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He'll Take Fall for Bruin Decline

Lavin's tumultuous tenure at UCLA, a seven-year run of highs, lows and gradual deterioration, is expected to end today with his dismissal by Guerrero

March 17, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Gently, tidily and predictably, an athletic director attempting to return UCLA to its place among NCAA royalty will lift the bejeweled crown that plopped onto Steve Lavin's head seven years ago.

Dan Guerrero is expected to fire Lavin as Bruin basketball coach today in a morning meeting, three days after the Bruins ended their first losing season in 55 years with a loss to Oregon in a Pacific 10 Conference tournament semifinal.

There is none of the suspense or dismay that surrounded Guerrero's December decision to fire football Coach Bob Toledo.

Rather, there will be relief, from Bruin followers frustrated by the gradual deterioration of the program and from players who quietly questioned Lavin's methods even as they appreciated his loyalty.

Lavin feels liberated too. He will emerge from the pressure cooker of leading one of the nation's highest profile programs relatively unscathed, his humor intact, his tan even, his future as bright as any other 38-year-old with good looks, excellent health and a large bankroll.

"There are no major regrets," he said. "You realize you aren't being treated any different than any other UCLA coach who followed John Wooden. My parents say it's all part of the passing parade of life in the coaching profession. There are no sour grapes. It is what it is."

He becomes the seventh coaching casualty since Wooden, who set a standard of excellence with 10 national titles in the last 12 years of a 27-year reign that ended in 1975.

Lavin is the third coach in a row to be fired, following Jim Harrick in 1996 and Walt Hazzard in 1988. The first four who followed Wooden resigned, three burning out and one -- Larry Brown -- pursuing more lucrative pastures.

None left with the financial cushion of Lavin, who will receive a buyout of $1.19 million spread over five years. However, any money he makes during that time is subtracted from the package, which includes one year at his full salary of $578,000 and four years at $153,000.

Chances are he won't see a large portion of the money because he is employable. Lavin plans to sell his home in Marina del Rey, relocate to the San Francisco area and avoid rushing into anything.

Potential coaching openings at Penn State, Nevada Las Vegas or San Francisco intrigue him, but he likely will do guest work as a television commentator for a year.

The direction he takes could be revealing of Lavin's true nature. Is he the homebody and gym rat who talks to his mother and father nearly every day, or the impeccably groomed smooth talker so at ease in front of a television camera?

He insists he would be content coaching a mid-major program away from the limelight.

"For 30 years or longer, my routine has been the same," he said. "At 3 p.m., it's time for practice. As a player and coach, that's all I know. I want to continue coaching. I want to improve as a coach and I like the kids. I like to teach."

Lavin points to established coaches such as Wooden, Pete Newell and Gene Keady as his mentors, saying their lessons are to remain on an even keel and focus on incremental improvement.

Yet his teams rarely exemplified those qualities, experiencing enough dramatic highs and devastating lows to disorient the most avid roller-coaster rider.

For each of his five Sweet 16 appearances, there was an embarrassing early season loss to an unheralded team grateful just to take the floor at legendary Pauley Pavilion.

His last two games typified his tenure. There was the unfathomable upset of Arizona in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, the fourth season in a row the Bruins knocked off the nation's No. 1 team. Then came a one-point loss to Oregon after UCLA blew a 12-point lead in the last four minutes.

He finished 145-78, never had fewer than 21 victories until this season, and his NCAA tournament record would be the envy of most other coaches. Lavin's players caused little trouble off the court and he apparently ran a clean program -- UCLA did not have serious run-ins with the NCAA.

Of 29 players he coached before this season, 15 graduated, nine others are playing professionally and three transferred. This year's seniors, Jason Kapono and Ray Young, are expected to graduate.

Most of Lavin's former players profess affection for him, although Baron Davis, the best player he coached, is a notable exception.

"We're closer now than when I was there," said Earl Watson, a Bruin guard from 1997-2001 now in the NBA. "It just shows that he just didn't use my four years and just forget about me and move on. It shows he's genuine."

But among the last nine UCLA coaches, only Hazzard had a worse winning percentage than Lavin's 65.0%. And that's the bottom line.

"It's a revenue-driven occupation, especially at UCLA," Lavin said. "You coach each game knowing that if you lose you create a firestorm."

The blaze began the day he took the job as an interim coach, and it never really abated.

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