Seeking End to Westwood Woe

Times Staff Writer

The news conference lasted 13 minutes, and about 12 were spent discussing the future of UCLA basketball.

There wasn't much for Dan Guerrero to say about the past except to make official Monday what was assumed for several months, that Steve Lavin is fired as coach after seven seasons.

Although Lavin had a record of 145-78 and took the Bruins to five Sweet 16 appearances, he didn't put up a fuss.

"We met for breakfast and went through the exercise officially," Guerrero said. "He talked about fresh starts for both of us, the nature of the business and why I had to make this decision."

The obvious reason was the decline this season. There was the 10-19 record, UCLA's worst in 61 years. A sixth-place finish in the Pacific 10 Conference for the second year in a row. A record 10 losses at Pauley Pavilion. The lowest home attendance in 10 years.

"I'm disappointed we didn't finish with an exclamation point in terms of winning this season," Lavin said by telephone. "I'm grateful I had the opportunity to grow in the coaching profession at UCLA. It's an incredible place."

A new coach, Guerrero believes, is necessary to restore glory to a program that has won 11 national championships but hasn't been to the Final Four since 1995.

"We'd like to see the UCLA basketball program rise to level of the nation's elite," he said. "We'd like to hire a coach to get us to that point. We want a program that offers a level of consistency, gives us an opportunity to get to the Final Four and competes for a national championship.

"I want fundamentals, discipline and defense. I don't even like us to lose a jump ball."

If the coaching job can be characterized as a jump ball, the possession arrow seems to point to Ben Howland of Pittsburgh. He is widely considered the front-runner -- even by other coaches who want the position.

Guerrero said the search will begin today and could last until after the NCAA championship game April 7 because several coaches expected to be under consideration -- Howland included -- have teams in the tournament.

Guerrero, however, said there is no favorite and he has not contacted any candidates, even through intermediaries. Glenn Toth, an associate athletic director responsible for negotiating UCLA's multimillion-dollar contract with Adidas, will assist in the search, although Guerrero said sportswear affiliation will not play a role in who he hires.

The qualifications, Guerrero said, "start with integrity. We want someone who has experience, that can build and develop a program, that can compete at a high level nationally, that understands the constraints from an academic standpoint.

"And we want someone who can recruit student-athletes who can succeed on court and in the classroom."

Guerrero held a brief meeting with Bruin players Monday. They did not tell him who they wanted to see hired, but several said afterward they prefer a coach with an NBA background.

"The guys coming back definitely want NBA experience," said guard Ray Young, a senior. "Nobody in particular, just an NBA coach who knows what it takes to get there. That's what most guys who come to UCLA think about -- getting to the next level."

Lon Kruger, successful in several college jobs before lasting less than three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and being fired last fall, is the only former NBA coach thought to be a leading candidate. He is in the third year of a guaranteed five-year, $12-million deal, so money wouldn't be paramount. Also, he's free to interview immediately.

Other NBA coaches whose names have surfaced are less likely. Former UCLA coach Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pat Riley of the Miami Heat and former New York Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy are probably happy to see their names associated with the search, but they don't seem like the right fit to sources at UCLA.

The focus is more likely to be on Howland, Mark Few of Gonzaga and Rick Majerus of Utah. Tom Crean of Marquette, Dana Altman of Creighton and Ernie Kent of Oregon also match the criteria established by Guerrero.

The big fish are Rick Pitino of Louisville and Roy Williams of Kansas, but sources said neither is expected to accept UCLA's anticipated offer of $800,000 to $1 million a year.

Guerrero will consult 92-year-old John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA titles in a 27-year career that ended in 1975. In the past, Wooden has expressed admiration for Williams.

Down a rung on the ladder are Southland prospects such as Brad Holland of San Diego, a former UCLA player, and Pat Douglass of UC Irvine, who worked under Guerrero.

None of the coaches whose teams are in the NCAA tournament are willing to acknowledge interest. Howland, for example, has responded to repeated questions about UCLA with the same less-than-definitive refrain.

"I'm really, really happy at Pittsburgh," he said Monday. "I'm not planning on going anywhere."

Lavin, 38, is expected to pursue selected openings, including Penn State, which begins a coaching search today. But he is in no hurry to work, not with a $1.19-million buyout that includes one year at his full salary of $578,000 and four more at $153,000.

It's a time of reflection for a coach who handled his departure with class and dignity.

"It will have to be down the road a while before I can be nostalgic or feel the impact of [being fired]," he said. "At this point I am completely at peace with having done the best job possible for 12 years and I'm really looking forward to a future in coaching."

Lavin believes Few or Howland would be the most natural fit to replace him. He wants the players he recruited to be in good hands.

"What I'll miss most are the relationships with the players on this team," he said. "And what I enjoyed most was the relationships with former players.

"I am also thankful for my friendships with Chancellor [Albert] Carnesale and Coach Wooden. Those are to be cherished."

Carnesale reportedly kept Lavin from being fired by former athletic director Pete Dalis two years ago. The chancellor was a key figure in the selection of football Coach Karl Dorrell in December, and he will meet with the basketball coach Guerrero targets before a hire becomes official.

