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Victory Gives Lavin Meal Ticket, if Not Job

March 10, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Defeating Washington did more than send UCLA players and fans from Pauley Pavilion into he-who-laughs-last delight Saturday night.

The victory enabled Steve Lavin to dodge the Toledo torpedo.

At least he gets to attend the team banquet.

Bob Toledo, fired as Bruin football coach two days after the regular-season finale, was told by athletic officials not to attend the banquet and his name wasn't mentioned the entire evening.

Makers of a highlight video shown that night were instructed not to include any footage of the deposed coach.

"It was like he never existed," said one booster in attendance. "It was very weird."

Toledo was coach for seven years, the same tenure as Lavin, whose dismissal is such a foregone conclusion that coaches Ben Howland of Pittsburgh and Roy Williams of Kansas, among others, have fended off questions about the job for weeks.

Strange as it sounds, the basketball banquet tonight at the Beverly Hills Hilton might not have included a mention of Lavin had the Bruins lost to Washington and missed the Pacific 10 Conference tournament.

All indications were that the coach would have been fired today in a meeting with Athletic Director Dan Guerrero. A news conference would have been held, and if the Toledo episode serves as a guide, the banquet would have proceeded without the coach.

Instead, the loquacious Lavin will get his chance at the microphone tonight in front of players, their families and several hundred boosters. An athletic department spokesman said Sunday that despite news reports to the contrary, Lavin will not be fired today and will lead the team in the conference tournament.

But no one should expect the coach to take the opportunity to rip UCLA. It's not his style.

Most likely he'll adopt the opposite approach, lauding Guerrero and expressing gratitude for his seven seasons at the helm of what once was the nation's premier program. Lavin has rehearsed the speech several times, most recently at a meeting of Orange County Bruin fans Friday.

"He was classy and professional and had nothing but good things to say about Guerrero," said a booster who was there. "He said Guerrero will move the program forward."

Lavin has even helpfully supplied the names of potential successors. Howland and Williams are on everyone's list. Guerrero is expected to begin by gauging the interest of Williams and Rick Pitino of Louisville.

Howland, however, might ultimately be the top candidate. According to several sources close to UCLA, he has been contacted through intermediaries and is interested in coming to Westwood.

Not that any other coach with a job would publicly acknowledge interest. Howland told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Sunday that he plans to fulfill the seven-year contract he signed before the season. He makes about $800,000 a year, slightly less than what UCLA is expected to offer.

"I'm very happy here at the University of Pittsburgh," he said. "I plan to stay here."

In four years, Howland, 45, has transformed No. 7-ranked Pittsburgh (23-4) from a disorganized mess, rife with infighting, into a power. His West Coast ties -- he attended Cerritos High and was a longtime assistant at UC Santa Barbara -- have fueled talk that UCLA would be a good fit. With his team starting the Big East Conference tournament, he is downplaying speculation.

"I have the same pat answer when I'm asked about [UCLA]," he said. "I haven't even heard about it in a while. This is the first time in a couple weeks."

The NBA interests him because, he said, it is "the highest level of basketball for a player and coach."

UCLA expects to be at the highest level of college basketball. This 9-18 season is a far cry from that, and three victories in the last four games hardly cushions the fall. Lavin is a respectable 81-27 at Pauley Pavilion, but Howland's success is something Bruin fans can chew on.

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