Past Imperfect: The Reign of Doughnut Man

Posted by JWeill on February 3rd, 2011

Past Imperfect is a new series focusing on the history of the game. Every Thursday, RTC contributor JL Weill (@AgonicaBoss) highlights some piece of historical arcana that may (or may not) be relevant to today’s college basketball landscape. This week: the sine-wave career arc of Doughnut Man.

It’s still one of the NCAA tournament’s most indelible moments: disheveled Princeton coach Pete Carril grinning in disbelief moments after his backdoor-cutting Tigers stunned defending national champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. Replayed over and over through the years, the moment resonates because it captures the essence of what college basketball’s great March tradition is all about: little guy beats big guy, Cinderella at the dance, etc. But lost in all those good vibes for the white-haired coaching legend is that the other side in that game, the losing coach seen congratulating Carril on his career-defining victory, in its own way represents college basketball, too. In many ways, perhaps more so.

Pete Carril and Sydney Johnson celebrate the win over UCLA.

No one fathomed at the time that the upset loss would be Jim Harrick’s last as head coach of the UCLA Bruins. A year removed from the school’s first national title in two decades, flush with a contract extension, with a bevy of blue chip recruits on the verge of replenishing his team’s talent level for years to come, Harrick looked to have it all working. Then, in the course of a few months, it was all over. Harrick was out. Assistant Steve Lavin, with no head coaching experience at all, was in as interim coach.

How did it all go south so quickly? The answer is a tale of two coaches, of lies and deception, of risks taken and undying myths writ large. It’s an ugly story, without much grace and lacking humility. It is, in short, the story of college basketball at the highest levels.

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It is amusing now to go back and look at statements of outrage former coach Jim Harrick made about his abrupt dismissal by UCLA in 1996. At the time, Harrick was the man who’d brought UCLA back from the ether. The West Virginian had been all smiles hoisting the national championship trophy along with Ed O’Bannon, Tyus Edney and the victorious Bruins. And rightfully so. Harrick had taken a job a slew of previous coaches had tried to tame and done the only thing he’d been hired to do: win a national title again. Favorite sons Walt Hazzard, Gary Cunningham and Larry Farmer didn’t do it. Future coaching legends Gene Bartow and Larry Brown couldn’t do it, either. But the onetime UCLA assistant – the guy who never even played college basketball – did it. And he did it his own way, with style.

Harrick’s first task when he got the UCLA job in 1988 was to convince a high school star in his backyard to play for lowly UCLA. Don MacLean was a sweet-shooting high school forward from Simi Valley, CA, and Harrick knew that to get his new school back to the big time, he needed MacLean on board. So Harrick did it.

How Harrick did it, well, that remains a question to this day. This is the way it always was with Jim Harrick. Questions and wins, followed by more questions. All we can safely say is that Harrick got his man, and that it proved to be the beginning of big things for the new regime in Westwood. MacLean was everything Harrick could have hoped for in a recruit: proud, tough, cocky and most of all, dominant. In his four years as a Bruin, MacLean scored a school and PAC-10 record 2,608 points, and led UCLA to the Elite Eight in 1992, the school’s deepest trip into the NCAA tournament since 1981. The groundwork now laid, Harrick was only just getting started.

Jim Harrick (left) accompanies legend John Wooden at a UCLA ceremony.

A little-used sub on that Elite Eight team was a skinny but talented kid on a rebuilt knee named Ed O’Bannon. O’Bannon wasn’t a nobody. He’d been a McDonald’s All-American at Artesia High School in Lakewood, a silky smooth slasher with a thoroughbred’s gait who signed with national champion UNLV. Back then, if you were a big deal recruit out West, you looked to Las Vegas, not Los Angeles. But O’Bannon had second thoughts about his commitment after UNLV got hammered by the NCAA. By then, this new guy at UCLA had things looking up so O’Bannon hopped onboard the train. After struggling with playing time as a freshman, O’Bannon popped his ACL. End of season. Some were saying end of his playing days. But one cadaver gift and much pain and rehab later, O’Bannon wasn’t just back, he was big time again.  But, despite some good stretches, the pieces just weren’t there for UCLA in 1993 and 1994. Losses in the NCAA’s first weekend were hard to take and, despite the swagger returning to Westwood, the rumblings of discontent started again.

But by the fall of 1994, Harrick was sure he had assembled a team that wouldn’t come up short. Adding Ed’s little brother Charles, another prep All-American, as well as guards Cameron Dollar and Toby Bailey, Harrick compiled a team that would roll to the PAC-10 title and a No. 1 seed, losing only once in the process. The elder O’Bannon was the team’s engine, Harrick its brains. But Harrick also had help. On the bench next to Harrick was an all-star staff of assistant coaches. Mark Gottfried would become a successful coach at Murray State and then Alabama; Lorenzo Romar at Pepperdine, St. Louis and Washington. And then there was the kid with the slick hair, the one nicknamed “Doughnut Man.”