This is clearly Guerrero's program, however. In his first year on the job, he has fired football coach Bob Toledo and Lavin. His reputation will rise or fall with Dorrell and whoever becomes the new basketball coach.

"It's an important opportunity for me," Guerrero said. "I don't like to be in a situation where I have to remove a coach. That's never a positive. But I'm looking forward to the process of hiring the right person for UCLA."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

BY THE NUMBERS

Steve Lavin in seven seasons as UCLA basketball coach:

.650

Winning percentage (145-78 record) -- fourth worst all-time among UCLA's 11 coaches.

5

Round of 16 appearances

in NCAA tournament, including

making the round of eight in 1997.

10-19

Record this season -- the first UCLA losing season since 1947-48.

10

Losses this season at Pauley Pavilion, four more than any other season.

6

Was coach in six of the 15 worst defeats in school history.

*

Lavin Highs and Lows

2002-03 -- 10-19 record, no NCAA

* HIGHS: A 96-89 overtime victory over Arizona in the first round of the Pacific 10 tournament marked the 10th time the Bruins upset a No. 1 team, a national record. Four of the victories came with Lavin as coach.

* LOWS: Ranked No. 14 to start the season, the Bruins lost their opener to San Diego, 86-81.... Had 10 losses at Pauley Pavilion, four more than in any other season.... USC swept the Bruins for the first time since 1992.... Posted first losing record since 1947-48 .... Streak of appearances in the NCAA tournament came to an end at 14 seasons.

*

2001-02 -- 21-12, NCAA round of 16

* HIGHS: Made the NCAA tournament for the sixth consecutive season and UCLA posted 14th consecutive 20-plus win season.... Advanced to NCAA round of 16 with 105-101 double-overtime victory over top-seeded Cincinnati in the West regional.... Beat No. 1 Kansas, 87-77, Jan. 12 at Pauley Pavilion.... Nine-game winning streak was school's longest since 1997-98.

* LOWS: Began season 1-2, with losses to Pepperdine and Ball State.... Sixth in the Pac-10, the lowest finish ever.... Won only six of the last 13 regular-season games.... Lost to California in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.

*

2000-01 -- 23-9, NCAA round of 16

* HIGHS: Had an eight-game winning streak, from Jan. 25 through March 1, and UCLA was 19-5 in last 24 games.... Lavin was chosen Pac-10 coach of the year and led UCLA to the NCAA round of 16 for the fourth time in five years.... Defeated No. 1 Stanford, 79-73, at Palo Alto.

* LOWS: Rico Hines hit Matt Barnes on the head with a metal chair during a preseason practice.... Bruins lost to Cal State Northridge, 78-74, in home opener.... Athletic Director Pete Dalis said at a news conference that he had talked to Rick Pitino about the coaching job. Lavin responded by offering his resignation.

*

1999-2000 -- 21-12, NCAA round of 16

* HIGHS: An eight-game winning streak culminated in two NCAA tournament victories.... Seeded No. 6 in the Midwest Regional, the Bruins advanced to the round of 16 for the third time in four years before losing to No. 2-seeded Iowa State, 80-56.

* LOWS: UCLA suffered a stunning 59-43 loss to Gonzaga at Pauley Pavilion.... JaRon Rush was suspended for accepting money from an AAU coach before he enrolled at UCLA. Rush's absence triggered a 4-8 start in Pacific 10 play.

*

1998-99 -- 22-9, NCAA first round

* HIGHS: The second-youngest team in the nation entered the NCAA tournament with a 22-8 record -- same as a senior-laden team entered the 1998 tournament.

* LOWS: Consecutive losses to Maryland and Kentucky in Puerto Rico preseason tournament.... Criticized for wearing black uniforms for a short time.... Lost to Detroit Mercy in first round of the NCAA tournament.

*

1997-98 -- 24-9, NCAA round of 16

* HIGHS: Lavin became the first Bruin coach since Gary Cunningham in 1977-78 and 1978-79 to record consecutive seasons with at least 24 victories, and the first since John Wooden in 1974 and 1975 to guide UCLA to multiple NCAA tournament wins in consecutive seasons.

* LOWS: Drubbed by North Carolina, 109-68, in Alaska Shootout to open the season.

*

1996-97 -- 24-8, NCAA round of eight

* HIGHS: Defeated Charleston Southern, Xavier, and Iowa State at the Midwest Regional before losing to top-seeded Minnesota.... UCLA won its third consecutive Pac-10 title, the 27th in school history, with a 15-3 record.

* LOWS: Lavin lost his first game, 77-76, to Tulsa in overtime at Pauley Pavilion.... A 109-61 loss to Stanford, dubbed the "Maples Massacre".... Center Jelani McCoy was suspended for a violation of team rules.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday March 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction College basketball -- UCLA center Jelani McCoy was suspended from the team before the start of the 1997-98 season, not in the 1996-97 season, as a chart accompanying a story on former coach Steve Lavin said in Tuesday's Sports section.
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