear.

*--* RICK PITINO

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His record is unassailable, an astounding 26-7 in NCAA tournament games, with four trips to the Final Four -- three at Kentucky and one at Providence -- along with the 1996 national championship at Kentucky. The job Pitino has done in two seasons at Louisville gives an inkling of what he could do at UCLA, which after all, is a bit of a rebuilding job now too.

Pete Dalis had this idea first, of course, igniting a firestorm when he contacted Pitino about any possible interest in UCLA in 2001 behind Lavin's back. That the conversation became public embarrassed Pitino, who admitted in a recent interview with The Times he would indeed have been interested if the job had been open: "I would have sprinted to be the UCLA coach. No question about it," he said.

Pitino, 50, says that's water under the bridge, and if he is to believed, he will retire at Louisville.

"I'm never leaving Louisville," Pitino said. "This is my last coaching job."

*--* ROY WILLIAMS

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He would be the perfect choice, but he didn't leave Kansas for North Carolina in 2000, breaking hearts in his home state and disappointing his mentor, Dean Smith. So it remains very difficult to see why Williams, 52, would leave Lawrence for UCLA now. One thing has changed, however: Bob Frederick is no longer the athletic director, and Williams recently termed his relationship with current AD Al Bohl "professional," which was widely interpreted to mean strained.

Williams has denied the UCLA rumors, but Guerrero might as well ask. (Same goes for Stanford's Mike Montgomery, who sometimes grows weary of academic constraints that exceed those at Duke. What's the harm in asking?)

As for Williams, some say leaving Kansas could make sense because he is still hungering for his first national championship after three Final Fours and zero titles. Conventional wisdom says he might win one sooner at Carolina or UCLA.

Just one thought: Don't the Bruins remember being left at the altar by a Kansas coach once before?

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