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Seeking End to Westwood Woe

Guerrero makes Lavin's firing at UCLA official, saying he wants a coach who can return the Bruins to top echelon of college basketball.

March 18, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

The news conference lasted 13 minutes, and about 12 were spent discussing the future of UCLA basketball.

There wasn't much for Dan Guerrero to say about the past except to make official Monday what was assumed for several months, that Steve Lavin is fired as coach after seven seasons.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
College basketball -- UCLA center Jelani McCoy was suspended from the team before the start of the 1997-98 season, not in the 1996-97 season, as a chart accompanying a story on former coach Steve Lavin said in Tuesday's Sports section.

Although Lavin had a record of 145-78 and took the Bruins to five Sweet 16 appearances, he didn't put up a fuss.

"We met for breakfast and went through the exercise officially," Guerrero said. "He talked about fresh starts for both of us, the nature of the business and why I had to make this decision."

The obvious reason was the decline this season. There was the 10-19 record, UCLA's worst in 61 years. A sixth-place finish in the Pacific 10 Conference for the second year in a row. A record 10 losses at Pauley Pavilion. The lowest home attendance in 10 years.

"I'm disappointed we didn't finish with an exclamation point in terms of winning this season," Lavin said by telephone. "I'm grateful I had the opportunity to grow in the coaching profession at UCLA. It's an incredible place."

A new coach, Guerrero believes, is necessary to restore glory to a program that has won 11 national championships but hasn't been to the Final Four since 1995.

"We'd like to see the UCLA basketball program rise to level of the nation's elite," he said. "We'd like to hire a coach to get us to that point. We want a program that offers a level of consistency, gives us an opportunity to get to the Final Four and competes for a national championship.

"I want fundamentals, discipline and defense. I don't even like us to lose a jump ball."

If the coaching job can be characterized as a jump ball, the possession arrow seems to point to Ben Howland of Pittsburgh. He is widely considered the front-runner -- even by other coaches who want the position.

Guerrero said the search will begin today and could last until after the NCAA championship game April 7 because several coaches expected to be under consideration -- Howland included -- have teams in the tournament.

Guerrero, however, said there is no favorite and he has not contacted any candidates, even through intermediaries. Glenn Toth, an associate athletic director responsible for negotiating UCLA's multimillion-dollar contract with Adidas, will assist in the search, although Guerrero said sportswear affiliation will not play a role in who he hires.

The qualifications, Guerrero said, "start with integrity. We want someone who has experience, that can build and develop a program, that can compete at a high level nationally, that understands the constraints from an academic standpoint.

"And we want someone who can recruit student-athletes who can succeed on court and in the classroom."

Guerrero held a brief meeting with Bruin players Monday. They did not tell him who they wanted to see hired, but several said afterward they prefer a coach with an NBA background.

"The guys coming back definitely want NBA experience," said guard Ray Young, a senior. "Nobody in particular, just an NBA coach who knows what it takes to get there. That's what most guys who come to UCLA think about -- getting to the next level."

Lon Kruger, successful in several college jobs before lasting less than three seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and being fired last fall, is the only former NBA coach thought to be a leading candidate. He is in the third year of a guaranteed five-year, $12-million deal, so money wouldn't be paramount. Also, he's free to interview immediately.

Other NBA coaches whose names have surfaced are less likely. Former UCLA coach Larry Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers, Pat Riley of the Miami Heat and former New York Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy are probably happy to see their names associated with the search, but they don't seem like the right fit to sources at UCLA.

The focus is more likely to be on Howland, Mark Few of Gonzaga and Rick Majerus of Utah. Tom Crean of Marquette, Dana Altman of Creighton and Ernie Kent of Oregon also match the criteria established by Guerrero.

The big fish are Rick Pitino of Louisville and Roy Williams of Kansas, but sources said neither is expected to accept UCLA's anticipated offer of $800,000 to $1 million a year.

Guerrero will consult 92-year-old John Wooden, who led UCLA to 10 NCAA titles in a 27-year career that ended in 1975. In the past, Wooden has expressed admiration for Williams.

Down a rung on the ladder are Southland prospects such as Brad Holland of San Diego, a former UCLA player, and Pat Douglass of UC Irvine, who worked under Guerrero.

None of the coaches whose teams are in the NCAA tournament are willing to acknowledge interest. Howland, for example, has responded to repeated questions about UCLA with the same less-than-definitive refrain.

"I'm really, really happy at Pittsburgh," he said Monday. "I'm not planning on going anywhere."

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