Lavin brings his new team into UCLA

Lavin brings his new team into UCLA

Published Feb. 4, 2011 5:58 p.m. ET

A week or so after being fired by UCLA in 2003, Steve Lavin got together with successor Ben Howland over margaritas.

''Mine were virgin and I'm sure Ben's were as well,'' Lavin said. ''We talked about the lay of the land at UCLA. He wanted my perspective on things.''

Lavin surely had a lot to say.

Now he's returning to UCLA for the first time as an opposing coach, leading St. John's (13-8) against the Bruins (15-7) on Saturday in a nationally televised matchup of teams from the country's two biggest media markets that begins at 10 a.m. PST.


''As we get closer to taking that bus ride from our hotel, the surreal aspect will hit me,'' Lavin said after arriving in Los Angeles.

He and Howland have known each other since Lavin's days as the No. 3 assistant under Jim Harrick at UCLA.

When Harrick was fired a week before the season began in November 1996, and 19 months after the Bruins won their 11th national championship, Lavin fell into the top job, going from unproven understudy to running one of the most storied programs in college basketball at the tender age of 32.

Lavin went 145-78 during seven years in Westwood and took the Bruins to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament five times in six years, a feat matched only by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

His teams won at least 20 games every season except his last in 2002-03, when their 10-19 record marked the school's first losing season in 55 years.

Under Lavin, the Bruins were known for being unpredictable and unable to close out games against inferior opponents despite a roster of future NBA players that included Baron Davis, Matt Barnes, Earl Watson and Jason Kapono.

For all the electrifying victories during the Lavin era, including four upsets of No. 1-ranked teams, there were losses to Ball State, Cal State Northridge, Detroit Mercy, Northern Arizona, Pepperdine and Tulsa.

In Lavin's final season, attendance at Pauley Pavilion plummeted to its lowest in 10 years. At times, the Bruins were booed off their home floor, and fans wore T-shirts that said ''Lose Lavin'' and ''Fire Lavin Immediately.''

''Anything less than a Final Four or a national title at UCLA is a failure and I understand that,'' Lavin said. ''I'm just grateful I was able to be the head coach.''

Nearly eight years have passed since he was shown the door, likely long enough for the school's aging fan base to have forgiven the man credited with having great hair and criticized for not knowing his Xs and Os.

Lavin knew being denounced and second-guessed came with the territory at a school where the late John Wooden's shadow forever looms large over the basketball program.

What bothers him to this day are people who insinuate that he doesn't deserve what he calls ''this magic carpet ride in basketball that I've had.''

''They want you to apologize or feel guilty for having some wonderful opportunities over the last 23 years,'' Lavin said, ticking off his time as a Purdue graduate assistant, his 12 years at UCLA, his broadcasting gig and now his return to the bench.

''At times that takes you aback,'' he said. ''I've been grateful and thankful.''

After his firing, he went on to broadcast games for ESPN, returning periodically to work in the building where his heavily jelled hair was once a fixture on the sideline.

''Walking into Pauley, I've always felt right at home,'' Lavin said. ''I'm not sure I've ever been in the opposing locker room.''

The closest he's come is using a restroom during broadcasting gigs that is located on the same east side of the arena as the visitor's locker room. Both are on the opposite end of the building from the Bruins' locker room.

Lavin said UCLA has been generous in helping procure extra tickets for family, friends and former players he expects to attend.

''I would hope and I would think he's going to get a very warm reception,'' Howland said.

Recalling the creativity of UCLA's student section, Lavin expects the reaction ''will be clever or witty in terms of the signs, spirited, and obviously supporting the home team.''

Howland knows what it's like to go up against a former employer and friend. The Bruins played Pittsburgh in the 2007 NCAA tournament, giving Howland a victory over former assistant Jaime Dixon, who got the top job after he headed west.

''It wasn't fun,'' Howland said. ''I love Jaime so that was a hard thing.''

The Bruins last played St. John's in 2003-04, Howland's first season after replacing Lavin. They lost to the Red Storm 71-55, a defeat similar to their 80-65 loss the previous season under Lavin.

Howland said the latest home-and-home series was already in the works before Lavin was hired at St. John's last March.

Lavin's biggest win in his first season in New York came last week, when the senior-dominated Red Storm upset then-No. 3 Duke 93-78. They also have wins over then-13th-ranked Georgetown and then-No. 9 Notre Dame. They're 3-5 in their last eight games, but followed up the Duke win by edging Rutgers 58-56.

UCLA's best win came against then-No. 16 BYU in December, two weeks after the Bruins lost 77-76 at then-No. 4 Kansas. The young Bruins, who have no seniors, have won six of their last seven, including two straight.

Lavin brings with him former Purdue coach Gene Keady, whom he hired as a special assistant-adviser, and assistant Rico Hines, the first recruit he signed at UCLA.

Now 46, Lavin is married to an actress and he wears less hair gel.

''Part of that is Obama-inspired, trying to do my part with the environment,'' he said, his sense of humor always intact.