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Steve Lavin Is Just the Latest Coach to Find It's Tough to Lead College Players Distracted by Life in the Pleasure Dome

March 16, 2003|Sandy Kobrin and Jason Levin | Sandy Kobrin last wrote for the magazine about women boxers. Jason Levin is an L.A.-based writer and radio host.

Imagine that you've been hired as the basketball coach at UCLA. It's a dream job in the college ranks--a program steeped in history and tradition with a home court that is one of the game's hallowed halls. Then there are the fringe benefits--the media spotlight, Hollywood's glitz, a vibrant nightlife, The Show at Staples. You can live placidly by the water, drive to work with the top down as the ocean glimmers in your rearview mirror. The year-round sun alone can keep you optimistic. Recruiting talented players is made easier by all those virtues.

But then you find the riptides. For your young charges, a sense of privilege abounds. The casual coastal vibe permeates the team. The city's fabled virtues are intoxicating, even dangerous, distractions. And one thing becomes alarmingly clear: All the things that make Los Angeles attractive for players can make it miserable for a coach.

Just ask Steve Lavin.

Barring a miracle finish to this catastrophic season, Lavin is now a part of UCLA history. It's not all his fault. Some of it lies with former athletic director Pete Dalis, who in 1996 promoted the then-32-year-old assistant Lavin, who turned out to be not ready for prime-time. And maybe Dalis was too out of touch to recognize the complex situation here, which is exacerbated by a full-court press corps. Unlike UCLA, no other major basketball program--Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky--is located in such a media maelstrom. New York and Chicago only have St. John's and DePaul universities, and their basketball programs have been dormant since Ronald Reagan's first presidential term.

In short, UCLA is the toughest college basketball job in the nation. In fact, Los Angeles is simply the hardest place to coach major college athletics of any kind.

Remember Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham, Larry Brown, Larry Farmer, Walt Hazzard and Jim Harrick? How about John Robinson, Ted Tollner, Larry Smith and Paul Hackett? They are, respectively, the UCLA basketball and USC football coaches who have come and gone since John Wooden left in 1975 and John McKay left one year later. The UCLA football and USC basketball teams have been slightly more stable, in part because they labored in the shadows of more illustrious programs at their schools. But, in recent years, the attention and pressure on all those programs has grown, as has the level of distractions.

Now UCLA is faced with rebuilding a storied basketball program that had been entrusted to a novice. Whoever comes next would be wise to add this guiding light to Wooden's fabled "Pyramid of Success": All that glitters is not gold.

Playing against cross-town rival USC at the Sports Arena in early February, Steve Lavin was his usual exuberant self on the sideline. His team in the throes of an eight-game losing streak, the beleaguered coach jumped up and down from a baseball catcher's crouch like a jack-in-the-box, clapping his hands furiously, encouraging his team to play better defense.

Lavin was in constant motion, as if standing still would somehow immediately end the seven-year thrill ride during which he guided the Bruins into the third round of the NCAA tournament, the Sweet 16, five of the past six years. But that record meant little in the face of this year's woeful performance and the presence of a new, aggressive athletic director who had already fired football Coach Bob Toledo.

Perhaps Lavin's incessant clapping was an unconscious effort to make up for the lack of enthusiasm from the UCLA fans, only a few hundred of whom had made the trip downtown. The Bruin band and cheerleaders were there, but they had to be.

The USC fans, on the other hand, were out in force, supporting Coach Henry Bibby and his young, energetic Trojans, who were in the process of completing a rare season sweep of the Bruins. The yin to Lavin's yang, Bibby sat calmly for most of the game, rising only occasionally to give instruction. A key member of three NCAA championship teams under Wooden, Bibby was also a winner as a pro, as an integral part of the 1973 NBA champion New York Knicks. Last season was his best at USC, as a trio of star seniors drove the Trojans deep into the NCAA tournament.

Sitting courtside was the Trojans' latest hero, football Coach Pete Carroll. When his face appeared on the scoreboard during a timeout, the USC fans erupted into a long, loud standing ovation, forcing the coach to stand and acknowledge the cheers so that the focus could return to the game. After guiding the previously underachieving Trojans to a resounding victory over Iowa in the Orange Bowl and a #3 national ranking, Carroll was reaping the rewards. Only days earlier he had put the finishing touches on a recruiting class deemed by most analysts to be the best in the nation.

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