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A Firestorm at UCLA | COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Suddenly, All Signs Not Pointing to Success

November 07, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE

The UCLA Bruins are a top-five pick in almost every preseason college basketball publication now available at your local newsstands.

So what now?

UCLA is the greatest program in college basketball history, winner of 11 national championships, the last in 1995.

But what is it now? The weeklong, early signing period for high school recruits begins Wednesday. Baron Davis, the whiz-bang point guard from Crossroads High in Santa Monica, had made an oral commitment to UCLA.

What will he do now?

The Collins twins, 6-foot-9 Jarron and 6-11 Jason, from Harvard-Westlake High, who were supposed to ride in on Davis' wake and secure the Bruin dynasty into the 21st century, had narrowed their choices to UCLA and Arizona.

Is there a choice now?

Chris Burgess, a 6-10 program-saver from Woodbridge High in Irvine, was scheduled to make a recruiting visit to UCLA this weekend.

But all that was before Slash Wednesday, when Chancellor Charles E. Young and Athletic Director Peter T. Dalis fired Coach Jim Harrick for, they say, violating NCAA rules during an Oct. 11 dinner with three recruits, then lying to cover his tracks.

Harrick's firing left the program in shock, which may soon give way to paralysis.

Wednesday night, interim Coach Steve Lavin was busily trying to reach potential recruits to assure them things aren't as bad as they seem.

But what if they are?

There is never a good time to fire someone, but Wednesday's timing could not have been worse for a program that was counting on the freshman recruiting class of 1997-98 to replenish this year's losses, which figure to be significant if Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Jelani McCoy turn pro before their senior seasons.

Clearly, the program John Wooden made famous is at a crossroads.

"It makes it very difficult," Chris Wallace, contributing editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, said of Harrick's firing. "In this business, bad news travels fast. It'll be a difficult time for them."

Difficult, but not impossible.

"It creates an immediate hurdle you have to get over," Wallace said. "But in the long run, UCLA is still UCLA. It's a major school, with great tradition and great location.

"It also sits in the mother lode of talent. It will survive this."

Really?

Davis, the kingpin of UCLA's recruiting class, will not make a written commitment to UCLA next week.

He will instead wait until the April signing period before making a decision on his choice of college.

Daryl Roper, Davis' high school coach, advised him to do so.

"In his case, he needs to wait and see," Roper said. "If he decides to stick with UCLA, he needs time to think about that decision. I told him I think he should wait to sign until the spring and take his trips, which he didn't do. Duke and Kansas are still interested in him, and he should visit the schools.

"Things are just not going right as far as UCLA goes, so it's my opinion to wait until things are sorted out."

Earl Watson, a point guard from Kansas City, also had made an oral commitment to UCLA. He too will reconsider.

"Harrick leaving changes a lot of things," Watson said. "I was shocked when I found out about Harrick this morning. Shocked and amazed."

Burgess also scratched UCLA off his list.

"This basically rules them out," Burgess said of the Bruins.

As he was speaking with a Times reporter, Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino beeped in on the other line.

The school's decision to pin Lavin with an "interim" coaching label for this season may ultimately backfire.

"If he's the coach, I'm coming here," Davis told Ultimate Hoops, a local recruiting publication. "If I knew he would be the coach next year."

Davis was the key to UCLA's recruiting strategy. By procuring a point guard some have compared to a young Isiah Thomas, Harrick and staff hoped to lure Burgess and the Collins twins into the fold.

But with Harrick gone, and Davis wavering, the UCLA strategy may collapse like a flimsy expense account story.

Arizona is reportedly closing fast on the Collins twins, the recruits who broke bread with Harrick at the now infamous dinner.

Despite Pitino's call, Burgess is probably headed to Brigham Young.

Jarron Collins, speaking on behalf of the twins, said of Harrick's firing, "We were very surprised. It's disappointing. I don't have that much information about it."

Dalis admitted the program has taken a hit.

"This will cause some damage," he said.

Dalis said firing Harrick before the start of the signing period was the most honest approach with recruits.

He said he wrote letters to all UCLA recruits Tuesday night.

"We included the press release so they'd have full knowledge of what we said today," Dalis said.

Only time will tell what effect Harrick's ouster will have on this year's team, which opens the season Nov. 20 at home against Tulsa.

Lavin, who figures to need a trip to the Sweet 16 to be considered for the job, is trying to sound like a head coach.

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