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Bill Plaschke

Win One for the Quitter?

February 20, 2003|Bill Plaschke

The firing of Steve Lavin became even more tricky this week in the wake of comments representing the final stitches in a ghastly white flag.

How do you fire someone who already has quit?

Lavin, who informally gave up in December after realizing football Coach Bob Toledo's firing was an opening act, offered official terms of surrender Tuesday in what may have been the most stunning words to ever leave the mouth of a working UCLA basketball coach.

During his weekly news conference, he openly acknowledged a short list of his possible replacements.

With at least six games remaining in the season. With more than a dozen students still in his classroom.

Speaking in a university facility, while collecting a university paycheck, he essentially claimed he no longer worked there.

The Morgan Center regulars of drama and pathos have been joined by sad and bizarre.

"Ben Howland, Mark Few, Bob Williams, Pat Douglass, Roy Williams," Lavin said, unprovoked. "I'd go with those five. That's the short list we're operating with."

It's a wonder that Athletic Director Dan Guerrero didn't read this Wednesday morning and fire Lavin on the spot.

It's a wonder that each of those coaches didn't read this and demand an apology, seeing as such rumors undermine seasons and hurt recruiting.

Some will say this is simply Lavin being Lavin, a classy guy accepting his fate with the same good nature with which he has handled every body blow during his seven turbulent years here.

Some will say, if UCLA has the nerve to make a preseason decision to fire a guy who has made the Sweet 16 in five of his six years, then it deserves to get tweaked in the process.

Some will say, relax, it's gallows humor.

To which I say, fine, except it's not Steve Lavin who is going to the gallows.

Lavin will get another job. It might not be a great job after the way he has allowed the program to utterly roll over this winter, yet it will be a job.

But what about his players? Are they going to so easily land on their feet after a fall that cost each of them a year of eligibility?

One fourth of the college careers of each of the Bruins has been compromised by Steve Lavin's what-me-worry approach.

Indeed, all of those recent remarks in which he has referred to his job in the past tense have been a cute way of thumbing his nose at Guerrero.

But in doing so, he has poked his other four fingers into the heart of a team already lacking a visible pulse.

Weeks ago, Steve Lavin decided to turn this season into an inside joke.

For the sake of his kids, I wish he would have turned it into a fight.

I remember, seven years ago, sitting with the then-interim Lavin in a tiny Pauley Pavilion office in the early-morning hours after a game.

He talked about his philosophies, his dreams, his insistence that his team play from start to finish.

That Steve Lavin wouldn't have accepted Guerrero's sentence.

That Steve Lavin would have attacked this season like his Bruins once attacked Maryland and stunned Michigan.

Every spring, that Steve Lavin was told he was being fired.

Every spring, he fired back, hauling inspiration out of its winter-long hibernation, passing it to players who became it.

Lavin once hovered over me in a Metrodome locker room and demanded to know why I wanted him fired.

Today, student reporters ask him smart-aleck questions and he laughs.

Lavin once sweated through his shirt during every first half, and was hoarse by the end of every game.

Today, it's as if he's barely watching.

Granted, the odds were against him, particularly when Guerrero refused to give him a vote of confidence after denying Toledo that same last cigarette.

And, certainly, unlike in past years, his team probably wasn't good enough to save him this time.

But couldn't he have at least made it difficult for everybody?

Snarl at the players. Demand respect from the media. Claim it was his job until they dragged him off the bench, dang it, and no more questions. Teach his kids how to fight not only for a victory, but for a career.

Wasn't that his best trait, the one thing even his worst critics begrudgingly acknowledged? That, despite their best efforts for the last six years, he simply would not disappear?

Faced with his most insurmountable challenge here, Lavin ironically, amazingly, just disappeared.

Is it any wonder his team quickly followed him out the door?

Ever the nice guy, Lavin thinks he's doing the right thing.

"I came in here with my eyes open, I knew the score, I am grateful and thankful for everything they have given me," he said two weeks ago. "In fact, I am going to invite the chancellor and his wife to come up and see me in my next job. I'd like to buy them dinner."

He smiled.

"See that box of stuff?" he said, pointing to a container in the corner. "I'll unpack that in my new place."

While across the sidewalk, his team waited for him to begin practice in the old place.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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