Steve Lavin was the last guy. A graduate of tiny Chapman College in Orange, CA, hardly a breeding ground of future Division 1 coaches, Lavin loved basketball and he eventually wrangled his way onto Gene Keady’s staff at Purdue, where he soaked up as much as he could from the coaching legend. Offered a chance to return to his home state as an assistant to Harrick — part-time, at just 16 grand a year — Lavin jumped. Now he was soaking up Harrick’s basketball knowledge. And the California sun.

But Lavin wasn’t the guy. He wasn’t ready for a head coaching job like Gottfried or Romar, at least not yet. He was there to learn – the junior assistant, the guy who did the grunt work and the late nights and the go-fer stuff. It was Gottfried and Romar and then Doughnut Man. Then Gottfried left for Murray State after the national championship. Lavin moved over a seat. Then Romar left for Pepperdine after the Princeton game. And Lavin moved over again. And when it all went down, it was just Lavin remaining of the three. When the world as Jim Harrick and Steve Lavin knew it collapsed upon itself, there was Lavin, standing on the threshold.

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Thing was, it wasn’t that big a deal. Just a stupid dinner. Didn’t guarantee anything; didn’t bring the two big twins to campus, or the kid from Kansas City. It was just a dinner. But when the head coach submitted the bill as part of his expense report, the amount shocked everyone, to the point where athletic director Peter Dalis came asking questions. So what? No big deal. Just a dinner. If you want to be big time, you act big time.

”It was significantly higher than any expense report we’ve ever processed in my 14 years here,” Dalis said later.

But the cost wasn’t the real issue. It was just how everyone found out there’d been two extra players there, two who weren’t supposed to be there by NCAA rules. It was just a dinner. Didn’t get the team any better. But the A.D.’s office kept asking, kept interviewing players and eventually things didn’t square. Harrick kept telling them what he knew, only what he knew wasn’t exactly the truth. And when he told other people to tell the inquisitors that Harrick’s version was the version, it only made things worse. Harrick had been caught in a lie and instead of backing down, like the scrapper he was, he doubled down. And that fighter’s instinct would eventually cost him his job. Nineteen months removed from bringing back to UCLA what he’d been tasked to do, Harrick’s reign was over. The coach himself was ever defiant.

“You know, that dinner was taken care of a long time ago,” Harrick told the New York Times. ”I’m not saying I’m not at fault. If it was unethical, I apologize. Sometimes I use poor judgment. But it’s no violation. I just feel the punishment is too much.”

There wasn’t time now to get a new coach. It was November 6. Games started in weeks. So Lavin was handed the keys to the Corvette. Two years ago, he’d been a part-time assistant. Now he was the head coach (albeit interim) of the defending PAC-10 Conference champions. And, of course, the first thing he did was up and lose his first game on the job.

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After his inauspicious beginning, Lavin started to show what he had. Riding now-seniors Charles O’Bannon and Dollar, and super sophomore Jelani McCoy, Lavin’s first team won the PAC-10 at 15-3 and came within eight points of bringing Lavin and the Bruins a Final Four berth. Not bad for a debut. The results did earn Coach Lavin the job full-time. And he used that security to grab more top-tier high school talent, namely an all-everything guard from right there in L.A. named Baron Davis. Lavin was in the big chair. No more moving over. No more doubts.

Lavin reached the Sweet 16 or better five times with UCLA.

But, you see, doubts are endemic to the UCLA fan base. This, after all, is the program of John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. It’s the program that ate up Larry Brown and Gene Bartow and Walt Hazzard. And it ate up Jim Harrick, too. Sort of. Now it was Lavin’s turn to prove what he could do.

What Lavin could do best was recruit. So he did it, and he did it well. He continued to bring in All-American high school kids, kids everyone wanted. Three McDonald’s All-Americans in 1998 alone: JaRon Rush, Dan Gadzuric and Ray Young. But while the talent was there, there wasn’t the same level of winning the program had seen under Harrick. Nine losses each in Years 2 and 3. Twelve in Year 4. And Sweet 16s were nice, but at UCLA they were expected. Where was the progress? Where was the glory? Lavin tried to plead his case, to say that no one not named Lavin or Krzyzewski could claim such a run of tournament consistency. But facts were facts. More was expected.

By 2002, UCLA had fallen to sixth in the PAC-10 and, despite another Sweet 16 showing, the patience of the UCLA basketball family had eroded. Each week, it seemed, the pressure on Lavin rose. And the next year – that last year – the bottom fell out. Losses to San Diego and Northern Arizona at home. Nine straight defeats. This wasn’t just more being expected. This was nothing less than unacceptable.

