Eye of the storm: Back from the booth, Steve Lavin sets St. John’s sights on a return to glory days

first_img Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on November 10, 2010 at 12:00 pm Contact Mark: [email protected] | @mark_cooperjrcenter_img Steve Lavin channels his inner John Wooden. He holds on to the countless lessons he learned from the late all-time great when he was a coach at UCLA. He preaches them wherever he goes. ‘Make every day your masterpiece,’ Lavin says, quoting his former mentor. Lavin coached UCLA for seven seasons, winning 20-plus games in six. He never produced the championships Wooden won with the Bruins, but he took his teams to the Sweet 16 five times before be he was relieved on his duties and walked away from coaching in 2003. He had success as a big-time head coach. He can do it again, given the right situation. Lavin had it made as an analyst with ESPN, a gig where he got to see great college basketball without the stress of being a Division I head coach. But he was willing to give it all up, as he did in March, when he was hired to take over a St. John’s program that had not made the NCAA Tournament since 2002. ‘I wouldn’t have taken the job,’ Lavin said, ‘unless I was very optimistic about the potential of St. John’s as kind of a sleeping giant.’AdvertisementThis is placeholder text So Lavin has gone to work in all facets of the job. He has a Red Storm squad that is expecting a big season. He has St. John’s back on the national recruiting map, receiving commitments from some of the best high school players in the country. And he hasn’t been doing it alone, either. Lavin has gone back to his mentors, and he assembled a star-studded supporting cast of coaches, including his former boss, Gene Keady. Keady gave Lavin his entrance into coaching at Purdue in 1988. And like with Wooden, Lavin still uses the lessons he learned from Keady. So naturally, when Lavin was feeling out a return to the bench, he went to Keady for advice. ‘Other than my mother and father, he’s the most influential person in my life,’ Lavin said. ‘The magic carpet ride that is basketball is a direct result of Gene Keady taking me under his wing.’ After Lavin accepted the St. John’s job, he turned to his mentor again. This time it wasn’t for advice, but for an opportunity to once again join forces. Nineteen years later. Lavin convinced the 74-year old Keady to come out of retirement and be a consultant. He brought in a coach who won six Big Ten championships and six National Coach of the Year awards. Keady brings the type of experience that could help turn around a program quickly. Red Storm guard Paris Horne said that with Keady’s knowledge and experience, he’s a ‘great voice around’ for questions. A voice only Lavin could bring in to this middle-of-the-road program. And Keady brings a level of comfort for Lavin as he enters a difficult endeavor, one much more challenging than his first coaching job at UCLA. Lavin has to turn around a program that hasn’t won in years. What better person to do it with than his mentor? ‘It was a good fit,’ Lavin said. ‘We have a good relationship. He still has a lot to offer to the game.’ The experienced coaching staff has factored into recruiting big time. And Lavin himself has brought his recruiting success — he brought NBA players, such as Baron Davis and Jason Kapono, to UCLA — to his new program. D’Angelo Harrison had his college choices narrowed down to four schools. Three of them — Oklahoma State, Baylor and Marquette — were in last season’s NCAA Tournament. The other team finished one game over .500. Yet Harrison, the No. 18 shooting guard in the Class of 2011, according to Scout.com, chose St. John’s. That’s the Lavin effect on recruiting for the Red Storm. Harrison became the third player ranked at least four stars by Scout.com to commit. Lavin has since received a commitment from a fourth. It’s the No. 7 recruiting class for 2011, according to ESPN. And with 10 seniors leaving after this season, the influx of talent couldn’t have come at a better time. ‘It’s challenging because you have to start over in terms of hiring a staff, trying to build a culture and recruit 10 prospects in an eight-month period,’ Lavin said. ‘That’s unprecedented, in my opinion. ‘If you miss with 10, then pretty much someone else will be the head coach here within a couple years.’ For St. John’s, winning has been the missing ingredient in recruiting. Lavin hopes to bring that back. And success this season could lay the groundwork for a long run of success at SJU, both on the recruiting trail and on the court. ‘Putting all the NBA players in the pros from his previous stop played a role,’ said Mike Carrabine, Harrison’s high school coach at John Foster Dulles High School. ‘I think that was very appealing to D’Angelo.’ With all the prized recruits Lavin has in place for 2011, there is still a 2010 season to be played. And Lavin has a squad looking to play in March Madness for the first time in years. Last season, the Red Storm beat four teams that made the NCAA Tournament, but it wasn’t consistent. That’s evident in the 6-12 Big East record. ‘We lost a lot of close games that we should have won (last season), and it was just the little things,’ Horne said. ‘And (with) Coach Lavin and the staff, we’re getting better at it and just paying attention to detail and defense. I think this year you’re going to see that.’ The goals are to make the NCAA Tournament and to win the Big East. Horne said that himself. Lofty expectations for a team that finished 13th in the conference last season. But the seniors have the experience. And their new coach has them believing. ‘Everything this year is aiming high,’ guard D.J. Kennedy said. The rest of the Big East is taking notice. The Red Storm was predicted to finish sixth in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll. That reflects upon Lavin’s reputation because St. John’s hasn’t finished in the top six since 2002. Louisville coach Rick Pitino even gave the Red Storm a first-place vote. ‘(St. John’s) has an ingredient that I think is very important to winning,’ Pitino said, ‘and that is hungriness. ‘There’s a lot of excitement behind that program, and I think they can reach that potential.’ The Red Storm still has a lot to prove. But that’s why Lavin was brought in. He has the experience. He has the connections. And he keeps things in perspective. He learned that from arguably the greatest coach in NCAA history, Wooden. ‘We just have to continue in a gradual way to make strides but not get too far ahead of ourselves,’ Lavin said. ‘Because at the end of the day, we know how tall of a task we have ahead of us. ‘It really is just ‘let’s get better today.” [email protected]last_img