After 7-year coaching sabbatical, lively Lavin dives into St. John's gig
NEW YORK -- Looking cheerful and spry while clutching a cell phone in his left hand,
Lavin was referring to his job interview with St. John's athletic director
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,
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,
Lavin almost returned to the sidelines four years ago after
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
"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
Lavin's next hire was
That was also part of Lavin's reasoning behind luring
Having found something new, something borrowed and something blue, Lavin hopes to add something old. He has been trying convince Keady, the former Purdue coach who gave Lavin his first job as an assistant in 1988, to join the staff as well. Keady, 74, wouldn't be able to coach on the floor or recruit, but if nothing else he would really liven up the coaches' meetings. "He could be our
Look at this staff, and you can see Lavin's vision for the resurrection of St. John's. Conventional wisdom holds that the school should recruit almost exclusively from the New York area, but Lavin hopes to extend the reach much further. He does have strong local ties in Chiles as well as
Indeed, Lavin's first splash on the recruiting front at St. John's came from Southern California. His first task after taking the job was to find out who were the top uncommitted high school seniors in the country. Then he had to discern who might be interested in coming to Queens. One of the first names that came up was
Polee is no savior; neither Rivals.com nor Scout.com ranks him among the nation's top 150 seniors. But the significance of scoring an early coup cannot be overstated for a fan base that has grown weary of seeing the nation's best schoolboys, local and non-local, head for rival schools. Those fans will be even giddier if Lavin also snags
For all his West Coast ties and New York hires, Lavin is quick to point out that while he was at UCLA he recruited several international players as well, guys like
"St. John's and UCLA are very similar. Both schools have a global brand," he said. "St. John's has a school in Paris. We have a school in Rome. It's the same time to fly to Los Angeles from here as it is to those places. Every country is represented in New York City. We want to keep a share of the best players in New York, but we also want to be able to go throughout the country and overseas to develop multiple fronts in recruiting."
St. John's has been on one long rebuilding job ever since the program imploded under
The conference isn't the only unique challenge that awaits. In February, Lavin will take his new team to his old neighborhood for a previously scheduled game against UCLA. "When I was interviewing for the job, Chris Monasch said, 'You know, we're playing UCLA next year.' " Lavin said. "I said, you gotta be kidding me."
Better fasten your seat belt, coach. The magic carpet ride is about to get real bumpy.