After 7-year coaching sabbatical, lively Lavin dives into St. John's gig
During a roller-coaster run at UCLA, Lavin's teams made the Sweet 16 five times
Look at this staff and you can see Lavin's vision for the resurrection of St. John's
Lavin's first recruiting splash at St. John's came from Southern California
NEW YORK -- Looking cheerful and spry while clutching a cell phone in his left hand, Steve Lavin stepped on to the patio at the Hudson Hotel last week on a balmy spring night in midtown Manhattan. As he plunked into a chair and ordered a drink, he greeted the waitress like a lifelong pal. "Hey Rachel, how ya doin'?" he asked. Lavin engaged her for a few minutes about her schooling -- she's studying interior design -- and then offered me a sheepish smile. "I've been here so long that everyone is like family," he said. "We had the interview here and I never left."
Lavin was referring to his job interview with St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch, which was followed three days later with Lavin's introduction as the 19th head coach in the history of St. John's basketball. During the 50-plus days that Lavin has lived at the Hudson, he has conducted so many meetings on the patio that he and his staff have started referring to it as "the office." I asked Lavin when he planned on finding a permanent residence. "We're looking around, but I haven't gotten serious about it yet. Right now it's my fifth priority."
Notice he didn't say it was a "low" priority, or that it was not his "top" priority. It was his "fifth" priority. A man could only make that assertion if he had taken time to compile an actual list -- which, Lavin being Lavin, is exactly what he did. That's how he concluded that finding a place to live ranked behind: 1) assembling a staff; 2) recruiting; 3) fundraising; and 4) the "whistle-stop publicity tour." Said Lavin, "If I don't take care of the first four, I won't need a residence."
So much is different than it was 14 years ago, when Lavin was plucked from obscurity and handed the reins to one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in all of sports. Lavin was an earnest, inexperienced 32-year-old assistant coach at UCLA when his boss, Jim Harrick, was fired two weeks before the start of the season for falsifying an expense report. (On the day he took over, Lavin was more than $70,000 in debt.) He was initially handed the head job on an interim basis, but by February Lavin had done well enough that the school gave him the job permanently. He rewarded them by leading the Bruins on a surprising run to the Elite Eight.
It was, to say the least, a roller-coaster seven-season run in Westwood. Lavin's teams made the Sweet 16 in five of his first six years, but he still faced withering criticism from UCLA fans who felt that his teams underachieved. He was fired in 2003 following a 10-19 season and latched on as an analyst with ESPN. Over the last seven years, Lavin has sat courtside and watched hundreds of games and practices conducted by the nation's top coaches, a "sabbatical" which broadened his horizons and seasoned his mind. Now, as he takes the helm of another prestigious program, Lavin is still as earnest as ever, but he is no longer the wide-eyed greenhorn he was at 32. He also uses a lot less hair gel. "The petroleum look is out," he quipped. "Gotta adjust with the times."
What is the biggest difference between Lavin Then and Lavin Now? "Process," he said. "Your decision making is so different. You're more deliberative, measured and thoughtful when you're older. We're moving quickly [at St. John's], but we haven't rushed anything."
Despite all the drama, Lavin, 45, insisted he has nothing but fond memories of his time at UCLA. He even remains good friends with the athletic director who fired him, Dan Guerrero. (On the night I met Lavin at the Hudson Hotel, he was going to meet up later with Guerrero and some other buddies for dinner.) "Those 12 years at UCLA set the table for every experience I've had moving forward. To not be grateful would be very narrow and small-minded," he said. "This whole thing has been a magic carpet ride, from getting hired at Purdue by Gene Keady as a graduate assistant to coaching at UCLA to sitting courtside with Brent Musburger, a guy I grew up watching. Now coming to St. John's, having a press conference at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of college basketball. Why would you not be thrilled?"
Lavin almost returned to the sidelines four years ago after Herb Sendek left N.C. State for Arizona State. During the two weeks he pondered taking Sendek's old job, Lavin spoke with mentors like John Wooden, Pete Newell, Keady, Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber. He eventually turned down N.C. State and re-upped with ESPN, but he still has his notes from all those conversations, which he read through before coming to St. John's. It was, he said, a great exercise in decision making.
When that exercise was over, it occurred to Lavin that he might not ever get back into coaching. "And I was at peace with that," he said. If he did coach again, he hoped he it would be at a school with lots of tradition that was located in a big city. The two most realistic choices that fit the profile were DePaul and St. John's. When DePaul fired Jerry Wainwright in January, Lavin reached out to athletic director Jean Ponsetto to convey his interest, but Ponsetto never reciprocated. Meanwhile, by the time Monasch called in March, he had already been publicly spurned by several candidates, most notably Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. The two jilted lovers connected quickly. Less than 72 hours passed between that first phone call and the moment Lavin met the press at the Garden.
"My wife is from Detroit, I grew up in San Francisco, so we both wanted a place that's urban and cosmopolitan," Lavin said. "When I told her that I might have an opportunity at St. John's, she was like, 'No way.' She had heard me talk about it for years. When Chris called, it was a dead sprint into the embrace."
He has been on the run ever since. As he set about fulfilling his number one priority, Lavin knew he had to begin by hiring a "New York Guy" to be his one of his assistants. He spoke with Manhattan head coach Barry Rohrssen, Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos and former Virginia head coach Dave Leitao, but he couldn't convince any of them to come on board. He finally settled on Tony Chiles, a Bronx native who played for Columbia and, after a brief stint as a financial consultant, served as an assistant at Manhattan, Iona and Drexel. "I already have relationships with people in New York," Chiles said. "There's no feeling out process."