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SportsColumnistsGreg Logan

Lavin must get to work quickly

Head coach Steve Lavin of the UCLA Bruins

Head coach Steve Lavin of the UCLA Bruins directs his team during the NCAA basketball game against the USC Trojans. (January 8, 2003) Photo Credit: Getty Images

When former UCLA coach Steve Lavin was announced yesterday as St. John's new head coach, the sense of relief and exultation among fans and some in the media was palpable. For a while there, it appeared the search for Norm Roberts' replacement was in jeopardy of spinning off course and winding up with a coach from comedienne Kathy Griffin's D-List.

But Lavin has a recognizable name and seven mostly successful seasons at UCLA on his resume. So, Red Storm boosters have reason to believe the program finally is positioned to turn a corner and become relevant again in New York.

Not only that, but Lavin inherits a full cupboard. As St. John's press release noted, all five starters and 94 percent of the scoring from last season's 17-16 NIT team return.

Assuming he uses that platform to put the Red Storm in the top half of the Big East and earn the program's first NCAA bid since 2002, that should provide Lavin a headstart and ensure an extended media honeymoon. Lavin's hiring already has been hailed a success before a single victory.

But this is just the first minute of the game. It's the next 39 minutes that will tell the tale. You have to wonder a little bit about Lavin's desire to coach after reportedly turning down several opportunities to jump back into coaching over the past seven years as a commentator for ESPN. What prompted the change of heart? Was it his reported six-year deal worth more than $9 million?

Most importantly, Lavin starts out with zero recruiting ties in the area and will have to hire someone to facilitate that end of it, which is where the games of March really are won or lost.

Lavin had a strong track record at UCLA, which still was at the pinnacle of the college game when he took over two years after the Bruins' last national title in 1995. He successfully recruited seven McDonald's All-Americans and twice had the No. 1 rated recruiting class in the country.

Can Lavin's ESPN star power help him carry that success to the East Coast? "I think it can help him," said Kimani Young, who is athletic director of the New Heights AAU program. "He had success at UCLA in a huge media market. It's a different landscape, but I'm sure he has experience dealing with kids."

One report yesterday said Young is under consideration for a job on Lavin's staff, but he said, "That's not correct at all. I've had no conversations with Steve Lavin or anyone from St. John's."

It will be up to Lavin to figure out how to gain entrance to the New York metro area recruiting community, but Young said, "Everyone in the area wants him to be a success. We have to get on board."

Well, not everyone. Lavin is sure to face stiff competition from the likes of new Fordham coach Tom Pecora, new Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard and possibly Tim Welsh if he takes the Hofstra job. All those coaches have local ties.

And how's this for a twist? Roberts, Lavin's predecessor at St. John's, now is on the list of candidates for the Iona job. Wouldn't that add spice to the local recruiting wars?

In the end, Lavin must do two things to keep top tier New York kids on his Queens campus. He must win consistently and show he can get players to the NBA.

"Those are the two things that are most important," Young said. "He's had success doing it at UCLA."

Vacation's over. Time for Steve Lavin to roll up his sleeves and go back to work.


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