In mid-March, just before an NCAA tournament that UCLA would be sitting out, Lavin got the axe. Maybe it was a mercy killing, because Lavin never really had the fans. He had the job, but he’d walked into it. He was the lucky guy with the slick hair. However hard he’d worked on the recruiting trail, however much he’d sweated and struggled to make things the best they could be, he’d never be more than the Doughnut Man who’d lucked into the job. Harrick had calls of well-wishers on sports talk radio. He had the goodwill of the fraternity of coaches around the country. Lavin had himself, his circle and the confidence that he’d done the best he could.

When the dust settled, UCLA opted for Pittsburgh’s Ben Howland, a defense-minded tactician who lacked the flair and brashness and recruiting prowess of Steve Lavin but had the numbers in his favor and, most importantly, had the support of the UCLA fans and administration. For Lavin, it had all happened so fast, he’d never really had a chance to soak it in. Maybe it was time to let it soak in.

*      *      *

Harrick didn’t wait long. Guys like Harrick never do. A year after being unceremoniously canned from UCLA, the coach who’d tamed the untameable resurfaced at Rhode Island. Harrick continued doing what he’d always done – win basketball games by any means necessary.

Harrick took the Rams within two points and a shimmy-shake dunk by Stanford’s Mark Madsen of a Final Four, an almost unbelievable turnaround at a place not known for basketball in any way. But that was the kind of job Harrick could do. And he tried again at Georgia, a place where football was king. But things got even messier in Athens than they had in Westwood. People will say it wasn’t his fault, that it was the son, or the press or the school president. But trouble followed Jim Harrick, and at some point it caught up to him in a way that wasn’t easily dismissed.

In late November of 2009, Harrick’s wife of 49 years passed away after battling illness. Harrick had been coaching the Bakersfield Jam of the NBDL. He took a leave of absence when the team was 2-14. He has not yet returned to coaching.

*      *      *

Lavin spent seven years in the broadcast booth, all told. He was good at it, too. Just like coaching, it was something you felt and learned and worked on. What had seemed awkward at first came naturally after a while. And the things he’d learned helped him be a better color man. He could call a play on the microphone and it would happen in real time. He’d talk to a coach before the game and he’d get answers to his questions. He was, dare he say, good at this life.

So why leave it?

Steve Lavin coached UCLA from 1996-2003.

For seven years, Lavin didn’t. He resisted the coaching carousel; despite the fact his name came up each year for one job or another. There was no rush.  The right job would be available, or it wouldn’t. Things were good. Marriage to a beautiful woman, money, respect from the people that mattered. Lavin didn’t need more.

Then, in 2010, St. John’s called. Norm Roberts was a good man, but not the man to take the program to another level – to return it to greatness. Sound familiar? This time, he wasn’t the last man standing, he was the man they looked to. Sure, there were others who’d been asked first. After seven years, who would expect to be the first man asked? But when it came to pass, the job was perfect. New York City. Lou Carnesecca watching. Madison Square Garden. It was the right job.

Steve Lavin was coming back to the sidelines. His colleagues were supportive, on both sides of the lens. There was work to do. It had been a long time. But it felt good getting out there, recruiting again. After all, that had always been Lavin’s thing. Only now, instead of being the last man standing, he was the man.

On Saturday, Lavin will return to Pauley Pavilion for the first time as an opposing coach. You can imagine plenty of people will have opinions about the whole thing. If there is one defining characteristic about Lavin, it’s that there are plenty of opinions on his tenure with UCLA. That UCLA fans have not been as welcoming to Lavin as they have to Harrick is a shame. But it is what it is.

Steve Lavin was hired to replace Norm Roberts as head coach at storied St. John's.

It was, ironically enough, in 2003, Lavin’s final year, that losing year, that St. John’s faced and defeated UCLA in Pauley Pavilion the last time, 80-65. The two teams met the following season, Howland’s first, with the Red Storm winning at MSG. It’s been a long time since then. A lot has changed, for both programs. UCLA went to three straight Final Fours under Howland, but recent struggles have the Bruin faithful questioning things again. Always with the doubts. Meanwhile, Lavin is coming off the first real program-defining win of his new career – a stomping of early-season favorite Duke at MSG.

Despite the teams’ records and lack of national clout, the atmosphere is bound to be electric when Lavin arrives with his new identity. Kind of like it was back when he started, when no one was sure what to expect from the slick-haired assistant who’d just walked into one of the top jobs in the country. Things didn’t work out, exactly, but that’s OK. Lavin survived just fine. UCLA, too. And now, all these years later, it’s basketball that brings him back to where it all began.

Long live Doughnut Man.

JWeill (27 Posts)

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3 responses to “Past Imperfect: The Reign of Doughnut Man”

  1. garik16 says:

    Well done. Better than your first piece (more cohesive with a pair of “topics” that are actually clearly related), and of course linked to a current part of basketball.

  2. JWeill says:

    Thank you. Appreciate it.

  3. Argon Blanchette says:

    Thank you for the excellent article and for getting the truth out, once and for all. Long live Doughnut Man, indeed!

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