St. John's University's Director of Athletics Chris Monasch (right) congratulates...

St. John's University's Director of Athletics Chris Monasch (right) congratulates newly appointed SJU basketball coach Steve Lavin. (March 31, 2010) Credit: Newsday/Photo By Patrick E. McCarthy

LOS ANGELES

Steve Lavin's introductory news conference at St. John's on Wednesday afternoon was, in one word, realistic.

Realistic goals for a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2002.

Get into the NCAA Tournament, be competitive and eventually win some games, Lavin said. If the program's progress continues, maybe even claim a Big East title. "Incremental" steps is what Lavin talked about.

That's definitely a stark contrast with the expectations for Lavin at UCLA.

In his seven seasons in Los Angeles, getting to the Sweet 16, which Lavin did four times, and the Elite Eight, which he did in his first season, just wasn't good enough for a high-profile program coming off a national title in 1995.

"It was wins and losses more than anything else," retired UCLA associate athletic director Rick Purdy said of Lavin's undoing.

Lavin, who compiled a 145-78 record at UCLA, hasn't coached since he was fired after the 2003 season, the school's first losing season in 55 years. Purdy said Lavin, just 32 at the time, may have been given control of the storied program too soon.

"I think maybe it was a little too early for him, age-wise and experience-wise," Purdy said. "Getting into a pressure-cooker like the UCLA basketball program was . . . you have to understand how it was there and the expectations."

Lavin often was under fire from his own players and school administrators.

"If Lavin gets St. John's to be a 20-game winner and they are in the NCAA Tournament, he's going to be the savior of New York," said Jon Crispin, who played for UCLA in Lavin's final season. "Winning 20 games [six times] was absolutely not enough at UCLA. He could never do anything right. Even though we went to five Sweet 16s, it was still like, 'What is he doing?' Things were happening behind his back, rumors that they were going after [Rick] Pitino."

Kris Johnson, son of former UCLA star Marques Johnson, played for both Lavin and Jim Harrick, whom Lavin replaced. In Lavin's first two years, Johnson saw the discontent in the locker room.

"There were probably six, seven, eight disgruntled players over playing time," he said. "He didn't have the stature that coach Harrick had. He was looked upon as the third assistant. He described himself as the cream-and-sugar guy - the guy who got the cream and sugar for everyone's coffee."

Johnson thinks the administration never fully backed Lavin. "There's a lot of things going on behind the scenes and different regimes of athletic directors, and he kind of ran into some issues recruiting there," he said.

Lavin recruited very well at UCLA, routinely bringing in top classes. Future NBA players such as Baron Davis, Trevor Ariza, Jason Kapono and Earl Watson played for Lavin.

But some of Lavin's recruits got into trouble, according to numerous published reports.

Jelani McCoy was suspended in 1997 for violating team rules. He was reinstated for 15 games before leaving the team in 1998. Kris Johnson was simultaneously suspended.

Rico Hines was suspended for striking Matt Barnes, now with the Orlando Magic, with a metal chair in 2000.

Andre Patterson was dismissed from school for academic reasons in 2003.

Johnson said he supported Lavin. So did his brother, Josiah, who also played at UCLA. The Johnson brothers, along with former walk-on Quinn Hawking, say they were drawn to a coach who was charismatic and caring and to them, successful on the court.

"I have the utmost respect for him, not only as a coach but also as a person," Hawking said. "As a coach, he was not only concerned with winning, which was obviously his job, but unlike anybody I've been around, he's concerned with you as a person. He's the ultimate father-mentor type."

Lavin has been publicly criticized - most notably by Davis - for not being a good X's and O's coach, particularly when it comes to in-game coaching.

Although Josiah Johnson believes Lavin is a good coach, he did point to Lavin's decision to switch the team's offense entering the ill-fated 2002-03 season.

"I think we would've definitely had a better year [had he not]," Johnson said. "Hindsight's 20/20, so I can't say either way, but that shift was big in my mind."

Purdy believes Lavin could have benefited from a more steady climb up the coaching ranks. But he believes Lavin will be better the second time around.

"I think being out of it for a while has given him a chance to look at it from a different perspective than just being involved 18 hours a day in the recruiting process," Purdy said. "He's taken a look at the success of other programs. There's a maturity level that he didn't have at UCLA."

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