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Race for Key to Lavin's Office Appears Wide Open

March 16, 2003|Robyn Norwood

Handicapping potential successors for Steve Lavin has been a recreational sport for months. Even Lavin got into the spirit at one point, rattling off a list of contenders for a job he still holds. A thumbnail glance -- in alphabetical order -- of the leading candidates:

His top credential is that UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero hired him once before, picking Douglass as UC Irvine's coach in 1997 when Guerrero was AD at Irvine. Douglass, 53, won three Division II national championships at Cal State Bakersfield, but until he gets the Anteaters to the NCAA tournament -- they lost Friday in the semifinals of the Big West tournament and have no hope of an at-large bid -- he would be difficult to sell to Bruin fans.

*--* PAT DOUGLASS

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Another outside candidate in the mold of UC system coaches who have won a Division II title is UC Santa Barbara's Bob Williams, who won a national championship at UC Davis and guided Santa Barbara to the NCAA tournament last year.

*--* MARK FEW

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Gonzaga slipped just a bit this season but probably still is headed for the NCAA tournament, and you can't argue with Few's record. Last season he led the tiny Jesuit school to a No. 6 national ranking, and in four years, he has a record of 104-28, with two NCAA Sweet 16s in his first three seasons.

Few, 40, turned down a chance to become the Washington coach last season even though it represented a sizeable raise, saying it wouldn't put him any closer to making a Final Four than he was at Gonzaga. An office in Westwood certainly would, and the guess is Few could give up his cherished fly-fishing outings for that. His coaching skill and talent-evaluation ability are unquestioned, but how he would make the transition to recruiting at UCLA's level and the megawatt glare could only be answered in time.

*--* BEN HOWLAND

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Howland was national coach of the year at Pittsburgh last season and has the Panthers in the top 10 this season. What's more, Guerrero liked him when he interviewed him for the Irvine job in 1997, when Howland was coach at Northern Arizona. (The Lumberjacks are another team Howland took to the NCAA tournament.)

At 45, Howland has a combination of success, strategic acumen, youthful appeal and comparative affordability that makes him the odds-on favorite. Plus, he has strong Southern California ties from his years as the top assistant at UC Santa Barbara, and his parents still live in Santa Barbara. Never mind that his daughter, Meredith, is a Pitt cheerleader. She could transfer.

*--* ERNIE KENT

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It isn't only that UCLA should consider a minority candidate, it's that Kent, 48, took Oregon to the Elite Eight last season, to the Pac-10 tournament title this season and has one of the sharpest basketball minds around. He understands the Pacific 10 Conference so well that he built the Ducks' 2002 championship team by modeling his recruiting on the combinations that have brought Arizona and Stanford such success -- big, versatile forwards, good three-point-shooting guards and lots of beef inside.

Though not among the first names on the tongues of Bruin fans, he ranks among the smart, savvy and successful coaches around the country -- Marquette's Tom Crean, while not a minority, is another -- who would be intelligent choices if Guerrero's first picks don't work.

*--* LON KRUGER

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The former Atlanta Hawk coach is well-proven. He took Florida to the Final Four in 1994, guided Kansas State to the Elite Eight in 1988 and deserves much credit for Illinois' reaching the Elite Eight in 2001, the year after he left the school.

What's more, he's available now -- no waiting for the NCAA tournament to play out to talk to him -- and he is on the Hawks' payroll for two more seasons after his firing in December, making him a potential bargain for UCLA.

Bonus points: If Kruger, 50, left his home in Atlanta for the Pac-10, he could see his son, Kevin Kruger, play for Arizona State, where he redshirted as a freshman this season. Potential fly in the ointment: Kruger is an obvious choice for Georgia if Jim Harrick's suspension becomes a termination.

*--* RICK MAJERUS

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On pure basketball strategy and recruiting acumen, it would be hard to beat Majerus, who has never made it any secret he has great admiration for UCLA and loves Southern California. (Among the local players he has spirited away after visits here were Andre Miller and Keith Van Horn.)

Majerus, 55, has a record that speaks for itself: He took the Utes to the Elite Eight in 1997 and then to the Final Four in 1998, where they upset North Carolina in the semifinals before losing to Kentucky in the title game.

Harder to read is the question of style: Majerus dances to the beat of his own drum, living in a Salt Lake City hotel and arranging team travel as he wishes. Whether he would be a candidate for Guerrero's weekly "how-you're-doing" meetings isn't so clear.

*--* RICK PITINO

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