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Jeff Eisenberg

Steve Lavin forms unlikely friendship with the man who fired him

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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As guests assembled at the Los Angeles Athletic Club to honor a longtime local basketball coach a little over a year ago, they each had to be wondering the same thing: just how awkward would the interaction between the guest speakers be?

One was ex-UCLA coach Steve Lavin. The other was the man who fired him.

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Dinner conversation turned out to be smoother than expected, however, because of the surprising ease with which Lavin behaved around his former boss. Lavin and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero posed for pictures, chatted amicably and even told jokes at each other's expense.

"You could see the kind of friendship and respect those two guys have for each other," said Dave Yanai, the longtime coach at Cal State Dominguez Hills who was the guest of honor that night. "The jokes and the comments were flowing. I felt good that two guys most people would assume would be adversaries have moved past that."

If unforgiving UCLA fans boo Lavin when the St. John's coach makes his long-awaited return to Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, at least he can count on support from an unlikely friend in Guerrero. The embattled coach and new athletic director had a strong working relationship during their lone year together at UCLA, parted amicably in March 2003 and have only strengthened their friendship in the eight years since.

From conversations in the press box at UCLA football games, to reunions for the Bruins' 1995 championship team, to run-ins at basketball games they both attended, Lavin and Guerrero have stayed in contact in person in addition to exchanging sporadic phone calls and emails.

Guerrero sought Lavin's advice while deciding whether to hire football coach Rick Neuheisel since both were assistants at UCLA at the same time. And Lavin received a glowing recommendation from Guerrero when St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch was in the midst of his coaching search last spring.

"Our friendship is just a natural outgrowth of working with someone that you respect and someone you share common interests with," Lavin said. "Either you have a rapport and you enjoy one-another's company or you don't."

It's easy to understand why Lavin often described Guerrero's 2002 arrival at UCLA as "a breath of fresh air" considering the strained relationship he had with previous athletic director Peter Dalis.

Handed the keys to the Rolls Royce of college basketball programs in 1996 even though he'd never been a head coach at any level, Lavin might have benefited from an athletic director who offered day-to-day guidance and advice. Instead, Dalis took a more hands-off approach, focusing on the business side of the department and trusting the 32-year-old Lavin to fend for himself like he would a veteran coach.

The lack of communication became a full-fledged rift in January 2001 when reports surfaced that Dalis secretly reached out to Rick Pitino about replacing Lavin after the Bruins got off to their usual sluggish start. Dalis bungled the situation further by insisting to Lavin he never contacted Pitino, only to admit to the media the next day that he had.

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The "Pitino episode" stung Lavin, but he showed resiliency by leading UCLA to 13 wins in its next 15 games, forcing Dalis to temporarily put an end to the speculation with a tepid vote of confidence. That didn't last long, however, because a 2001-02 season rife with unforgettable highs and cataclysmic lows only touched off further speculation about Lavin's job security.

Even though Lavin reached the NCAA tournament in each of his first six seasons at UCLA, critics asserted that his teams underachieved, that he was a poor talent evaluator and that he needed to hire a veteran assistant capable of helping out with in-game adjustments.

"There's no one better at handling tough situations than Steve," said Jim Saia, a childhood friend of Lavin and assistant coach under him at UCLA. "Obviously he's human and stuff bothers him, but he's always had the innate ability to move on with life in a positive way. The glass is always half full and the future is always bright. He really follows the coach Wooden motto of making every day your masterpiece."

When Guerrero replaced the retiring Dalis in July 2002, he insists he evaluated Lavin with an open mind.

The former UCLA shortstop turned fast-rising administrator quickly developed a good rapport with Lavin because of how much they had in common, from their backgrounds as college athletes, to their glass-half-full optimism, to their mutual affection for John Wooden. Guerrero also adopted a more hands-on approach with Lavin than Dalis had, setting up regular face-to-face meetings and routinely attending practices to better understand his coaching style.

"I was trying to assess whether Steve had a chance to move forward," Guerrero said. "What helped solidify our relationship was that we communicated. That was something I felt was very important and it was lacking in his experience with my predecessor for various reasons. The fact that we did meet on a regular basis as we went through that very, very difficult year, I think that was helpful."

Even an eternal optimist like Lavin knew the odds weren't in his favor during his final season. The losses piled up. Recruiting misevaluations and instability from constant speculation eroded UCLA's talent level. Attendance also dwindled and many of those who showed up had lost faith in the program.

A handful of fans arrived at games with brown paper bags over their heads. "Lose Lavin" T-shirts were sprinkled among the student section. It became so apparent by the end of the season that a coaching change was imminent that a student reporter even asked Lavin who he thought should replace him, prompting the UCLA coach to rattle off a list of potential successors before he'd even formally been fired.

"There was an implicit understanding of what was going on between Dan and I," Lavin said. "While I was going to teach and coach to the best of my abilities, I wasn't Mr. Magoo. I wasn't naive to the fact that Dan had been hired to shake up the organization."

Sure enough, three days after UCLA concluded its first losing season since 1948 with a one-point loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament semifinals, Guerrero took Lavin to breakfast a few blocks from campus to officially fire him.

Neither mentioned the formality that hung between them. Instead, they had a pleasant wide-ranging conversation about baseball, their year together at UCLA and Lavin's uncertain future before shaking hands and parting as friends.

"It was as amicable a divorce as anyone could ever expect at that level," Lavin said.

Added Guerrero, "Over pancakes and smiles, I gave him a pink slip. You don't see that happen very often in our industry."

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Lavin's unique ability to separate a business decision from a personal one paved the way for his unlikely friendship with Guerrero.

They've kept in touch via phone calls and emails, congratulating each other on personal milestones or trading stories about mutual friends. Lavin's former job as an ESPN analyst and Guerrero's five-year term on the NCAA men's basketball committee also occasionally gave them a chance to catch up in person.

When St. John's was narrowing its list of candidates in search of the right coach to revive its once-proud basketball program, Monasch called Guerrero in late March and asked whether Lavin would be a good fit.

"What I shared with Chris was that clearly Steve was ready to make that move and he wanted to make that move," Guerrero said. "My take on Steve was that time had passed. Steve has had the benefit of being in a lot of gymnasiums, talking to a lot of great coaches and watching them practice over that period. He's also grown as a person and matured."

Lavin has made Guerrero's advice to Monasch look wise so far, leading a senior-laden Johnnies team into NCAA tournament contention this season and signing a decorated 2011 recruiting class expected to be the foundation for the program's future.

He would have preferred a few years to build St. John's before returning to UCLA to face his former program, but Guerrero and Monasch arranged a home-and-home series for the next two seasons months before his hiring.

That sets up Saturday's matchup in which the most dramatic moment may be seeing how Lavin is received by the Pauley Pavilion crowd.

"I think it will be mixed," Guerrero said. "There will be a number of people happy to see Steve on the sideline and to be frank, there will be a number of people who will be happy Steve's on the other bench."

Put Guerrero in both of those categories. He made the necessary business decision to fire Lavin eight years ago yet he's pleased to see his friend back in coaching and having success once again.

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