St. John's hires Steve Lavin as coach

UCLA basketball coach Steve Lavin smiles during media

UCLA basketball coach Steve Lavin smiles during media preview day with members of the 2002-2003 team Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002. (Credit: AP Photo/REED SAXON)

Steve Lavin, the former UCLA coach and ESPN analyst with the made-for-TV looks, needs no introduction to the college basketball world, but he will be formally presented to the media today in his new role: basketball coach at St. John's, a position he acquired Tuesday. And it wouldn't be surprising if he critiqued the event.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime to be able to return to the sidelines coaching college basketball at a school like St. John's that has such tradition and heritage in terms of the history of basketball,'' Lavin was quoted in a prelude to his news conference. "Then you add the academic dimension, as well as New York City and Madison Square Garden, it's as good as it gets.''

After passing muster with all the administrative types at St. John's, it was time for a sitdown with the iconic guardian of the program, Lou Carnesecca.

The meet and greet was held on campus for one reason: "Dante's was closed,'' Carnesecca lamented of his favorite restaurant. But this lunch wasn't so much about eating as it was meeting the new coach. His first impression was that Lavin could make a lasting impression.

"He's a very personable person,'' the winningest coach in St. John's history said. "I had never met him before so I didn't have anything on him. He looks like a matinee idol. I was very impressed.''

The 45-year-old Lavin received some sage advice from the 85-year-old Carnesecca. "Go get good players. It's that simple, that's it.''

Lavin, who began his TV work shortly after the 2002-2003 season, his last at UCLA, won the St. John's job despite not having coached in seven seasons. One of his former players said Lavin could sell anything to anybody. The depth of this salesman was to first sell himself. He interviewed with athletic director Chris Monasch on Monday and the deal was finalized Wednesday. Lavin signed a reported six-year agreement. Terms were not announced.

The field of candidates apparently dwindled to Lavin by attrition. First choice Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech said no thanks after a cursory interview. Seth Greenberg signed an extension at Virginia Tech before he could be interviewed. Siena's Fran McCaffery came in last Saturday and told St. John's he was taking the Iowa job, which he did the next day.

The most bizarre part of the process involved Boston College coach Al Skinner, who, as revealed Tuesday, was essentially fired from his BC job by the time St. John's spoke with him. The parting was termed mutual and Boston College said St. John's was aware of the situation before Skinner discussed the Red Storm's vacancy. St. John's had no comment.

St. John's was attracted by Lavin's personality - one person termed it ''star power,' - and his success at UCLA. He had a 145-78 record and five Sweet 16 appearances in seven seasons. He was let go after going 10-19, his only losing season.

There is no doubting Lavin's popularity. "He makes an impression on you,'' Carnesecca said, "so when he goes into a [recruit's] home, I think people will listen.''

When he was about to be married in 2007 to statuesque actress Mary Ann Jarou, so many people responded to the wedding invitation that Lavin called off the event and flew his future wife to Italy for a private ceremony. She will be at his side Wednesday.

Carnesecca said Lavin's time away from coaching should not be an issue. "It comes back to you,'' he said.

The contract given by St. John's entered into Lavin's decision to leave ESPN, where a person familiar with the situation said Lavin's coaching salary would dwarf his TV pay. The person said Lavin had explored other coaching situations over the years but that it took the "perfect storm'' for him to leave.

Can Lavin change the fortunes of a decidedly imperfect St. John's team? "I hope so,'' Carnesecca said. "We all hope so.''

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