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After Saying Yes to Offers, These Two Had No Chance

November 27, 2000|CHRIS DUFRESNE

Say, have you heard?

USC and UCLA sporting programs are performing splendidly again in the race for the coveted Sears Directors' Cup, awarded for all-around athletic excellence.

The Trojans are breaking ground on a new basketball arena and UCLA has added a spiffy new wing to the Morgan Athletic Center.

So why all these letters to editors?

Because no one gives a rat rugby scrum about any of that.

There are two collegiate sports that count in this town: USC football and UCLA basketball, and neither are coming off banner weeks.

There are two sports that put the schools on the map, two sports that raise cackles, two sports that make boosters go ballistic.

And two men responsible for those sports' weakening conditions.

Paul Hackett and Steve Lavin?


USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett and UCLA's Peter Dalis, the men behind the men.

For starters, both directors five-alarm fired their former coaches--setting off dueling same-day news conferences--and then handpicked the successors.

Garrett sacked John Robinson via message machine in 1997 and scoured the earth to find Hackett, an NFL offensive coordinator who went 13-20-1 as coach at the University at Pittsburgh.

Sunday, Garrett contemplated firing Hackett after a three-year run of 19-18 and no bowl victories. Hackett's teams got progressively worse: 8-5, 6-6 and 5-7.

Dalis axed Jim Harrick in 1996 and hired bench jockey Steve Lavin, who came to the job with tons of energy but no head-coaching experience.

Last Tuesday, Cal State Northridge defeated UCLA, 78-74, at Pauley Pavilion, before a crowd of 6,448, sending Lavin e-(hate)mailers mad-dashing toward their keypads. Lavin is coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, but his teams have also regressed, from 24-8 to 24-9 to 22-9 to 21-12 to Northridge.

These hires were big, important decisions because?

Because the last coach to win a national title for UCLA basketball was Harrick.

And the last coach to win a national title for USC football was Robinson.

As to why these sports at these schools tower above the rest, often in delirious disproportion, we offer 19 reasons.

National championships for UCLA basketball: 11.

National titles for USC football: eight.

Since taking command in 1993, Garrett has vowed to restore USC football to prominence.

"We stand for excellence," Garrett said last spring. "We don't recruit kids to play .500."

Yet, with Garrett at the helm, USC football is 54-39-2.

Garrett said of Hackett in 1997: "I feel Paul is the right man at the right time for USC."

Garrett was wrong. Hackett probably exits with one more victory than defeat. Robinson, the man who had to go, was 21-13-1 and with a Rose Bowl victory in his last three years.

Saturday, Robinson's new team, Nevada Las Vegas, defeated San Diego State to improve to 6-5. If UNLV wins next week against Hawaii, the Rebels go to a bowl game two years after finishing 0-11.

Garrett is a world-class fund-raiser and has a developed a water polo program that is the envy of Yugoslavia, yet he botched the one hire that matters.

Don't blame Hackett.

He was a perfectly fine NFL offensive coordinator, minding his X and O business with the Kansas City Chiefs, when Garrett called him to higher duty.

Hackett, a fine man, was a dubious choice. Some guys simply are not head coaches. Hackett's genius appears to be in football minutia, none of which necessarily translates to heading a successful program.

Florida State's Bobby Bowden is one of the game's all-time greats, yet Seminole fans shriek whenever he demands the headsets during a tight game.

Cripes, he's actually going to call a play!

Bowden works best in space. He is a master organizer and motivator who is so hands-off he can take the time to talk with ESPN sideline reporters during games.

Great head coaches see the big picture. Hackett always reminded of a guy who was so involved fixing the carburetor he didn't notice two tires had blown.

When Garrett pulled the trigger in 1997, Trojan lineman Travis Claridge noted, "If you're going to fire John Robinson and hire somebody else, he better be damned good."

He wasn't.

Dalis, similarly, has put Lavin in a tough spot. It was an act of convenience to slide Lavin over to the hot seat in the emotional wake of Harrick's firing.

Lavin may have been the logical short-term successor, but the school showed little long-term vision regarding the nation's premiere basketball coaching position when it renegotiated Lavin to a multiyear deal without even considering a crop of potential coaching superstars: Steve Alford, Billy Donovan, Bill Self, Steve Robinson, et al.

Lavin, tossed into a torrent without a life jacket, has shown incredible survival skills, trumping each desultory home loss to Gonzaga with a two-game spurt in the NCAA tournament.

He has recruited well and is learning how to become a major college head coach on the fly.

Lavin was never going to turn down this gig, but he has been cheated out of several years on the learning curve.

But don't blame Hackett or Lavin for these perceived messes, though. All they did when offered plum jobs was say "Yes."

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