St. John's basketball: addressing Steve Lavin's negatives

Previously: Steve Lavin: the solution or the question | Welcome new St. John’s head coach, Steve Lavin

The best coach in the program is the new coach. The new coach is the hero on the white horse, riding in on a wave of plaudits and good will, wiping the slate clean from the old regime.

So you can understand why St. John's is so very, very excited about the acquisition of Steve Lavin. It's the hope of a charismatic coach, the infusion of money by the St. John's administration into the program, a new face with a history of winning games and recruiting name players.

Lavin is saying the right things, getting on television with his ESPN buddies, bringing publicity to a program that hasn't had it in a long time. It feels like a big-time hire, and it has helped remove the false narrative that St. John's was in desperate straits - though Lavin was a Plan B, or he would have been interviewed earlier (but most schools have to go to Plan B). And obviously, the program had to try for the bigger names just to make sure they didn't want to come to NYC; I applaud the school for taking some shots.

But for a team like St. John's, the incoming coach is not going to be the perfect winning machine a school like Arizona or Kentucky might hire. Any coach, whether high-major or mid-major, is going to come with some concerns.

With Lavin, there are questions about his ability to develop the players he brought in (many of whom went on to the NBA), his ability to handle criticism, and his coaching acumen. Later this week I'll get into some anecdotes on how the UCLA Bruins actually played under Steve Lavin, but for now, let's take a look at some of the tales that have dogged Lavin over the years.

steve lavin daily news coverThey're comic and ridiculous, and are compiled by a former LA beat writer, now working for the New York Times who starts off with the gauche manner in which Lavin dis-invited people to his wedding. To me, that's a personal matter and much less disturbing than Andy Kennedy's drunken "incident" (with video), or Bobby Knight shooting at people, among other off-field misdeeds.

But the rest of the article gets to things that really matter:

  • the blowout losses and inconsistent play,
  • Baron Davis' quote about the only team to make the NCAA Tournament without a coach,
  • tales of strange moments on the recruiting trail, such as riding an exercise bike instead of watching prospects and going to watch the All-Star game,
  • a varying style on offense and defense that seemed like grasping for straws,
  • not enough coaching experience around him.

For a more even-tempered version of this story, Tim Kawakami speaks on Lavin, who he covered as a beat writer as well:

In my estimation, something flipped inside of Lavin, turning him into one of the more self-aggrandizing, neurotic, over-matched coaches I’ve ever been around.

I’ve never seen a high-profile coach who sought out and gathered more sycophants, or seemed to need them as much as Lavin did. Never a good sign from a first-time head coach....

If I had to single out a root cause of his coaching nervous breakdown at UCLA, it was that he got the job way out of turn and never made up the difference.

Harrick was fired on the eve of the 1996-’97 season for rules-breaking, top assistant Lorenzo Romar had just departed, and Lavin got the job because there was simply nobody else to give it to.

He had charisma. He had energy. He could talk, talk, talk. He hit the recruiting trail HARD. Some fans loved him immediately, just because of all that.

What Lavin didn’t have was focus or the ability to get his talented players to play cohesively or run any semblance of a fluid offense. He couldn’t run practice. He couldn’t settle on a system.

These are a reasons to pause. St. John's has experience with this awkward version of dedication - Mike Jarvis was known to enjoy his golf and vacation time as a Red Storm coach, and didn't always feel the need to recruit. In particular, he decided to ignore the AAU powers in the city and their dirty game. And Lavin in these stories sounds like an immature coach, or a coach who can't handle the stress of the game, or perhaps an arrogant coach who didn't see the need to improve.

I get that.

And who is to say that his open acknowledgment of the need to being in experienced staff - former head coaches, his mentor in Gene Keady, guys with NYC and northeast recruiting contacts - is enough to cover his deficiencies? Personally, I need to see a less-sexy hire of a more anonymous assistant to help with scheme/ scouting/ x's and o's. Who is to say he has learned anything in his 7 years at ESPN? Or that he's developed a grinder's taste for the grunt work of basketball recruiting, or a better sense for the mid-level talent that makes top programs sturdy in complement to the performances of their stars?

Who is to say that the advances in the intervening years - including easier access to internet information for players and coaches, the rise of sports blogs/ micro blogging/ and message boards + forums, and the rising popularity of statistical analysis won't put Lavin farther behind the curve of the veteran Big East coaches?

There are a lot of questions. What Lavin has to offer is boatloads of charisma and charm, which goes a long way. In the early going, and with the promise of good money for name assistants, strong rumors have him reaching out for recruiting experience in former Connecticut assistant and DePaul/ Virginia head man Dave Leitao, current Manhattan coach Barry Rohrssen, and others, many of whom are on Jon Rothstein's list on MSG.com.

Jay Williams, former McDonald's All-American from Planfield, NJ, Duke, and the Chicago Bulls is also under consideration, according to some. I like the idea of him starting as the 4th assistant, learning to scout and develop players, be a tutor to the guards, and be the "cool coach" who serves as a buffer between coach and players. And Dick Weiss makes a good suggestion of Siena assistant Mitch Buonaguro of Siena to serve as an experienced veteran assistant and a help on x's and o's, program management, and scouting. (Note that longtime assistant Sean Kearney was fired from Holy Cross after a single year; he might be an excellent get.)

There are good people who want to work with Lavin; and he seems eager to seek out their advice. It will be a rough transition next year, with a senior-laden team that people will expect to see in the NCAA Tournament (whether it's 64, 68, or 96 teams), and a likely trip to UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in the early season. I am hoping for the best.

My advice to Steve Lavin:

  • Work hard. And when you think you've done enough, do more.
  • Continually surround yourself with excellent assistants, and continue to give them credit (Lavin has come off as very humble. Perhaps TOO humble as a head coach, but he's not walking in as God's gift to coaching).
  • Have a thick skin about what the papers say, and try to keep in contact with even the most needling of newspaper people. They are always watching you, at dinner, at the store, in the bars.
  • Stay on the cutting edge of stats and recruiting knowledge.
  • See more players in person; shake hands with coaches all over the city as often as possible.
  • Remember that St. John's identity, as much as there is one, is hard-nosed defense; this isn't the wide open Pac-10, it's the Big East.
  • Settle on a style of play and perfect it.
  • Correct bad habits early so you can let the kids play during the game; that way you can focus on motivation and calling plays, instead of teaching.

The more I think about it, there is room for this to be a fantastic hire. There are ways for this to go very wrong, but with all the losing basketball in the New York area, a few foibles won't even hurt Lavin right now. We will see when he hires his staff and starts to practice with his players what we can really expect.

Even if he is as much of a "clown" as the UCLA fans seem to think he is, and even if he hasn't grown, getting to 6 NCAA Tournaments and 6 20-win seasons is an achievement. And that's an achievement St. John's has not seen in a long time.

And he carries a far better pedigree than the former coach, in truth.

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