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Inside College Basketball | ON COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Job a Plum, Pressure Is the Pits

January 16, 2003|Robyn Norwood

There is a coaches' creed, and it's as it should be: As long as somebody still has his job, you back your brethren, even if you're already taking mental measurements of his office.

Steve Lavin has genuine friends in the coaching business, as well as genuine detractors. Some never got over their resentment of an inexperienced coach landing one of the game's most hallowed jobs; some simply don't respect his tactical abilities.

But as Lavin hangs by a thread with Dan Guerrero's scissors at the ready, one thing is clear.

The UCLA job still has its aura even though the Bruins have reached the Final Four only once in the last 22 years, when Jim Harrick's team won the 1995 title.

Despite the derision heaped on Lavin even though he has reached the Sweet 16 five times, despite expectations that might be as outdated as the salary, and despite a Pauley Pavilion that seems more full of enmity than fans, the allure is still there.

"UCLA is still one of the top five spotlight jobs," said Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun, who would not be a candidate to replace Lavin.

Pressure? Of course.

"There's always somebody who thinks they can handle it," said Purdue Coach Gene Keady, who considers Lavin, his former graduate assistant, "like my son."

"I think he's fighting alligators," Keady said. "You can't ever copy what John Wooden did. Steve's handled it about as well as anybody. It's just an impossible job."

Impossible, yet coveted.

That wouldn't make it as easy for Guerrero as plucking his choice from among coaches who have been to the Final Four.

The risk he faces is a scenario like the one that played out in 1988, when Jim Valvano, Mike Krzyzewski and Larry Brown ultimately turned down the job and UCLA settled for Harrick, then the Pepperdine coach.

Everyone wants to be courted for the UCLA job. Not everyone would take it.

"I hope Steve turns it around and doesn't leave," Calhoun said.

But if this is Lavin's final season ...

"Pauley Pavilion, UCLA, there's a lot of incredibly attractive things about that," Calhoun said. "But I think people have become smarter and understand you can win elsewhere. All you have to do is look at where the national championships have come out of -- Maryland, Duke, us, Michigan State. They aren't necessarily the Kentuckys and the UCLAs.

"Guys are much more careful. Most people still have to be paid very well to take that quantum leap, if you're going to potentially shorten your career. So I think maybe UCLA needs to recognize that. Let's put it this way, finances should not be a consideration for them hiring a coach. If they are, it's foolish."

Lavin's $578,000 salary is a mint for a former restricted earnings assistant coach. Paying less than $1 million to the next coach could restrict UCLA's ability to complete a deal.

Some people see a former NBA coach such as Tim Floyd or Lon Kruger as a way around the financial issue: They've already made their money and they're available, should Lavin decide to resign before the season ends -- something he now says he isn't considering.

But consider Floyd: His NCAA tournament record at New Orleans and Iowa State was a combined 4-5, and his best Iowa State team reached the Sweet 16 in 1997 -- before losing to Lavin's Bruins in overtime.

Kruger would seem a better choice: He had success at three schools, Kansas State, Florida and Illinois, reaching the Final Four with Florida in 1994 and laying the groundwork for the top-10 team Bill Self has at Illinois now.

Minimum requirements? It would be nice if having reached a Final Four could be one.

That could lead to someone such as Kelvin Sampson, who knows the Pacific 10 Conference from his days at Washington State and took Oklahoma to the Final Four last year. But Sampson might have his sights on someday replacing Lute Olson at Arizona, where former Washington State athletic director Jim Livengood is AD.

People will mention Rick Majerus, who took Utah to the national championship game against Kentucky in 1998 and recruits heavily in the Los Angeles area. Two players he exported to Salt Lake City? Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller.

Though Majerus has turned down jobs at Nevada Las Vegas and San Diego State in the past, UCLA is another realm. He might also be an exception to the cadre of dollar-driven coaches: A basketball junkie who has lived in a Salt Lake City hotel for years wouldn't necessarily need a house in Bel-Air.

"I really think Lavin can make it," Majerus said. "He should not resign, he should just fight it through.

"I think it's a double-edged sword. Yes, it's a great job, but you have to be careful what you wish for because if you go in there you have to do very well.

"I still hope [Lavin] will make it."

Gonzaga's Mark Few would get a big raise if he were to end up at UCLA, but he doesn't make decisions based entirely on money either. If he did, he would have taken the Washington job last year, which might have doubled his salary.

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