Steve Lavin Takes New York by Storm
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Even before Steve Lavin is one sentence into answering my first question, a realization quickly settles in: The fully-charged batteries in my digital recorder will not be able to outlast St. John's new basketball coach.
Lavin is extraordinarily accommodating and gracious with his time. And, boy can he talk. He manages to reference plate tectonics, continental drift speed, the Bible, poetry, John Wooden, Rome, Don Coryell, Don Zimmer, Paris, Sid Gillman, Joe Torre, Noah's Ark, Gene Keady and the Karate Kid's Mr. Miyaga. And that's just in the first 10 minutes.
There has never been a question about Lavin's gift of gab. But the former UCLA coach did have doubts if he would ever return to the sideline. That all changed on March 30.
"St. John's was the first school that presented three kind of key elements that I looked for in deciding to make a return to coaching: a great opportunity, the timing had to be right and it had to be a good fit," Lavin told FanHouse earlier this summer at the Jimmy V/Dick Vitale gala for cancer research. "This is the first one where all of those lined up.
"Obviously what was attractive is the tradition and heritage of St. John's, the Big East Conference, playing your home games in Madison Square Garden and the New York, New Jersey greater metro area recruiting base. There wasn't a school that offered a better opportunity to return to the sideline than this."
Despite not having coached in seven years since a one-point loss to Oregon in the second round of the 2003 Pac-10 tournament, Lavin's hiring created an instant buzz for St. John's. The video from his initial press conference on the school's official website was viewed 51,000 times -- or about 49,000 more than the previous most watched video at redstormsports.com. The school also has sold 200 more season tickets than last season with the first game still more than three months away.
Lavin and his wife, actress Mary Jarou, already have graced the coveted front and back covers of New York's tabloid newspapers with Lavin's stunning wife being referred to as the "Queen of Queens."
While watching Lavin's exchange with a reporter before the start of the Jimmy V/Dick Vitala gala at the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton in May, Villanova coach Jay Wright remarks: "Tell me that's not New York right there. Just look at that."
Make no mistake, like most every coach, Lavin is a tireless salesman. And Lavin is among the best.
While at UCLA, he signed the nation's top recruiting classes in 1998 and 2001. Since being hired at St. John's, he signed highly touted forward Dwaynee Polee, Los Angeles' high school player of the year.
Lavin already is planning for next season when the Red Storm could have as many as 10 scholarships available. "That will be St. John's Noah's Ark strategy," Lavin said. "Where we're going to need two of everything: two point guards, two shooters, two post men."
Lavin's recruiting pitch might be a little rusty because for the past seven years he was an analyst for ABC and ESPN. Lavin went into television full-time after he was fired by UCLA in 2003.
In seven seasons with the Bruins from 1996 to 2003, Lavin had a nice 145-78 run. He took UCLA to six consecutive NCAA tournaments and had six consecutive seasons of at least 21 victories until he was fired after a 10-19 season in 2003.
Despite his success, critics will point out Lavin's talented teams had more ebbs and flows than the nearby Pacific Ocean.
Sure, Lavin was one of only two coaches -- Duke's Mike Krzyzewski was the other -- to lead his team to five Sweet 16s in six years. However his UCLA teams also suffered a staggering 10 losses by 25 points or more.
Yet for all those blowout losses, Lavin became the only coach in NCAA history to defeat the nation's No.1 ranked team in four consecutive seasons: Stanford (2000 and 2001), Kansas (2002) and Arizona (2003).
One of Lavin's critics is L.A. Clippers and former UCLA guard Baron Davis, who played for Lavin in 1998 and 1999. Upon a return to Pauley Pavilion, the New York Times reported Davis quipped that his UCLA teams should have received a banner to hang next to the school's 11 national title banners honoring them as the "only team to make the NCAA tournament without a coach."
Lavin, who turns 46 on Sept. 4, said his stint with ABC and ESPN has given him a different perspective.
"You're operating at a different pace as a broadcaster and you're not under the gun with that relentless pressure (of a coach)," Lavin said. "You're able to step back and see things with more clarity as you barnstorm through the country, watching the top programs and coaches prepare for games and compete against one another so you're going to enhance your basketball knowledge acumen.
"It's similar to reading a good book, at the age of 20, 30, 40 or 50. With each decade it has a different type of significance. It's richer, deeper, more meaningful, the depth and breadth and the text of the book hasn't changed, but because of your life experiences you bring more to it: whether it's literature, the Bible, poetry, philosophy or whatever it is.
"That aspect of traveling through the country and watching games and game film -- you're bringing your 15 years (of coaching) at Purdue and UCLA with seven years of television -- now you bring all 22 years of your association of the game at the highest level to St. John's."
It also doesn't hurt that he's brought in a top-notch staff with extensive experience in the college and NBA ranks: assistants Mike Dunlap, Tony Chiles and Rico Hines. Lavin said there's also the possibility former Purdue coach Gene Keady will help as a consultant. "Kind of a like a Don Zimmer or Joe Torre for me," Lavin said. "My Mr. Miyagi."
Even though Lavin has switched from LaLa Land to Manhattan, he said there are actually more similarities than differences between UCLA and St. John's. He then reels off "major media markets, the metropolitan cosmopolitan aspect, the rabid fan base, the intense media scrutiny, the global brand, not only coast to coast, but the world."
Lavin will tell anyone that will listen -- and, believe me, he's probably already personally spoken to most of the residents in New York's five boroughs -- about the bright future ahead at St. John's.
In less than two weeks, he handed out his first batch of 300 business cards, which he had student assistants hand write his cell phone number on each one after realizing it wasn't included. In four months, he's already worn out three iPhone chargers.
St. John's, which hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2002, can only dream its fast break is as effective as Lavin's when he is promoting the program. His pace is relentless.
Lavin, whose charismatic personality makes him one of the most popular coaches at the Jimmy V/Dick Vitale gala, is mingling with friends in the lobby of Sarasota Ritz-Carlton. They are busting Lavin's chops, telling him St. John's should be the clear cut favorite in the Big East.
Lavin takes it all in stride. "Plate tectonics, continental drift speed, that's about the pace we're moving," Lavin jokes. "Can you believe it? I heard (Louisville coach Rick) Pitino is picking us to win the Big East."
Lavin is interrupted by a former ESPN colleague. The Jimmy V/Dick Vitale gala is about to begin and the guests are asked to return to their seats in the main ballroom.
Our conversation comes to an unexpected and abrupt end, but not before Lavin manages to get in the last word.
"Here's my cell number," Lavin said. "Call anytime."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com or please follow on Twitter @BrettmcmurphY