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THE FIRING LINE: HARRICK OUSTED AT UCLA | THE REPLACEMEHJNT

Cream and Sugar Guy Takes Cake

College basketball: Former graduate assistant Lavin feels bad about getting interim job this way.

November 07, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He's a walking generation gap, a gym rat finally getting some cheese.

"He's a pup being fed to the wolves," Mark Gottfried, Murray State's basketball coach, said about the newest member of his fraternity, Steve Lavin.

They are friends, having met when Lavin was working at a summer basketball camp and Gottfried was an assistant coach at UCLA. Gottfried says he introduced Lavin to UCLA Coach Jim Harrick over breakfast at the Final Four in Denver in 1990, and the two hit it off.

After five years as a Bruin assistant, Lavin replaced Harrick as coach Tuesday night, slept an hour, then spent Wednesday with players he had helped recruit and a telephone that seemed to be growing out of his ear.

One of the calls was to Harrick.

"I believe there's going to be a sense of mourning," said Lavin, 32. "For me personally, it's very difficult because he brought me here five years ago as a volunteer assistant. He used to kid me and say, 'You're the cream and sugar guy for my coffee. That's all you have to take care of.' "

Lavin started his coaching career at Purdue after three seasons as a nondescript 6-foot-1 guard at San Francisco State and Chapman.

His coaching specialty is defense, "probably because I was a slow, thick-legged guard who wasn't a very good player," he said. "I was the kind of guy coaches give defensive awards and hustle awards to because they aren't much good at anything else."

He wanted to be a coach, so he wrote letters to Indiana's Bob Knight, Purdue's Gene Keady, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Tarkanian, then at Nevada Las Vegas.

Lavin spent a month with Indiana, living with a player and watching Knight. Then he moved on to Purdue, for two weeks with Keady, who was so impressed he offered a job.

It wasn't much of one: graduate assistant, work for room, board and graduate school tuition. Two years later, he was a volunteer assistant coach.

Harrick hired him in that capacity at UCLA.

"You're in it because you love coaching," Lavin said. "I knew in college I wanted to be a coach. It's like an apprenticeship."

It's not a bad life, if you can afford it.

"My parents are probably the happiest, not for the circumstances about Coach Harrick, but for the student loans and credit cards and bank loans and loans from my parents I can pay off now," Lavin said.

The debts had totaled about $70,000 when Lavin was called to Dalis' office Tuesday night and offered the job as interim coach, with an extended contract as an assistant to cover him if he is not hired as the coach after the season.

Dalis says UCLA is embarking on the usual nationwide search.

It was a whirlwind Tuesday for Lavin that had begun with lunch in Palos Verdes with basketball Hall of Fame member Pete Newell. It ended with a call to Hall of Famer John Wooden.

"Can you believe it?" Lavin said. "From chicken-fried rice or whatever with Pete Newell to talking with John Wooden.

"He's been somebody I've always turned to for advice. The stuff that he talks about is more in general, peace of mind. In one conversation, John Wooden can talk about Gandhi, the Bible, poetry, the high-post offense, the 2-2-1, Mother Teresa. I mean this guy is the master teacher."

There is another connection.

Wooden's 1949-50 Bruins lost, 53-40, to Newell's University of San Francisco team, one of whose players was Cap Lavin, who will soon be getting loan-payment checks from his son.

Between Newell and Wooden, there was practice, Harrick's firing, opportunity presenting itself and talks with players.

"This whole situation is very awkward," Lavin said. "You get mixed emotions. On one hand, you get excited because you're going to take the floor as the head coach of the UCLA Bruins, one of the greatest basketball schools in the history of the game.

"Then on the other hand, you're thinking about a guy who's almost like a father to you in Jim Harrick.

"Every night when your head hits the pillow, it's what you dream about, being a coach. You just don't know it's going to be under these circumstances."

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