Imagine that you've been hired as the basketball coach at UCLA. It's a dream job in the college ranks--a program steeped in history and tradition with a home court that is one of the game's hallowed halls. Then there are the fringe benefits--the media spotlight, Hollywood's glitz, a vibrant nightlife, The Show at Staples. You can live placidly by the water, drive to work with the top down as the ocean glimmers in your rearview mirror. The year-round sun alone can keep you optimistic. Recruiting talented players is made easier by all those virtues.
But then you find the riptides. For your young charges, a sense of privilege abounds. The casual coastal vibe permeates the team. The city's fabled virtues are intoxicating, even dangerous, distractions. And one thing becomes alarmingly clear: All the things that make Los Angeles attractive for players can make it miserable for a coach.
Just ask Steve Lavin.
Barring a miracle finish to this catastrophic season, Lavin is now a part of UCLA history. It's not all his fault. Some of it lies with former athletic director Pete Dalis, who in 1996 promoted the then-32-year-old assistant Lavin, who turned out to be not ready for prime-time. And maybe Dalis was too out of touch to recognize the complex situation here, which is exacerbated by a full-court press corps. Unlike UCLA, no other major basketball program--Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky--is located in such a media maelstrom. New York and Chicago only have St. John's and DePaul universities, and their basketball programs have been dormant since Ronald Reagan's first presidential term.
In short, UCLA is the toughest college basketball job in the nation. In fact, Los Angeles is simply the hardest place to coach major college athletics of any kind.
Remember Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard and Jim Harrick? How about John Robinson, Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and Paul Hackett? They are, respectively, the UCLA basketball and USC football coaches who have come and gone since John Wooden left in 1975 and John McKay left one year later. The UCLA football and USC basketball teams have been slightly more stable, in part because they labored in the shadows of more illustrious programs at their schools. But, in recent years, the attention and pressure on all those programs has grown, as has the level of distractions.
Now UCLA is faced with rebuilding a storied basketball program that had been entrusted to a novice. Whoever comes next would be wise to add this guiding light to Wooden's fabled "Pyramid of Success": All that glitters is not gold.
Playing against cross-town rival USC at the Sports Arena in early February, Steve Lavin was his usual exuberant self on the sideline. His team in the throes of an eight-game losing streak, the beleaguered coach jumped up and down from a baseball catcher's crouch like a jack-in-the-box, clapping his hands furiously, encouraging his team to play better defense.
Lavin was in constant motion, as if standing still would somehow immediately end the seven-year thrill ride during which he guided the Bruins into the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16, five of the past six years. But that record meant little in the face of this year's woeful performance and the presence of a new, aggressive athletic director who had already fired football Coach Bob Toledo.
Perhaps Lavin's incessant clapping was an unconscious effort to make up for the lack of enthusiasm from the UCLA fans, only a few hundred of whom had made the trip downtown. The Bruin band and cheerleaders were there, but they had to be.
The USC fans, on the other hand, were out in force, supporting Coach Henry Bibby and his young, energetic Trojans, who were in the process of completing a rare season sweep of the Bruins. The yin to Lavin's yang, Bibby sat calmly for most of the game, rising only occasionally to give instruction. A key member of three NCAA championship teams under Wooden, Bibby was also a winner as a pro, as an integral part of the 1973 NBA champion New York Knicks. Last season was his best at USC, as a trio of star seniors drove the Trojans deep into the NCAA tournament.
Sitting courtside was the Trojans' latest hero, football Coach Pete Carroll. When his face appeared on the scoreboard during a timeout, the USC fans erupted into a long, loud standing ovation, forcing the coach to stand and acknowledge the cheers so that the focus could return to the game. After guiding the previously underachieving Trojans to a resounding victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl and a #3 national ranking, Carroll was reaping the rewards. Only days earlier he had put the finishing touches on a recruiting class deemed by most analysts to be the best in the nation.
On this night, Lavin, Bibby and Carroll represented divergent points in the L.A. college coaching continuum. But they've all faced the same challenges, and each might have useful advice for new UCLA football Coach Karl Dorrell, given the job by the school's athletic director, Dan Guerrero, in mid-December with little time to assemble both his coaching staff and a recruiting class. Dorrell might as well get used to the pressure, and he should consider renting instead of buying.
