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Back to College for Westhead; Schaefer Shows That He's a Pro : Coach: After watching from sidelines for a season, he will try to work magic at George Mason.

August 22, 1993|DAN REINES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everywhere he turns, Paul Westhead sees another cardboard box.

Westhead, 54, the former Loyola Marymount and Laker basketball coach, accepted an offer in April to coach at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The job plunges Westhead back into the college game after he left Loyola in 1990 to coach the Denver Nuggets. It also means the Philadelphia native is leaving the Palos Verdes Peninsula, his home since he came to Los Angeles as a Laker assistant in 1979.

Moving boxes surrounded Westhead like a whirlpool on the floor of his otherwise vacant home Wednesday morning, stuffed with the past 15 years of his life. Sitting in the house for the last time, he reflected on his decision to return to the East Coast. He signed a five-year contract with George Mason in spite of the move, not because of it.

"Everything's all packed up, the moving van is on its way," Westhead said. "(Leaving Palos Verdes) is the tough part. I love California. It's become my home. This is where my family has been raised for the most part.

"I can't find any really big plus out of leaving, I make no bones about it. I like it here, I've always loved Los Angeles, but sometimes you have to give things up to do other things."

Moving to Virginia to coach at little-known George Mason represents another challenge for Westhead, who apparently hasn't lost his desire to make almost every battle an uphill one.

George Mason is not a program on the rise, it's a program in a rut. The Patriots stumbled to two consecutive 7-21 seasons under Ernie Nestor, Westhead's predecessor, and have reached only one NCAA tournament in their history, that a first-round loss to Indiana in 1989. In short, nobody has ever confused George Mason with Georgetown, which is 15 miles away in Washington.

The situation would seem to be perfectly suited for Westhead. Remember, this is the same coach who brought his frenetic, greyhound offense--"The System"--to an anonymous Loyola program in 1985, then guided the Lions to three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and national prominence.

Westhead could be considered the basketball equivalent of the Statue of Liberty: give me your tired, your poor, your languishing offenses. I'll have 'em running in no time.

"George Mason fits what I want to do," Westhead said. "What I like to do is to go into programs that have been kind of quiet and down, and revitalize them and build them up. George Mason seems to be the perfect fit.

"I kind of used my experience at Loyola to indicate that even though a school might not have a great basketball reputation when you arrive, if other factors are there--if it's well-situated, in a good league and there are good people--you have a chance of changing that."

For George Mason Athletic Director Jack Kvancz, Westhead was the obvious choice.

"We've been down for a bit, so our program probably needed a shot in the arm," Kvancz said. "(Westhead's) system was that shot. With Paul, the first thing we know for sure is that the game's going to be exciting. Just his system alone is going to get us through this first year. There may not be a lot of (wins) here, but it will be exciting to watch."

Kvancz is probably right about the outlook for Westhead's first season. Under Nestor, the Patriots used a conservative, pass-first offense. Westhead acknowledges that it will take at least a year or two of recruiting before he is able to put his physically demanding system into place.

"I'm going to try to retool the team and get them to play the speed game, but it's probably going to need some additional players to really get it cranked," Westhead said. "So I'd say at the earliest, the second year, but probably a three-year guess as to when we'll be an effective team that can go out and beat people."

With a five-year commitment from Kvancz, Westhead has the time to get his offense running.

"It's going to take a while for it to come together," Kvancz said. "It's going to take some recruiting. Of course, eventually we're going to have to win. The excitement only lasts so long, then you've got to win some ballgames. But (Westhead) will hopefully be able to recruit some good players."

If Westhead does manage to land the recruits he needs to run his system and eventually turn the George Mason program around, it won't be unprecedented, as his experiences at Loyola demonstrate. Still, Westhead's hiring had some observers doing double-takes.

After all, this is the same Westhead who coached the Lions to the NCAA West Regional final in 1990 and wears an NBA championship ring from his days with the Lakers. He's more than paid his dues and had been available for almost a year after being fired by the Nuggets in April, 1992. Certainly, he could have gone to a bigger-name school than George Mason, a bigger-name conference than the Colonial Athletic Assn. So why didn't he?

George Mason assistant Bruce Woods--a Loyola assistant for the past six seasons, three under Westhead--thinks the question is misguided.

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