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That Lavin Feeling

Even With Momentum Going Into Tonight's Game Against Ball State, Coach Is Perpetually on the Hot Seat . . . and He Knows It


MINNEAPOLIS — Pete Blackman, the UCLA vice chancellor charged with overseeing the athletic department, and who has been known to do a slow burn over the state of the basketball team he played on 40 years ago, won't discuss his current coach. He won't consent to a single-question interview about what impact the NCAA tournament will have on Steve Lavin's future. Won't even spin a press release of a paragraph to address the situation.

Given the chance to profess confidence in Lavin and the direction of the program, at a time when spirits have been rocketed by the six-game winning streak, the victory over No. 1-ranked Stanford and the start of the NCAA tournament tonight against Ball State, Blackman takes a pass. No comment. Talk to the athletic director, is the word he sends.

Pete Dalis at least takes the call.

"I'm not going to even talk about that until the season's over," Dalis says. "That's just not the way we do things here. Right now, we're celebrating a great end to the season and are looking forward to the tournament."

On the eve of the tournament, Bruin faithful, from boasters to boosters, were at least allowing Lavin to stand on something besides hot coals, if only temporarily. Whether this is solid footing, of course, depends on whether the winning streak hits seven tonight at the Metrodome and the Mid-American Conference champions are dispatched from the Midwest Regional.

Lose to an underdog in the first round for the second year in a row and the nuclear winter comes all over. The phone lines to the talk radio shows crackling, the chat rooms humming, the post office going on Christmas rush alert for all the letters to the editor and, worse, hate mail to the athletic department.

"That's what you understand when you take on the head coaching position at UCLA," Lavin says. "You know when you lose, you're a bum, and when you win, you get to survive for another game."

He knows survival. He got this job only because Lorenzo Romar, the No. 1 assistant who would have inherited the post, left months earlier for Pepperdine. That first year, the Bruins were bombed by 48 points at Stanford and Lavin got the interim tag removed nine games later. By the end of that season-- 1996-97--they were in the round of eight.

Start the next season with suspensions of key players and a 41-point loss to North Carolina in the Great Alaska Shootout, lose down the stretch at Duke by 36? Beat Michigan to get to the Sweet 16.

End 1998-99 with a loss to Detroit Mercy in the first round at Indianapolis, face an off-season without a significant recruit on the radar screen? Find that Jason Kapono, well beyond significant, has changed his thinking and will come to UCLA after all.

So should anybody really have been surprised when the Bruins pulled this season out of the fire?

They were 13-11 and heading for the NIT and often looking partially interested at best--so much for the Great Motivator tag--before the late kick. They were woefully unprepared for Gonzaga's style of play, despite not playing the previous 10 days, and shockingly clumsy in end-of-game situations at Washington. They couldn't even give the best teams in the conference--Stanford, Arizona, Oregon and, for a while, USC--a game.

And then, the six-game winning streak and the victory at Stanford, pushing the Bruins to 19-11 and the No. 6 seeding in the Midwest. It's unlikely he would get fired in response to a loss to Ball State--it would cost the university $1.19 million to close out his six-year rollover contract--but there wasn't much chance of that happening anyway, even if the Bruins didn't make the tournament.

Lavin said there hasn't been any indication from the bosses he could be in trouble with another first-round loss. UCLA was 13-7 when he was named the permanent coach, after all, quite a security blanket he has tucked in the back pocket, since it's not as if the administration has a banner-or-else approach.

"I think even if we went to the Final Four, people would want my head on a stick," Lavin says. "If we win the national title, I'm still going to be nine short [of John Wooden's 10 championships]. I'm never going to please the alumni, the boosters, the expectations that are out there, and I can't control that.

"It's the fact that because I've been here for nine years, you understand it comes with the territory, it's inherent in the position. That's just the way it is. You're not going to change that. So to expend a lot of time, thought, energy or emotion on the things that you can't control is counterproductive. So instead, you concentrate on the things that you can control, which is coaching and teaching the young people that you're responsible for in your basketball program.

"You've got to see the chat rooms and letters to the editor and talk radio and e-mails and faxes almost like a comic strip. As a way to kind of get a good laugh and put it all in perspective and kind of get a bang out of it.

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