"It's harder for a coach here than anywhere," maintains uber-agent Leigh Steinberg, a Southern California native who has represented, among others, former UCLA and Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman. "With the entertainment industry and the nightlife, there's an incredible distraction for the kids, so the burden is on the coach to demand focus."
Take the innocent answer given by UCLA freshman center Michael Fey, when asked at a recent practice to name a few of the major differences between Los Angeles and his small town in Washington. "Here you see a lot of celebrities all around. When you're in the game, you're focused, but like on a timeout, if you're just looking around and you see someone you know in the crowd, it's like, whoa!"
Harrick, who was fired from the UCLA job over expense report technicalities just a year after winning the 1995 national title, put it this way: "It's a movie town first, then a pro town, and there's something to that thing about being around celebrities, being hip."
Not only are the players aware of the presence of the entertainment industry, many have embraced it. Local athletes turned actors are everywhere. Michael Warren, Nigel Miguel and Mark Harmon are but a few of the former Bruins who made the move to Hollywood, helped in no small part by the connections they made playing here. So too, of course, did the ultimate celebrity jock, former Trojan O.J. Simpson.
Former UCLA and NBA star Marques Johnson, who had a prominent role in the movie "White Men Can't Jump" and is now a color commentator for Fox Sports Net, knows both sides of the entertainment equation. "A lot of the ambience of L.A., being around all the beautiful people, makes these kids want to be celebrities. They want to entertain, and the oohs and aahs from the crowd become more important than winning games."
Still, Johnson has watched two sons don the blue-and-gold. Kris played from 1995-98, and Josiah is a sophomore on the current roster. "Kris was into the social life of L.A. and has a little bit of a wild streak," says his father, "and in my heart of hearts I would have liked him to go to more of an outpost, like Pullman, Wash., or Salt Lake City, where it would have been just school, studying and basketball. He had visits scheduled with coaches from both places, but he asked me to cancel them because UCLA was where he wanted to go. Josiah is a much more self-contained, mature kid who doesn't seek the glamour at all, so I didn't have those same concerns with him."
As the UCLA media guide states proudly, its basketball program is covered by seven television stations and 12 newspapers; Fox Sports Net is just three miles from campus; and USA Today, CNN and ESPN all have bureaus in the city. In a small college town, if you have a big game, you may be invited onto the coach's show, usually a low-budget affair. If you're big news here, you go on the postgame show following "Monday Night Football," complete with a raucous live crowd and often joined by the Laker or Clipper cheerleaders and showbiz celebrities.
National talk show host Jim Rome also is based here, and there are three sports talk radio stations in the market, all competing for stories on a daily basis, digging up whatever dirt they can find. As Lavin, who has been on the hot seat since his first day on the job, observed: "L.A. and New York are the entertainment capitals of the country, where trends and news begin, and I think that just magnifies everything that goes on in relation to major college athletics in this town. Every little thing can become a huge story very quickly with all the media we have covering us on a daily basis, the speed and power of the Internet, and the competition that exists within that group."
Gone like the simple bounce pass are the days when Wooden could severely limit the media availability to a college superstar such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor. As Bibby notes: "Everything you do is in the media. You know you're going to get national exposure in the paper when you come here, and the kids come here specifically for that."
Today's players may know going in that their every move will be scrutinized, but that still doesn't make it easy to handle. Ryan Hollins is a doe-eyed freshman center at UCLA who had a standout game against Georgetown that was aired on CBS. As he came out of the locker room for his first practice after that effort, Hollins was swarmed by seven reporters, a radio interviewer and a television crew. The 18-year-old handled the barrage of questions as best he could, but, when done, he had the look of a boxer in need of a standing eight-count--not exactly the best way to start practice.
The media swarm isn't the only factor that adds an Advil a day to the diet of a big-time college coach in L.A., a city where everybody knows somebody who can find the right guy to make players' pro dreams come true. As agent Steinberg points out: "There are more agents here than anywhere else in the world. Southern California has the largest talent base for football and basketball. The influence for inducements and signings is higher here than anywhere."
