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 Sunday, January 16
Critics clamor for change, but Lavin perseveres
By Andy Katz

 CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- UCLA's bus was idling outside the Dean Smith Center, waiting on Steve Lavin for what would be a hurried drive to the airport.

Lavin was aware he was holding up the team. But he had a few more points to finish in defense of his position as UCLA's head coach.

Steve Lavin
UCLA coach Steve Lavin pleads his case in the win over North Carolina.

He didn't need to -- UCLA's 71-68 victory over North Carolina said it all.

Saturday, Lavin proved to the skeptics he could coach. At 35, and four years into one of the most stressful jobs in college basketball, Lavin is still learning. There's no harm in that, at least until his next loss when the alumni, boosters and media will likely yearn for a John Calipari- or Rick Majerus-type to swoop in and "save the program."

"The biggest challenge of being the UCLA coach is not to lose context," Lavin said. "It's not like the BCS, when your season is over after one loss. I know the boosters, alumni and media won't put a loss in perspective, but I have to. We all want to win the national title, but some years that's not realistic."

When the Bruins lost to USC Wednesday night at the Sports Arena -- their second defeat in three games and fourth in 13 games this season -- Lavin expected to be blistered. He made sure he picked up an L.A. paper Thursday before flying to North Carolina. His girlfriend, Treena Camacho -- who works as an assistant in the UCLA athletic department -- couldn't believe he would read every word.

But he did. Does every time.

"Because of recruiting, you've got to know what's being said," Lavin said. "How can you be in business and not read the stock pages? It's the same thing. But you've got to have a sense of humor about it."

No one was laughing when the Bruins let the Trojans drive through their press. They never adjusted. And Lavin admitted he got burned by his own plan.

The loss prompted a poll on the L.A. Times web site in which users were asked to choose the better coach, USC's Henry Bibby or Lavin. Saturday, the results were 88.8 to 11.2 percent in favor of Bibby.

"He's been able to coach the whole time," said UCLA freshman forward Jason Kapono. "They like to say coach Lavin is young and he doesn't know what he's doing. But he can coach. It's a matter of us players using his knowledge to play. We lost four games this year, but not because of Lavin, but because we didn't play hard."

Lavin knows that when he beats Gene Keady, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Lute Olson and Denny Crum the perception is he did it with talent.

Lose to Washington, Colorado State, Gonzaga and USC? The word is he can't coach.

"This is a tough place to play," Kapono said. "With coach Lav, it's like he's always following in the footsteps of John Wooden. Win and it's nothing special. Lose and the whole world is collapsing."

Against the Tar Heels, Lavin's staff decided to start Rico Hines (a native of Greenville, N.C.) for energy. Defensively, they opted to pack it in against the Tar Heels' Brendan Haywood. The adjustments worked (Hines had three steals in 15 minutes to help build a 38-37 halftime lead) and the Tar Heels were forced to beat them from the outside.

UNC couldn't, and as a result, lost its second non-conference home game in the same season for the first time since nearby Fort Bragg and Fort Jackson shocked the Tar Heels in 1944. (Carolina has actually lost two straight after falling at Wake Forest last week. The Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tuesday).

Lavin took the strategy from successful game plans in wins over DePaul (this season), against Michigan and center Robert Traylor (two years ago in the NCAA Tournament) and from the '95 tourney title run (against Oklahoma State and Arkansas) when Lavin was an assistant.

"Lav never shows the pressure he's under," junior point guard Earl Watson said. "I asked him, 'How can you do this, how can you take this?' Man, it's hard to be in his position. I'm trying to learn how to relieve the pressure of being the UCLA point guard. I asked him what the secret is."

The answer is to remember that nothing has been normal at UCLA. Lavin was hired amid a scandal when Jim Harrick was fired after an expense report violation. He was 12-7 when athletics director Pete Dalis hired him.

Year Two began with Jelani McCoy and Kris Johnson suspended for unspecified violations. McCoy was later dismissed. The year ended with Baron Davis tearing his ACL.

He began Year Three in the hole, with Davis on the bench, nursing the surgically repaired knee.

This season got off to a horrid start with Matt Barnes ineligible for the first semester and sophomore forward JaRon Rush suspended after three games for taking extra benefits prior to enrolling in Westwood. Rush, the team's best athlete and rebounder, is still out.

"The most difficult period I have had as a coach was the interim period, not knowing if I would have a job," Lavin said. "That's pressure. I thought my career had crashed and burned before I got to the runway. My goal was to be the coach at USF. But when you fail at UCLA as an interim coach, you're failing in front of the whole world."

Last spring, Lavin was given a six-year rollover contract. His current contract runs through 2001-02 and the new deal will extend through 2004-05, giving him a six-year contract that also has a rollover clause.

He said there is no easy out for UCLA to cut him loose. He feels secure with the administration, especially Dalis and Chancellor Albert Carnesale.

"That's why I bought a house," said Lavin. "That's why I can sign a T.J. Cummings out of Chicago. Regardless of the talk radio, the letters to the editor, they know I'm going to be the coach here. Every year I've been here, including the years as an assistant, we've been written off. But I'm here for the long haul."

Ultimately, Lavin will be judged by NCAA Tournament success. This year's team, even with Saturday's win, will likely have a few more failures.

They could lose twice to Arizona, Stanford and Oregon and still have to play at Syracuse. But the Bruins have quality wins over the Tar Heels, South Florida, DePaul and Purdue, making a tournament berth a given if they can get to 18 wins. Not bad if Rush never plays this season.

If everyone stays for 2000-01 and the expected newcomers sign, UCLA could have a lineup of: Dan Gadzuric and Josh Moore at center, Jerome Moiso and Cummings at power forward, Rush at small forward, Kapono, Ray Young and Hines at wing and Watson and Ryan Bailey (who banked in one free throw and made a second with 14.9 seconds left to ice the win) at the point.

If he doesn't win with that group, then Lavin's coaching record will certainly be in question. But at UCLA, his abilities will likely be challenged as early as Thursday's game against Arizona.


UCLA kicks up heels in 71-68 upset of Carolina