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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, Steve Lavin stepped on to the patio at the Hudson Hotel last week on a balmy spring night in midtown Manhattan. As he plunked into a chair and ordered a drink, he greeted the waitress like a lifelong pal. "Hey Rachel, how ya doin'?" he asked. Lavin engaged her for a few minutes about her schooling -- she's studying interior design -- and then offered me a sheepish smile. "I've been here so long that everyone is like family," he said. "We had the interview here and I never left."

Lavin was referring to his job interview with St. John's athletic director Chris Monasch, which was followed three days later with Lavin's introduction as the 19th head coach in the history of St. John's basketball. During the 50-plus days that Lavin has lived at the Hudson, he has conducted so many meetings on the patio that he and his staff have started referring to it as "the office." I asked Lavin when he planned on finding a permanent residence. "We're looking around, but I haven't gotten serious about it yet. Right now it's my fifth priority."

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, Jim Harrick, was fired two weeks before the start of the season for falsifying an expense report. (On the day he took over, Lavin was more than $70,000 in debt.) He was initially handed the head job on an interim basis, but by February Lavin had done well enough that the school gave him the job permanently. He rewarded them by leading the Bruins on a surprising run to the Elite Eight.

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, Dan Guerrero. (On the night I met Lavin at the Hudson Hotel, he was going to meet up later with Guerrero and some other buddies for dinner.) "Those 12 years at UCLA set the table for every experience I've had moving forward. To not be grateful would be very narrow and small-minded," he said. "This whole thing has been a magic carpet ride, from getting hired at Purdue by Gene Keady as a graduate assistant to coaching at UCLA to sitting courtside with Brent Musburger, a guy I grew up watching. Now coming to St. John's, having a press conference at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of college basketball. Why would you not be thrilled?"

Lavin almost returned to the sidelines four years ago after Herb Sendek left N.C. State for Arizona State. During the two weeks he pondered taking Sendek's old job, Lavin spoke with mentors like John Wooden, Pete Newell, Keady, Tom Izzo and Bruce Weber. He eventually turned down N.C. State and re-upped with ESPN, but he still has his notes from all those conversations, which he read through before coming to St. John's. It was, he said, a great exercise in decision making.

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 Jerry Wainwright in January, Lavin reached out to athletic director Jean Ponsetto to convey his interest, but Ponsetto never reciprocated. Meanwhile, by the time Monasch called in March, he had already been publicly spurned by several candidates, most notably Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt. The two jilted lovers connected quickly. Less than 72 hours passed between that first phone call and the moment Lavin met the press at the Garden.

"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 Barry Rohrssen, Loyola head coach Jimmy Patsos and former Virginia head coach Dave Leitao, but he couldn't convince any of them to come on board. He finally settled on Tony Chiles, a Bronx native who played for Columbia and, after a brief stint as a financial consultant, served as an assistant at Manhattan, Iona and Drexel. "I already have relationships with people in New York," Chiles said. "There's no feeling out process."

Lavin's next hire was Rico Hines, a native of Greenville, N.C., who was his first recruit at UCLA. Hines spent the last five years as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors specializing in player development. Hines worked long hours with pros like Baron Davis, C.J. Watson, Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry, and as a former player of Lavin's he can facilitate the communication between the new coach and the players. More important, hiring Hines allowed Lavin send a clear message that he takes care of his own. "I wanted to reach back and bring someone forward who helped me reach my station in life," Lavin said. "You make a statement that way in terms of family and loyalty. It can't just be empty talk. You have to give it teeth."

That was also part of Lavin's reasoning behind luring Mike Dunlap off the staff at the University of Oregon. Lavin first got to know Dunlap when he was a student at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and Dunlap was an assistant at USC. Dunlap later worked the basketball camps in San Francisco run by Lavin's father, Cap. Lavin later added another dash of West Coast flavor by hiring Derrick Wrobel, the director of external relations at California, to be an administrative assistant. (Wrobel once worked Lavin's camp at UCLA.)

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 Dick Harter or Tex Winter -- or Don Zimmer, to use a local reference," Lavin said. The main thing holding up the deal is Keady's need to figure out what to do with his 8-year-old poodle, Queen. Keady's wife, Pat, passed away last year, and that pooch is his last direct link to her. Keady sounded inclined to take the job, though living in New York City, even if it's only for six months out of the year, will be a culture shock. "It rained the other day and I ended up paying $87 for a damn umbrella," Keady groused.

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 Maurice Hicks, who won five state championships as the coach at Rice High in Harlem and has signed on to be Lavin's director of basketball operations. Beyond that, Lavin gained a foothold in the south with Hines and in the west with Dunlap and Wrobel. And of course, Lavin has his own deep ties to the west coast.

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 Dwayne Polee Jr., a 6-foot-7 swingman from Los Angeles' Westchester High, the same school that produced two prior Lavin signees at UCLA, Trevor Ariza and Billy Knight. Lavin's contacts out west told him the kid was legit, so he called Polee, who had previously de-committed from USC and was considering Georgia and Oregon, and encouraged him to visit St. John's campus. Polee, who Lavin said is "the best athlete I've ever recruited," signed his Letter of Intent on May 10.

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 Remi Barry, a 6-7 native of France who is currently a senior at Sacramento High. Barry is also considering UCLA, Arizona State, St. Mary's, Gonzaga and Washington. He will take an official visit to St. John's in early June.

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 Jerome Moiso and Dan Gadzuric. He said that if French native Tony Parker was going to attend a college in the U.S., it would likely have been UCLA. "Even back then, he was asking about starlets," Lavin said. Now he needs to repeat that success at St. John's, which next spring will lose nine seniors off its roster, forcing Lavin to sign 11 players in two years.

"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 Mike Jarvis in the fall of 2003. Though Jarvis's successor, Norm Roberts, did well to take the program back to respectability in his six seasons, his failure to lead the Red Storm back to the NCAA tournament proved fatal. Lavin's own tenure is off to a good start, but he knows the good vibrations won't last. "This is the honeymoon," he said. "We haven't played a game in the Big East yet."

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.

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