An agent or advisor has no stake in the success of the college team, wanting only for the player to achieve individual glory. That places another burden on coaches trying to get players to put the team first. Bibby, an ultra-tough disciplinarian, knows that all too well. "They come here to be stars," he laments, looking drained in the Sports Arena after a recent loss. "I've been here eight years and I don't think I've had one kid ask me, 'How can I get to the next level?' "
Thomas Tutko, a retired professor who taught a class in sports psychology at San Jose State University, also believes there are larger issues pressing on coaches here. "The concept of teamwork in L.A. has slowly dissipated over time to where it's all about the individual. It's 'Who's starring today? Who's in the number one role?' And it's very hard to get that kind of thinking away from the young kids, because since they were little they've been told by their parents, their coaches and then the student body that they are special."
Along those same lines, stars in high school come here looking to get their name in lights, often at the expense of the team. "Any time you get a group of high-profile high-school kids who have been pampered and coddled all their lives, you're going to have a struggle with them to buy into the team concept," says Marques Johnson, standing on the Pauley Pavilion court floor where he helped Wooden win his final NCAA title in 1975. "If you're not successful, the pursuit of individual glory will eat away at the core of the team. I watch this UCLA team practice and they pass the ball, but when you put 10,000 people in the seats and turn on the lights, it becomes every man for himself, and a whole lot of different agendas come out."
With the agents and advisors whispering too, and injecting inflated dollar signs into the mix, local coaches face another challenge. "Here in L.A., more than anywhere else, the contemporary coach faces the battle and tug of early entry into the pros in basketball and football in a way that John McKay and Wooden never had to contend with," Steinberg says.
No local coach has dealt with more of that particular distraction than Lavin, who saw stars such as Baron Davis, Jerome Moiso and Jelani McCoy leave UCLA early for the NBA. "The thing about L.A. is that it's a place where people are fascinated with celebrity and stardom," Lavin says. "The kids at UCLA experience that every day in some form, and there are personal shooting coaches, strength coaches, motivational specialists, [prospective] agents, summer coaches and various advisors, not all with the kids' best interests at heart, with pretty easy access to these kids. That can't help but be somewhat distracting to a 19-year-old."
And let's not forget the obvious non-sports-related distractions. Last time we checked, there is no Sunset Strip in State College, Pa. UCLA junior guard Jon Crispin, who began his college career there at Penn State, is still shocked at the differences in atmosphere and attitude between L.A. and his former burg. "In a small town everything revolves around that college. There's a lot to do, but mostly it's just local hangout spots, not clubs or bars like out here. There you go bowling, that's just what you do."
This sentiment is echoed by L.A. Clipper star forward Elton Brand, who played college basketball at Duke, in Durham, N.C. "Ain't much to do on Tobacco Road at night," says Brand, sitting in the plush Clipper locker room after a recent game. "Maybe you can get some chicken wings before 11, but that's about it. Here in L.A., with all the clubs and things to do, now that's a whole different story."
R. Jay Soward and Freddie Mitchell, star wide receivers for USC and UCLA, respectively, in the '90s, had issues related to off-the-field distractions. They were accomplished athletes, but both were often spotted at clubs making the most of their celebrity and soaking up the abundant nightlife. Not surprisingly, all three of the men who recruited and coached them--John Robinson, Paul Hackett and Bob Toledo--are no longer employed here, and the inability to keep their stars in line is a large part of the reason. Toledo also had a string of star players charged with DUIs, drug possession, assault, even falsifying handicapped parking permits.
That's the atmosphere that Casey Jacobson, the greatest scorer in the history of Los Angeles high school basketball, decided to escape. The Glendora native attended Stanford University and says he was glad he made the move north. "That's a little bubble up there, and it's really easy to focus. The girls really aren't that hot, and there's not too many distractions," says the Phoenix Suns rookie. "It's more business up there. L.A. is a happening place and might be too much for a young kid with parties every night, all the women and all the clubs."
Go to any USC basketball practice and you will likely witness Henry Bibby ejecting a player. If the misstep is severe enough, he'll make it a suspension. He has no patience for anything less than total focus. In a culture where "nice guys finish last," Bibby has made it clear to his team that he wants to finish first.
To be a success in the home of the plastic smile, a coach needs to be hard-nosed. And it doesn't hurt to have a professional reputation to back it up. Being tough, strict and in total charge is a strategy that a coach needs not only to win, but also to keep his job. Being a great guy and making friends with your players hasn't been a recipe for longevity. Ask Bob Toledo.
