He'll Take Fall for Bruin Decline

Times Staff Writer

Gently, tidily and predictably, an athletic director attempting to return UCLA to its place among NCAA royalty will lift the bejeweled crown that plopped onto Steve Lavin's head seven years ago.

Dan Guerrero is expected to fire Lavin as Bruin basketball coach today in a morning meeting, three days after the Bruins ended their first losing season in 55 years with a loss to Oregon in a Pacific 10 Conference tournament semifinal.

There is none of the suspense or dismay that surrounded Guerrero's December decision to fire football Coach Bob Toledo.

Rather, there will be relief, from Bruin followers frustrated by the gradual deterioration of the program and from players who quietly questioned Lavin's methods even as they appreciated his loyalty.

Lavin feels liberated too. He will emerge from the pressure cooker of leading one of the nation's highest profile programs relatively unscathed, his humor intact, his tan even, his future as bright as any other 38-year-old with good looks, excellent health and a large bankroll.

"There are no major regrets," he said. "You realize you aren't being treated any different than any other UCLA coach who followed John Wooden. My parents say it's all part of the passing parade of life in the coaching profession. There are no sour grapes. It is what it is."

He becomes the seventh coaching casualty since Wooden, who set a standard of excellence with 10 national titles in the last 12 years of a 27-year reign that ended in 1975.

Lavin is the third coach in a row to be fired, following Jim Harrick in 1996 and Walt Hazzard in 1988. The first four who followed Wooden resigned, three burning out and one -- Larry Brown -- pursuing more lucrative pastures.

None left with the financial cushion of Lavin, who will receive a buyout of $1.19 million spread over five years. However, any money he makes during that time is subtracted from the package, which includes one year at his full salary of $578,000 and four years at $153,000.

Chances are he won't see a large portion of the money because he is employable. Lavin plans to sell his home in Marina del Rey, relocate to the San Francisco area and avoid rushing into anything.

Potential coaching openings at Penn State, Nevada Las Vegas or San Francisco intrigue him, but he likely will do guest work as a television commentator for a year.

The direction he takes could be revealing of Lavin's true nature. Is he the homebody and gym rat who talks to his mother and father nearly every day, or the impeccably groomed smooth talker so at ease in front of a television camera?

He insists he would be content coaching a mid-major program away from the limelight.

"For 30 years or longer, my routine has been the same," he said. "At 3 p.m., it's time for practice. As a player and coach, that's all I know. I want to continue coaching. I want to improve as a coach and I like the kids. I like to teach."

Lavin points to established coaches such as Wooden, Pete Newell and Gene Keady as his mentors, saying their lessons are to remain on an even keel and focus on incremental improvement.

Yet his teams rarely exemplified those qualities, experiencing enough dramatic highs and devastating lows to disorient the most avid roller-coaster rider.

For each of his five Sweet 16 appearances, there was an embarrassing early season loss to an unheralded team grateful just to take the floor at legendary Pauley Pavilion.

His last two games typified his tenure. There was the unfathomable upset of Arizona in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, the fourth season in a row the Bruins knocked off the nation's No. 1 team. Then came a one-point loss to Oregon after UCLA blew a 12-point lead in the last four minutes.

He finished 145-78, never had fewer than 21 victories until this season, and his NCAA tournament record would be the envy of most other coaches. Lavin's players caused little trouble off the court and he apparently ran a clean program -- UCLA did not have serious run-ins with the NCAA.

Of 29 players he coached before this season, 15 graduated, nine others are playing professionally and three transferred. This year's seniors, Jason Kapono and Ray Young, are expected to graduate.

Most of Lavin's former players profess affection for him, although Baron Davis, the best player he coached, is a notable exception.

"We're closer now than when I was there," said Earl Watson, a Bruin guard from 1997-2001 now in the NBA. "It just shows that he just didn't use my four years and just forget about me and move on. It shows he's genuine."

But among the last nine UCLA coaches, only Hazzard had a worse winning percentage than Lavin's 65.0%. And that's the bottom line.

