Steve Lavin's different perspective
His return to UCLA will be in a different locker room and at a different time in his life
LOS ANGELES -- Steve Lavin spent countless hours in Pauley Pavilion during his seven seasons as UCLA's head coach and five seasons before that as a Bruins assistant.
He's been back numerous times since he was fired by UCLA in 2003, covering games as an college basketball analyst for ESPN.
But Lavin, now the head coach at St. John's, fears he might get lost when he brings his team into Pauley Pavilion for Saturday's nonconference game against UCLA. Tipoff for the nationally televised game is 10 a.m. PT.
"To be honest I'm not sure I've ever been in the opposing locker room," Lavin said. "It's on the opposite side. I've used the restroom on that side, but I haven't actually gone into the locker room, that I can recall, on that side of Pauley."
The game between UCLA (15-7) and St. John's (13-8) is being billed as an East Coast-West Coast showdown of two programs with proud traditions. The outcome will almost certainly have implications when it comes NCAA tournament selection time as both teams seem to be headed for the dreaded bubble.
But all of those are supporting storylines to the lead role of Lavin returning to UCLA for the first time as an opposing coach.
Despite a 145-78 overall record at UCLA, making the NCAA tournament six times in his seven seasons and advancing to the Sweet 16 five times, Lavin became a controversial figure to UCLA fans during his tenure. Hired at only 32, Lavin was said to have lucked into the job because he was promoted to replace Jim Harrick.
His slicked back hair and big personality didn't sit well at a school where tradition and values instilled by John Wooden ruled the roost. They saw him as a coach who didn't respect the UCLA tradition. So when a 10-19 season in 2002-03 cost Lavin is job, many were happy to see him go.
Now, they get the chance to welcome him back the UCLA way.
"It'll be clever, witty," Lavin said when asked what kind of reception he expects. "Spirited and obviously supporting the home team."
After leaving UCLA, Lavin spent the next seven years as an analyst for ESPN. He said he thought about returning to coaching, but only if he found the "right fit."
That came along last spring, when the St. John's job opened up. Lavin said it was during his first interview for the job that Red Storm athletic director Chris Monasch mentioned the upcoming game at UCLA.
"We just kind of smiled about it," Lavin said.
The game had been in the works long before Lavin was hired. UCLA and St. John's played a home-and-home series in 2002 and '03, and Monasch and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero wanted to renew that deal.
Lavin said the game was in no way a deterrent to taking the St. John's job.
"I have such an affinity for the school after 12 years in Westwood," Lavin said. "To me, it was a real plus."
UCLA coach Ben Howland and Lavin are friends. In fact when Howland was hired to replace Lavin, one of the first phone calls he made was to Lavin. Howland said he wanted to pick Lavin's brain about the lay of the land at UCLA, so the two had dinner in Marina del Rey.
But friendships will be put on the back burner once the ball goes in the air Saturday. Despite the underlying plot line of former coach trying to beat the guy who replaced him, Howland insists it will be all basketball come tipoff.
"Both of us, in terms of UCLA and St. Johns, are going to be very motivated," Howland said. "This is a very good team we're playing. Obviously, they just knocked off Duke. They've had some big wins. ... Some top-20 wins. We really need to play well to win. Nothing to do with the fact that Steve was the coach here before."
The current UCLA players know little about Lavin. The oldest UCLA player, Jerime Anderson, was 13 when Lavin was fired. Some of the younger players were 10 and 11 years old.
Still, they realize why there is so much hype surrounding his return.
"I definitely understand," Anderson said. "He was here for a long time and was part of that [1994-95] national championship team. It's a big deal."
Howland, knowing the UCLA fan base has strong anti-Lavin feelings, said he hopes that the Bruins fans don't make too big of a deal about it Saturday morning. He noted that Lavin left him with players such as Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins, both of whom became starters on the 2006 Final Four team.
"I hope, and I would think, he's going to get a very warm reception," Howland said. "Steve gave UCLA 12 years of his life and worked very hard here and was part of a national championship team. And not only that, since he's been gone, he's been nothing but positive about UCLA. When he was on ESPN, he always talked up basketball in the West, which is important to all of us out here. Steve has been great and I think is really, really a first-class guy."
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Lavin, however, isn't all that concerned. He said he understands that UCLA fans have a higher standard. Simply making the NCAA tournament wasn't enough and leaving with a 10-19 record was unacceptable.
"When it comes to UCLA, there is only one coach in the history of this program, and that's John Wooden," Lavin said. "Everyone else understands that is inherent in the equation. You are grateful to get to play a small part, however long it is, in being part of a great tradition. ... I understand that anything less than a national title or Final Four at UCLA is a failure. That's OK."
He said he hadn't given much thought to his return to Pauley as an opposing coach. He was hired at St. John's in March and has been consumed with getting his program in order.
"I've never allowed myself to look forward and really begin to reflect on what it means to come back as an opposing coach," he said.
That would probably change, he added, Saturday morning.
"As we get closer to taking that bus ride from our hotel to Pauley Pavilion, the surreal aspect will hit me," he said. "Having been there as an assistant, having been there as a head coach and been there as a broadcaster, now to come back as the opposing coach brings it full circle."
But once the game begins, Lavin said he's sure he will go into coach mode and forget about where he is. He said he'd be lost in the competition, focused on the X's and O's and then try to give his team an edge by making the necessary adjustments at halftime in the locker room.
If he can find it, that is.
Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.