You don't see Bibby clapping for his players. His stern demeanor permeates each game, each practice, each team meeting. He comes to his ways, he says, following in the footsteps of his college mentor, whose strict style brought more championships to this town than anyone in history. "I learned discipline from Coach Wooden," Bibby says. "He taught me the tough side of basketball and coaching."
Discipline and a willingness to dole out punishment are doubly important in football, where the sheer number of players necessitates intense control.
USC's Carroll coached both the New York Jets and New England Patriots before coming to USC in 2001. He is a boyishly handsome, outgoing man who appears to be not too demanding and someone who would be fun to play for. Looks can be deceiving. "What contributes to our success is strong leadership and the players' sense that there is a plan for them," he says firmly. "Players here need this more than they used to. I have a very strict, disciplined style of football, but my players don't look at it as oppressive. I think my professional experience has been an enhancement. It made it easier for our players to be willing to accept what we do. A lot of the media think I'm easygoing because of my style with them, but I'm extremely demanding. I'm tough with my players so they execute under pressure."
College basketball guru Dick Vitale emphasizes that any coach in Los Angeles should possess a proven resume and a brass-tacks approach: "You need a big-name, super-successful guy, a strong, strong guy that can look kids in the eye and they know he's the man."
That certainly does not describe 39-year-old Karl Dorrell, who has never been a head coach at any level. In his first season at UCLA, Dorrell will get a brief pass from local fans, the media and the alumni, who count him as one of their own. The emphasis, however, is on brief. Take, for example, Carroll: If USC were to have a four-game losing streak next year, he'll drop from the penthouse to the outhouse in a hot second. In Los Angeles, there is simply not the reservoir of goodwill among fans that you find in smaller places, where the college team is the only game in town. This is one of the few major cities where high-profile, tradition-rich college programs have to compete directly with the pros.
"L.A. is Tinseltown, and the competition that goes on there for the entertainment dollar doesn't exist anywhere else," says Vitale. "The college programs here are battling for notoriety and publicity and are treated more like a pro team, and that puts pressure on to have a super-successful program and leaves no room for having a bad year."
Sitting down for breakfast at one of his local spots near Marina del Rey, Steve Lavin is awfully relaxed for a man who knows his days here are numbered. He chats amiably with a group of boosters, taking the blame for much of what has gone wrong and nodding appreciatively when complimented on how hard his team has been playing despite all the losses. When his cell phone rings, he checks the number carefully, mindful of the death threats he has received over the years. One in particular forced him to change his number and brought about the presence of a UCLA police officer on the team's recent trip to Washington, D.C. "The threats never bothered me," he notes, "until they targeted my father. At that time we still had open practices, and I didn't want to change that, but after the threats we felt we had no choice."
Lavin takes his tenuous standing in stride as well, knowing that's the way it is in L.A. "My job status has been in question since the day I started, but that comes with the territory, with being the head coach at UCLA, and I knew that going in. Frankly, after seeing how it was in my five years with Coach Harrick, I expected it. Revenue and results are what count at the end of the day, and the results this year obviously have been far below what anybody could have expected. And I understand that in this town, with this job, that means I'm gone."
Lavin is the seventh man to follow the legendary Wooden as the UCLA men's basketball coach, and, amazingly, his tenure ranks him second in longevity to Harrick among that group. Only Harrick was able to win an NCAA championship, a far cry from the 10 NCAA titles won by Wooden between 1964 and 1975, not to mention the record 88-game winning streak and four undefeated seasons to which he led the Bruins before retiring in 1975. The 10 titles in 12 years is a record that will likely never be matched, but it is instructive to note that it took Wooden 16 years to win his first national championship.
Because so much is at stake now--TV revenue, alumni support--the patience afforded Wooden is no longer granted to today's coaches. Is it any wonder that with the bar set so impossibly high, and with so many other minefields unique to Los Angeles, Lavin makes this observation with a bemused smile: "No matter what they pay the guy that succeeds me, he's going to earn it, believe me."
The short-timer, resigned to his fate, digs into breakfast. Outside, the Southern California sun casts its beguiling glow. Sailboats slip in and out of the marina. The water beckons.
Who's got next?