"It's a revenue-driven occupation, especially at UCLA," Lavin said. "You coach each game knowing that if you lose you create a firestorm."

The blaze began the day he took the job as an interim coach, and it never really abated.

Lavin was barely 32 and still owed $70,000 in student loans and credit card debt when he fell into the job after Harrick was fired a week before the 1996-97 season for lying about an expense report.

Assistants Mark Gottfried and Lorenzo Romar had left UCLA only a year earlier and Athletic Director Peter Dalis had no one to turn to so close to the season. The day Lavin was hired, Gottfried, then the coach at Murray State, said, "He's a pup being fed to the wolves."

Lavin knew as much but what could he do but plaster motivational sayings from Wooden and Newell on the walls and get to work?

"I never planned on coaching at UCLA," he said. "But I couldn't say no. You can't script life, go back and rewind it."

Dalis, whose relationship with the coach worsened over time, probably would like to rewind to Feb. 11, 1997, the day he removed the interim label from Lavin's title. The team went on to win the conference and advance to the Elite Eight, achievements Lavin never replicated.

Rumblings of player discontent started in Lavin's second season and he kicked senior Toby Bailey out of a practice, but a victory over No. 12 Michigan without center Jelani McCoy got the Bruins to the Sweet 16 and quieted critics.

In his third season, the roster had 12 freshmen and sophomores. Lavin allowed players to wear black uniforms for a short time, drawing tongue-clucking from Wooden.

A first-round NCAA tournament loss to Detroit Mercy heightened speculation that a coaching change was imminent.

But Lavin was back for the 1999-2000 season, and the Bruins struggled, beginning Pac-10 play 4-8. Forward JaRon Rush was suspended by the NCAA for taking money from an AAU coach before he enrolled at UCLA.

Again a crisis. Again a response. UCLA got Rush back amid an eight-game winning streak and defeated Stanford at Maples Pavilion en route to another trip to the Sweet 16.

The next season was the most chaotic. Dalis told reporters he had contacted Rick Pitino about replacing Lavin, who responded by offering his resignation. Lavin also received vicious hate mail from a 19-year-old fan, who eventually was convicted of making terrorist threats.

UCLA had another up-and-down season, defeating unranked Hofstra and Utah State to get to the Sweet 16 before a what-do-you-expect loss to No. 1 Duke.

Last season, a veteran lineup led by seniors Dan Gadzuric, Matt Barnes and Billy Knight and junior Kapono defeated No. 1 Kansas but sputtered down the stretch, finishing sixth in the Pac-10.

A triple-overtime victory against Cincinnati propelled the Bruins into the Sweet 16, masking brewing problems.

Uneven recruiting, a rift between Lavin and his top assistant, Jim Saia, and new questions about Lavin's job status derailed this season before it started. When the team lost two exhibitions and the opener to San Diego, it became clear the situation was grave.

Toledo, the football coach, was fired Dec. 9, and most observers considered Lavin a lame duck from that day forward. Two of his friends said he mentioned resigning after a home loss to St. John's dropped the Bruins to 4-7, but he denied the reports and told the team he wouldn't quit.

A two-game losing streak grew to nine and he began speaking openly about getting fired, even listing potential successors.

He seemed to detach himself emotionally and float through the latter stages of the season in a state of bemusement.

"It's fascinating how a caricature of you emerges," he said. "People really think they know who you are, and they don't have any clue."

Now, though, Lavin must discover who he is during life after UCLA.

"I look around my office at the letters I got from John Wooden, at the awards and memorabilia, and I'm tremendously appreciative of the opportunity," he said. "But there was a lack of a normal life.

"I've had death threats, I've been extorted, there was the Pitino episode, it's been constant damage control. I look forward to normalcy."

Lavin's father, Cap, has had multiple heart attacks, the first at 45 in 1976.

For years he has urged his son to take care of his health in the face of such a pressure-filled job.

A year ago, Lavin took the message to heart and began a rigorous exercise regimen. He has lost 30 pounds in 10 months. There are no dark circles under his eyes and he sweats away any pangs of regret.

Somebody else can have the crown, and for now he'll appreciate the lighter load.

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