His basketball résumé includes serving as an assistant to legendary Purdue University head coach Gene Keady. He won a national championship as an assistant coach at UCLA and then guided the most storied college basketball program to 145 wins in seven years as a head coach. Then, he spent the next several years as an analyst for ESPN calling games alongside broadcasting great Brent Musberger.
But now, Steve Lavin, 46, is about to embark on what some consider his biggest challenge – restoring a St. John’s basketball program riddled with losing and scandal during the past decade to its once-held place among the elite in the nation.
“The hope is to be competitive, and when I took the job I was aware that the program has great potential,” said Lavin, while discussing his expectations for his first season with the Red Storm. “At the same time, we finished in 13th place. There’s no positive spin for 13th place. There’s no magic wand or cure-all overnight for climbing the ladder in the Big East Conference.”
Lavin, who was named the head coach of St. John’s on March 31, 2010, is still living out of a hotel in the city, but he hasn’t spent much time there either since taking over the job. Between recruiting trips to fill the nine scholarship positions that will be open next year, getting a top-notch, complimentary coaching staff in place and fundraising, the San Francisco native has put a lot on his plate during the first few months at his new job.
“I’m very pleased with the progress we have made in this early stage of building the program,” Lavin said.
One of Lavin’s biggest prizes thus far was being able to land a blue-chipper who will be able to contribute to the team this year when he signed 6-7 Los Angeles Player of the Year Dwayne Polee Jr. Polee averaged 20 points and nine rebounds for Westchester High School in California during his senior year.
“Dwayne is a unique and exceptional athlete,” Lavin said. “At this stage of his career what he lacks in strength, he makes up for with his length and his athleticism and his appetite to improve.”
Meanwhile, Lavin said the program was ready to make one more major move, bringing in his former Purdue boss Gene Keady into a basketball director role.
While Keady will start in his role full-time before the season tips off, he won’t be the only legendary coach who Lavin will be able to turn to for advice. Former St. John’s coach and basketball Hall of Famer Lou Carnesecca will still be involved with the program giving Lavin two of college basketball’s all-time great coaches to turn to for guidance.
“I look forward to days on campus where we can go to the D’Angelo Center and share a cup of coffee and be all ears listening to Coach Carnesecca and Gene Keady banter about basketball,” Lavin said.
For Lavin, basketball, and coaching basketball, has been in his blood since a young age.
Lavin’s father, Cap Lavin, played at the University of San Francisco from 1950-1952 under to Hall of Fame coaches Pete Newell and Phil Woolpert.
Cap recalled that Steve enjoyed playing many sports, including soccer and baseball, as a child, but when he reached the high school age, it wasn’t playing sports that his son ultimately saw for his future.
“He knew in a way most high school players really don’t that he really loved the game and wanted to coach,” Cap said recently over the phone from his home in San Francisco. “I remember him expressing that, and I really could see it too.”
Back at St. John’s, the fundraising and recruiting will soon be joined by implementing a style of play when individual workouts begin in September and team practice starts one month later.
“You do it on a daily basis and you have to be locked in on daily progress on all fronts,” said Lavin, who put finding a place to live and being able to get out and enjoy all of what New York has to offer behind all of the basketball responsibilities.
However, he has already, and plans to continue, reaching out to the students to get them energized about the upcoming season.
“The students bring that palpable vitality to the games and you need your students to be engaged in your program, to have an interest and to want to follow our team’s success,” Lavin said.
Although Lavin has held the most famous head coaching job in college basketball and traveled all over the country calling games for ESPN, he said that St. John’s and Madison Square Garden are still really special.
“There weren’t many jobs that would have pulled me out of broadcasting, but this one had all of the important things in terms of a checklist or criteria of things for being able to be successful as a college basketball coach,” Lavin said.