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Seven-year ditch

Lavin believes his coaching days are nearly over at UCLA

Posted: Wednesday March 05, 2003 6:05 PM
Updated: Friday March 07, 2003 2:04 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Regrets? Steve Lavin has a couple, but he isn't the bitter, angry person you'd expect as he winds down what he believes are his final days as UCLA coach.

Lavin was an unproven assistant who got college basketball's glamour job seven years ago when Jim Harrick was fired. Lavin is probably headed for the same fate after the Bruins conclude their first losing season in 55 years.

The 38-year-old coach sounds ready to accept what appears to be inevitable.

"I've been very fortunate and grateful for an incredible run," he said. "It's been kind of a magic ride."

Except for this season, which marked the end of two storied streaks -- the school's NCAA-record 54 consecutive winning seasons, dating back to John Wooden's first season in 1948-49, and its 14 straight seasons with 20 or more victories.

The Bruins (7-18) conclude the regular season at Pauley Pavilion with games Thursday against Washington State (7-18) and Saturday against Washington (9-16). Both teams are 0-6 at Pauley during Lavin's head coaching career.

UCLA is tied with Washington for eighth in the Pac-10 at 4-12. The Bruins must beat the Huskies to clinch a berth in the conference tournament, which takes the top eight teams, or their season is over.

And that would clear the way for first-year athletic director Dan Guerrero to fire Lavin, something he said he wouldn't do during the season. Guerrero, who dismissed football coach Bob Toledo in December after seven seasons, has said he will evaluate Lavin at the end of the season.

"For these final games, final days, you're obviously focused on your seniors finishing out on a positive note," Lavin said. "For me, it's a situation where the 12 years, and I mention 12 years to give perspective -- it's just been a long, long time. I've been very fortunate and grateful for an incredible run."

He admitted two regrets: not winning a national title (he was Harrick's top assistant when the Bruins did so in 1995) and not having a better finish for seniors Jason Kapono and Ray Young.

"My heart goes out to those two," he said.

The Bruins have staggered through a nine-game losing streak, the longest since losing 13 straight in 1938-39, a 10-game conference losing skid, and eight straight losses at Pauley -- the most ever in a season.

Before sinking to the current lows, Lavin led the Bruins to the final 16 of the NCAA tournament in five of his first six seasons, a feat matched only by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. He has a 142-77 career record.

Even then, his job security was constantly in question, the pressure to win was always there.

"We hate to see Lav go, but those possibilities are in the air," said sophomore Cedric Bozeman, who won't play again this season while awaiting shoulder surgery.

Although one losing season in seven years isn't enough to oust coaches at most schools, it might be at UCLA, where the administration, alumni and fans expect to win or strongly contend for a national championship every year.

That's been the burden for the six coaches who followed Wooden. The first four after him resigned and the next two were fired.

Until now, the Bruins hadn't had a losing season since 1947-48, when they were 12-13 in coach Wilbur Johns' final year. Wooden took over the following season and went on to coach UCLA to 10 NCAA championships in 12 years before retiring in 1975.

"You realize you're not being treated any different than any other coach who followed John Wooden," Lavin said. "Why would my situation be any different than the previous six coaches or the next six coaches? I understand that."

Lavin has made it clear he won't fight for his job, which likely delights his detractors who've booed him at home games and worn T-shirts with the slogans "Lose Lavin" and "Fire Lavin Immediately."

"People think I'm an optimist. Actually, I think I'm pretty much a realist," he said. "If you get the results, then you continue to coach. If you don't get the results then someone else gets a crack at it."

He's even suggested some possible successors: Pat Douglass of UC Irvine, Mark Few of Gonzaga, Ben Howland of Pittsburgh, Bob Williams of UC Santa Barbara and Roy Williams of Kansas.

Lavin already has his future in mind. He says he wants to coach next season if the job is right. If not, he'd consider a broadcasting career.

Fans around the Pac-10 have always been hard on Lavin, but this season they've cheered him at road games, posed for pictures, presented a farewell card. An Oregon State trainer gave him a $200 bottle of wine, and Lavin drank a glass the other night.

He didn't say whether he toasted his soon-to-be past or the future.


 
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