PITINO: FROM BOSTON TO BRUIN? HE, DALIS HAVE HAD TALKS; LAVIN IN THE DARK.
UCLA athletic director Pete Dalis on Tuesday fueled speculation that basketball coach Steve Lavin's job is in jeopardy, revealing he has spoken twice in recent weeks with recently resigned Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino.
While Dalis said the mid-December conversations, made at the request of a mutual friend, were brief and did not touch on the UCLA job, neither did he tell Lavin about them - either at their weekly Monday meeting or before Dalis addressed reporters Tuesday at the conclusion of Lavin's press conference.
The Bruins coach, who was not present when Dalis spoke, learned from reporters after practice that Dalis had talked with Pitino.
``My understanding (Monday) is that (Dalis) had never spoken with Pitino,'' Lavin said. ``This is all new knowledge. It's unfortunate, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. There may have been some misrepresentation.
``When you put it all together, it's a little disheartening. . . . I don't know what the plans are - if Rick Pitino is going to be the coach this year or next year.''
Dalis, through a UCLA spokesman, said later he didn't tell Lavin of the conversations because they didn't concern Lavin's job.
Dalis said the conversations with Pitino - whom he had previously met playing golf - touched on small talk, such as their mutual friend, whom Dalis declined to identify, and the progress of Jerome Moiso, a former Bruin now with the Celtics. Dalis said he had similar discussions in the past with other coaches, including Utah's Rick Majerus.
``I felt it would be valuable to talk to somebody who at some point could be a candidate,'' Dalis said. ``There's never been any negotiations whatsoever. They were two friendly, brief conversations that probably didn't last more than five minutes.''
Dalis said that Monday he informed Chancellor Albert Carnesale of his talks with Pitino and assured Lavin that he was still the coach.
Asked if he felt reassured, a smiling Lavin said: ``It depends how you define that.''
Later, Lavin expressed anger at Pitino for having approached Dalis through their friend.
``I think Pitino is an opportunist,'' Lavin said. ``He's trying to capitalize on a tremendous opportunity. I'm sure if he's having conversations with the athletic director, he feels he has a chance to get the job.''
Dalis emphasized that wins and losses are only part of the equation he uses to evaluate coaches, and that the Bruins' dwindling basketball attendance was a major concern.
``If someone wins 14 or 18 games, it doesn't necessarily mean you're going to make a change in the program,'' Dalis said. ``One hopefully takes the long view of where you are.''
Asked if he expected Lavin back, Dalis said: ``He has a contract.''
Lavin earns $578,000 per year on a contract that runs through the 2004-05 season but rolls over for five years each April 30. If Lavin is fired, the school is on the hook for $765,000 - or the base salary of $153,000 times five.
Asked if he was satisfied with the state of the basketball program, Dalis said: ``I've been very pleased the last few games (the Bruins have won three in a row). What I'm not happy about is attendance.''
The Bruins' attendance has declined each of the past four seasons and they're averaging 7,356 in seven games this season, a school-record low pace. The only game they've drawn more than 7,500 for at 12,819-seat Pauley Pavilion was North Carolina.
Dalis, who is in his 18th year as athletic director and recently signed a contract extension through the 2001-2002 school year, declined to discuss his evaluation of Lavin, saying it was a personnel matter.
However, in the past three months, the program has had two embarrassing off-the-court incidents: Rico Hines hit teammate Matt Barnes over the head with a metal stool and Lavin allowed Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone to use his cell phone to call a recruit, an improper contact.
``The three things the chancellor and Pete laid out were the kids graduating, winning games and recruiting,'' said Lavin, who said all four seniors on this year's team are on track to graduate.
``We've been to the Sweet Sixteen three out of four years and we've had the No. 1 and 2 recruiting classes in the country. If that's the criteria, it's being met.''
Lavin, who has said that his team is used to distractions, said the latest talk could affect them. The Bruins, who are 2-0 in the Pacific-10, play host to 20th-ranked USC on Thursday.
``I think it's very distracting when you don't know who your coach is going to be,'' Lavin said.
UCLA captain Earl Watson, the team's senior point guard, was upset over the speculation.
``There's a lot of words I want to say that you can't print,'' Watson said. ``I'm glad it's my last year because I'm getting tired of all the controversy. If there was a coaching change and I was a freshman or a sophomore, I wouldn't be coming back.''
Other players seemed to treat this more matter of factly.
``We just play basketball games,'' said sophomore Jason Kapono, the team's leading scorer. ``I know that coach Lavin's our coach until we hear otherwise.''
Photo: (color) no caption (Rick Pitino, newly-resigned Celtics coach)
Neil Redmond/Associated Press