March 20, 2002
By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. - Doom, defeat and the threat of dismissal have hovered over Steve Lavin for six seasons - yet every March, it seems the UCLA coach is preparing the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
In the shadow of John Wooden and in the face of impossible expectations, Lavin has become one of college basketball's most remarkable survivors. An upset of top-seeded Cincinnati on Sunday propelled the Bruins (21-11) into their fifth regional semifinal under Lavin.
So how does a coach keep his head when boosters and media are constantly calling for it? By not worrying when fans and the media ignore his achievements, but criticize everything from his recruiting to his hairstyle.
"It gets a little bit silly," Lavin said as he prepared UCLA for its meeting with Missouri (23-11) on Thursday in the West Regional.
"There's the Bill Murray, 'Groundhog Day' element to it. It's pretty boring, over and over again. ... "Once we get hot in the tournament, people think it's nine lives, that we're lucky like a cat ... but what it really is, is applying these old-school principles of John Wooden and Gene Keady, with maybe a new presentation because of the slick hair."
In the only regional final this weekend without a No. 1 seed, the Bruins' next challenge is coach Quin Snyder's 12th-seeded Tigers, who upset Miami and Ohio State to reach its first regional semifinal since 1994.
Arizona faces Oklahoma in the first game of a compelling doubleheader between the Pac-10 and the Big 12 at Compaq Center at San Jose.
Each of Lavin's six seasons at UCLA have included high preseason expectations, followed by serious stumbles during the regular season. Then, in every season but 1998-99, Lavin has coaxed the Bruins' tremendous talent deep into the tournament.
Lavin is the only UCLA coach to reach consecutive regional semifinals since Wooden retired in 1975. Only Duke can match the Bruins' run of five regional semifinals in six years.
But the credit, it seems, never reaches Lavin.
"We don't even worry about it any more," said senior Rico Hines, who won't play this week. "We've been here so long, and ever since we've been here, Coach Lavin is about to get fired, and we're the worst team in UCLA history.
"We don't even listen to it. Our goal is just to put it together in the tournament."
Relaxing in San Jose on Wednesday, the San Francisco native could only smile and shake his head over his inability to please anyone but his players. He also empathized with Snyder, whose Tigers fell from a No. 2 national ranking down to a 12th seed this season.
"(We're) two young coaches who are constantly going to be scrutinized or roasted because of our age," Lavin said. "He's been under fire, but he's done a great job of keeping his kids upbeat, keeping them positive and aggressive and confident. Now they're playing well at the right time of the year."
Instead of receiving praise for his teams' achievements, Lavin only seems to garner criticism for their shortcomings. He's been belittled by boosters who long for a higher-profile coach, and criticized by columnists who question his ability even to run a practice. Last year, athletic director Pete Dalis even admitted he had spoken to Rick Pitino about replacing Lavin.
UCLA's meeting with Missouri pits two talented teams that got their games together just in time. The Tigers are led by junior Kareem Rush, whose brother JaRon would have been a senior at UCLA this season had he not left school early.
"It would have been fun to play against him, because we always used to talk about getting in the NCAA tournament together," Kareem Rush said. "It's too bad."
Like Lavin, Snyder struggled to protect his team from unrealistic expectations - and then worked to build his players back up when they failed to reach those expectations.
"It's a balancing act, but it's part of coaching," Snyder said. "You try to keep your team focused on the court and not on the distractions. It's very hard, but every coach has to find a way to deal with it."
In Arizona's meeting with Oklahoma, the Wildcats' young roster will get its biggest test in weeks against the veteran-laden Sooners, whose stifling defense makes them many observers' picks to advance from San Jose to the Final Four.
The graceful Wildcats, led by Luke Walton, muscled their way into the regional semifinals with a victory over Wyoming, but Oklahoma plays a physical style not often seen in the Pac-10.
"We're not worried too much about Arizona or the success they've had," Oklahoma forward Aaron McGhee said. "We're just concentrating on our own game, because we think we're good enough to get to Atlanta."