Ex-UCLA coach Lavin brings St. John's to Westwood
Outside of Ecco, an Italian restaurant in lower Manhattan, winter’s chill has rendered the streets barren. Snow drifts mingle with uncollected garbage on the sidewalks. Inside, St. John's coach Steve Lavin basks in the toasty glow of a few staffers and a good bottle of wine. He corkscrews a mouthful of capellini around a spoon as he and Gene Keady discuss their profession.
“It’s easy to put [Kentucky coach] John Calipari in a black hat and [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski in a white hat, but it’s not that simple,” says Lavin, 46. “We’re all a blend of both. We’re all working hard, trying to pick up ‘W’s.”
Two nights earlier ESPN cameras had caught Calipari laying into his star player, Terrence Jones, with a profanity-laced tirade in the waning minutes of a loss at Alabama. Keady, 74, who delivered a few of those during a 29-year Hall of Fame career, smiles at the facile manner with which the rest of us typecast his ilk.
“Watch Mike [Krzyzewski] when he’s talking to a player,” says Keady, the former Purdue head coach who is now Lavin's top assistant. “He always places a finger over his mouth to hide it from the cameras. Now Mike’s a good friend, but he’ll tell you that that finger of his is going to hell.”
Conversationally, Lavin is a jazz stylist. He finds a theme, presses examples, and then takes off in uncharted directions. You might call him garrulous. Around the family dinner table (his father, Cap Lavin, is a retired English teacher and Steve is the youngest of six), says Lavin, “We’ll say, ‘Thread me.’ That means get me back to the thread of my topic.”
Threading … Lavin and Keady.
Theirs is a fascinating relationship. In 1989, Lavin went directly from being a student at Chapman College in Orange County, Calif., to a graduate assistant on Keady’s staff. Last summer, Keady abandoned retirement in West Lafayette, Ind., to relocate to an Upper East Side hotel and be an advisor on Lavin’s staff. Keady was the first coach for whom Lavin worked. Lavin is the last coach for whom Keady expects to work.
“Outside of my parents,” says Lavin, “Coach Keady has been the most influential person in my life. That’s why I wanted him around this season. I wanted our players to learn from him.”
“I wouldn’t have come out of retirement for anyone else,” says Keady.
But why did Lavin, a lifelong Californian who returns to Westwood today to face UCLA, the school which fired him in 2003? After leaving the Bruins, he had spent the past seven winters as a highly regarded hoops analyst at ESPN. Why come out of semi-retirement? Why now? Why here?
“It couldn’t have been just anywhere,” says Lavin, who is married to actress Mary Ann Jarou. “If it had been Nebraska or El Paso, that wouldn’t have worked. I’d have been fine, but what would Mary do all day?”
These are the trappings of a successful New Yorker: a high six- or, better, seven-figure salary; frequent travel in January and February; dining out more often than in; and never driving.
Lavin fits the profile. He and Jarou own a loft in SoHo. It is the Manhattan equivalent of occupying a bungalow in Venice, Calif., which happens to be their previous address. Lavin’s well-administered jet-black coif, that iron jaw, those tailored suits, all would fit in well on the trading floor at Goldman Sachs.
Except that Lavin is not an I-banker or an A-lister. He is, after a seven-year hiatus, a college basketball coach. Unlike Gotham’s other well-heeled denizens, Lavin’s eminence is also a corollary of his W-to-L ratio. He may not have to wait for a table at the Mercer Kitchen — not now. But in New York, where a popular magazine of the same name ends each issue with an Approval Matrix, his own is ultimately dependent on that ratio.
Lavin understands that. He needs time — “give us three years,” he says — and he has it. After all, the Johnnies have been dormant as a program at least twice as long as Lavin has been.
St. John’s has 10 seniors on its current roster. Lavin, besides having to become reacquainted with the coaching lifestyle and acclimating himself to the East Coast, also had to recruit nearly an entire new team for next season. It’s all a transition game at this stage, but Lavin has landed, according to most experts, the nation’s No. 3 class behind only Kentucky and Duke.
“We did three years worth of recruiting in five months,” says Lavin, who’d often meet prospects at whichever Manhattan hotel he happened to be living at and give them a walking tour of the city. Never mind that it’s 15 stops on the E or F train, plus a short bus transfer, from Central Park to Carnesecca Arena.
Commuting is not a hazard for Lavin and Keady. Assistant coach Derrick Wrobel, another West Coast transplant, doubles as their chauffeur. Wrobel may be enduring the most difficult transition of all.
“We have a rule in the car,” says Wrobel. “No honking. We wait for the car behind us to honk its horn. It always does.”
This East Coast is a far cry from Westwood. On Lavin’s first day on the UCLA staff in 1991, he put his black Honda in reverse in the parking garage and backed over the traffic spikes.
“The odd part was that I popped all four of my tires,” says Lavin. “The athletic department secretaries could not understand how I managed to do that.”
The car went in reverse, the career fast forward. Six years later Lavin, then 32, was the head coach at UCLA. That his first head coaching job at any level was as the steward of Pauley Pavilion; that he never played college basketball; and that he is effortlessly handsome — Keady often refers to him as “George Clooney” — and affable, all of these factors render him subject to more skepticism than any of his peers.
Lavin holds no grudge. “At UCLA you’re hired to be fired,” he says. “There’s only one pope, that’s John Wooden. I’m just fortunate I was able to spend that much time in the Vatican.”
Lavin’s parents are originally from Long Island. Cap, a standout guard at the University of San Francisco, played at Madison Square Garden in the 1940s. This job, he says, is a homecoming.
“It’s funny,” says Lavin, who took UCLA at least as far as the Sweet 16 in five of his seven seasons. “I had a writer use the ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere’ line on me about this job. He said, ‘There’s no pressure like New York City.’ ”
“I thought, 'Does he have any idea what it’s like to occupy the same seat that John Wooden once did?' ”
Steve Lavin in New York. If he can make it anywhere, he can make it here.