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California dreamin’: UCLA coaching staff in NCAAs

March 12, 1997

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Call them UCLA’s Dream Team.

Not Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Jelani McCoy. But teen-age buddies Steve Lavin, Jim Saia and Steve Spencer _ part of the Bruins’ thirtysomething coaching staff who wound up running one of college basketball’s grandest programs.

It started as a dream shared by three friends eager to dominate major college teams. As coaches, not players.

Lavin, the ringleader, and Saia are 32. Spencer is 36. Michael Holton, the other assistant, is 35.

``We grew up as kids thinking that maybe one of these days we could coach in the (NCAA) tournament,″ Saia said. ``We would never imagine years later that we’d be heading UCLA into the tournament and having the chance to go to the Final Four.″

A love of sports drew Lavin and Saia together as eighth-graders in the Bay area. They were diehard San Francisco 49ers fans before Joe Montana made such loyalty popular.

At Sir Francis Drake High in San Anselmo, Calif., they met up with Steve Spencer, and the trio went on to play for Drake’s basketball team.

Saia starred at point guard, leading Drake to two state prep titles and a 65-1 record in his final two years.

Lavin survived on heart and hard work, never better than a sixth man. By then, Spencer, four years older than Lavin and Saia, had graduated.

The trio played at different colleges, and Lavin worked doggedly on his game at Chapman College. He was named team captain and, in a hint of things to come, earned the leadership award.

``He wanted to know how much he improved, so he’d always be waiting for me to come back in the summer from school so he could beat me in one-on-one,″ Saia laughed.

After college, the men scattered in pursuit of coaching jobs. Spencer went farthest, spending two years with a pro team in Australia.

Lavin headed to Purdue for three seasons on Gene Keady’s staff. Saia moved between jobs under Lou Campanelli at California, Tates Locke at Indiana State and Gary Colson at Fresno State.

Each time he left, the head coach eventually got fired. When he interviewed at UCLA, Saia jokingly pointed out the trend to Jim Harrick.

``He said, `Hey, Saia, you’re a jinx. I ain’t hiring you,′ but he was just kidding,″ Saia recalled. ``Oh my goodness, four months later, look what happens. It was almost like I felt terrible.″

Harrick got fired Nov. 6 for lying about an expense report. That cleared the way for Lavin, the No. 1 assistant, to become interim head coach.

Saia and Holton, who led the Bruins to the 1980 NCAA title game, were already on board. Days later, Lavin made Spencer his first hire as the restricted earnings coach.

``I would never hire my best friends if they weren’t good teachers,″ said Lavin, the youngest of six children who is now the head of possibly the nation’s youngest Division I staff.

``It just happened that we were a good group of coaches that were good friends, but it wasn’t like we were good friends and therefore we wanted to coach together,″ he said.

That’s how it turned out. But it took most of the season for Lavin and his staff to get the Bruins going in the right direction.

There was nothing memorable about the beginning _ losing to Tulsa in the season-opener, getting booed at home in a loss to Kansas, and getting upset by Illinois on the road.

The ultimate humiliation occurred Jan. 9 at Stanford. The Bruins staggered to a 48-point loss, the worst in UCLA’s storied history.

Saia, who admittedly has a temper, was distraught. Lavin, a bit more philosophical, took the debacle in stride.

``We’re fighting for our lives, hoping we could stay,″ Saia said of the early turmoil. ``We’re going to be on the unemployment line if we didn’t turn this thing around quickly.″

Two days later, UCLA righted itself under Lavin’s growing influence, beating California by eight points on the road. From there, the Bruins finished 14-3, sweeping Arizona, avenging the Stanford loss and upsetting Duke at home.

Through it all, nary a hair on Lavin’s gelled head ruffled as he stuck to his mantra of building the team brick by brick. He got hired permanently last month.

``He kind of keeps everything inside. He’s very under control as a person,″ Saia said. ``He doesn’t swear really even when he gets mad. When you hear it, you shake your head.″

Arguments among them are rare because Saia understands his role.

``I don’t think Steve wants me to be a yes-man,″ he said. ``I give the suggestions, he’s got to make the decision. He does listen to me because he knows that I know what he’s thinking.″

Predictions that Lavin would be overwhelmed by the rigors of running UCLA’s program have turned out wrong.

``I’ve never felt like I’m a rookie, I’m going to get outcoached,″ he said. ``My whole life, I’ve been in the gym and my entire coaching career I’ve been preparing to play in the NCAA tournament.

``Calling the timeouts, substitutions, late-game situations, going against Coach K (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski), that has been the smoothest part of the transition as a head coach.

``The hard part is all the other stuff _ the distractions, time management, prioritizing your schedule for the day, a thousand people who want five minutes and you’re trying to find time for your team.″

Lavin and Saia haven’t celebrated the realization of their teen-age dream. That will come after the season during their annual trip to Mexico.

``We need to go on the beach and reflect on all this stuff and then give a toast,″ Saia said. ``When we sit back, we’ll say, `Can you believe this?‴

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