UCLA fires Lavin

AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Steve Lavin’s hiring as UCLA basketball coach in 1996 was shocking. His firing sure wasn’t.

Lavin was dismissed Monday after the team’s first losing season in 55 years, a move widely anticipated for months by everyone, including Lavin.

“I’ve been leaning toward this decision over the last several weeks,” said first-year athletic director Dan Guerrero, who fired his second major coach at the school in 3 1/2 months. “Can a coach have a bad year? Sure they can, but it’s about looking to the future.”

Football coach Bob Toledo was let go in December after seven years on the job.

Lavin went 145-78 in seven years 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.

Lavin’s teams won at least 20 games every season except this one.

UCLA went 10-19 overall and 6-12 in Pac-10 play, finishing sixth for the second straight year — its worst-ever conference showing.

“That’s not acceptable,” Guerrero said after a 13-minute campus news conference. “You need to be consistent throughout the year. You need to finish at the top of your conference.”

Lavin fell into the job when Jim Harrick was fired in November 1996 — only a week before the season began and 19 months after the Bruins won their 11th and most recent national championship. Then-AD Peter Dalis had no choice but to promote Lavin from unproven assistant to head coach. Veterans Mark Gottfried and Lorenzo Romar had left for head coaching jobs, leaving Lavin as the No. 1 assistant.

“From the interim days seven years ago to these final days, I think the kids would agree I’ve been probably very consistent, probably to a fault sometimes,” Lavin said after coaching his final game Friday. “I’ve really been the same for seven years.”

But his teams weren’t.

Under Lavin, the Bruins were known for being unpredictable and unable to close out games against inferior opponents.

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

Lavin’s final two games typified his UCLA career. The Bruins stunned No. 1 Arizona in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, only to blow an 11-point late in the next game and lose by one point to Oregon.

“We frankly were not a real solid team early in the year,” Guerrero said. “UCLA fans want to see a consistent effort. They’re very passionate.”

There were 10 losses at Pauley Pavilion, the most ever in a season, and the average attendance of 8,348 was the lowest since 1993 in the 12,819-seat arena.

At times, the Bruins were booed off their home floor, and fans wore T-shirts that said “Lose Lavin” and “Fire Lavin Immediately.”

It was a stunningly negative atmosphere at a school that has won a record 11 national championships: 10 under John Wooden in the 1960s and 1970s, and one under Harrick in 1995 — when Lavin was the No. 3 assistant.

“There are those individuals who believe the Wooden era can be replicated,” Guerrero said. “It’s not likely in our lifetimes.”

The Bruins had not had a losing record since going 12-13 under coach Wilbur Johns in 1948. Wooden replaced Johns the following season.

This season’s record was the worst for the Bruins since 1942, when they were 5-18 under Johns.

Guerrero informed Lavin of his decision over breakfast Monday.

“It was almost surreal,” Guerrero said. “We had a very pleasant conversation. He talked about fresh starts for both of us.”

For weeks, Lavin had spoken of his 12 years at UCLA, including five as an assistant, in the past tense, making his dismissal anticlimactic. He joked about his impending fate and even named a list of possible successors.

“I truly believe there was never any malice intended,” Guerrero said. “It was a way for him to cope. Steve acted with great dignity through some very difficult times.”

Lavin had five years remaining on his contract. He will receive a buyout of one year of his full salary of $578,000, and four years at the base salary of $153,000.

“I take the long view, and I am grateful for the experience of teaching at one of the world’s great universities,” Lavin said in a statement. “I will remember most the lasting friendships I’ve made, and I remain optimistic about the bright future of the program.”

Guerrero said he planned to consult with the 92-year-old Wooden concerning Lavin’s successor.

“It’s quite possible we won’t have a person named until after the Final Four,” Guerrero said. “This is a high-level hire for us.”

The Final Four ends April 7 in New Orleans.

Guerrero refused to identify potential candidates, but such names as Ben Howland of Pittsburgh, Mark Few of Gonzaga, Rick Majerus of Utah and former UCLA coach Larry Brown of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers have been mentioned.