Steve Lavin can recruit with the best of them. He proved that in 2007 when he sent out invitations for his Laguna Beach wedding to actress Mary Ann Jarou. About 95 percent replied "yes," a turnout way too big for the fancy resort. So Lavin dashed off a mass e-mail, apologizing and sheepishly saying the wedding would be private, in Capri, Italy.
Later, he said that the important part was having chosen the right wife, which kind of summed up his big-time college basketball coaching career. He was more of a big-picture person than a details guy.
That was his undoing at UCLA, but it is just fine with St. John's, which Tuesday hired the 45-year-old to restore former glory. And if anyone is versed in the pressure of restoring former glory, it is Lavin.
As he once said during his six-season run as a latter-day heir to John Wooden: "I have a real sense of gratitude because no matter how much I'm scrutinized, criticized or dissected like a frog in a biology class, I still can laugh at myself.''
Lavin brings a fresh style to the gritty city job. He has a San Francisco birth certificate, slicked-back hair and an L.A. wardrobe. He never had been a head coach and was only one year removed from a $16,000 salary (and a $70,000 pile of debt) when he was named UCLA coach in 1996, at 32. He likes literature, music, philosophy and used to run marathons.
He has been out of coaching for seven years, having been let go after a 10-19 season that followed five trips to the NCAA Sweet 16. Since then, he has been a popular analyst on ESPN. His ties to New York consist of being the son of Cap Lavin, who played for San Francisco in the old Garden during the 1950 NIT.
Mostly, he is a basketball guy who kept the encouraging letters Wooden used to write to him.
"He is really into the game, he is really a players' coach. He is very focused on what he is doing at the moment," said Gene Keady, the former Purdue coach who hired Lavin as a graduate assistant in 1988.
"A good friend of mine in California recommended him and he was a great addition," Keady said Tuesday, adding that Lavin was in charge of study hall and warm-up drills. The latter was such a specialty that he dazzled UCLA coach Jim Harrick with the Keady-coached U.S. team at the 1991 Pan American Games. Harrick offered Lavin a low-level assistant job.
By 1995, the young man was credited with supervising the defense that won the NCAA championship. When Harrick was ousted for a series of rules infractions, young Lavin was hired as the interim coach. He led UCLA to a 24-8 record and a trip to the Elite Eight and earned himself the full time gig.
Now he has another one. "I think it's a great hire," Keady said.
John Moore, Lavin's brother-in-law and coach at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, recalled Lavin as a 22-year-old instructor at clinics: "Guys twice his age would come up and ask, 'How do you do this drill?'"
Lavin played at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., when Moore was an assistant coach. The kid introduced Moore to his sister Rachel and it wasn't long before they married. "He is," Moore said, "a great recruiter."