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COACH, UCLA ARE GOOD FIT.

Byline: KEVIN MODESTI

The season for sugarplums is over. When the children of Westwood sleep on these January nights, visions of Rick Pitino dance in their heads.

As long as these aren't visions of Rick Pitino dancing, it's nothing for parents to worry about.

UCLA fans have recurring dreams of a new basketball coach. It's one of the symptoms. Pitino will be looking for a new job as soon as Florida's golf courses cease to thrill. That's what any self-respecting coach will do after he falls on his face at the old job.

UCLA is an attractive destination for a born romantic drawn to a traditional power in need of a savior, as Pitino must have been when he took on the Boston Celtics rebuilding project 3 1/2 losing seasons ago. Pitino's Kentucky national-championship ring makes him an attractive prospect for a one-time power in need of an attendance boost, which is more or less how athletic director Peter Dalis describes the state of affairs at UCLA under Steve Lavin.

UCLA is the big city, which in Pitino's mind must give it an edge over Indiana, another much-mentioned potential suitor. UCLA is perpetually in range of a national title, which must put it ahead of Nevada Las Vegas, perpetually in range of an NCAA death penalty.

And UCLA is just a freeway or six away from Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, where Pitino could race his thoroughbreds.

So Pitino and the Bruins are made for each other, at least in their fantasies.

Could this come true?

Is Lavin out, Pitino in?

Was the process set in inexorable motion when Dalis spoke with Pitino on the telephone twice in recent weeks?

Dream away - but don't get your hopes up too high.

The sense here is that Lavin will be gone by the end of the season that's not yet one-half complete.

If Dalis couldn't come up with a stronger vote of confidence than the one he enunciated to reporters Tuesday - ``I've been very pleased the last few games'' - it's no wonder Lavin seemed downcast at his weekly press conference. If Dalis really fibbed to Lavin, saying he hadn't talked with Pitino, it's no wonder the coach was rocking back on his heels when he learned the truth.

Whether it will be Pitino who replaces Lavin is another, bigger question.

At UCLA, coaching rumors are a dime a dozen. Unfortunately, coaches themselves are a little more expensive.

Affordability has been a problem when it has come to hiring Bruins basketball and football coaches in the past, and Dalis said it would be ``an issue'' this time.

Hiring somebody with the royal stature of Pitino would require a change of character from the UCLA administration. Of its seven coaches since John Wooden, three (Gary Cunningham, Larry Farmer and Lavin) were assistants who got promoted, three (Gene Bartow, Walt Hazzard and Jim Harrick) came from lesser college programs, and only Larry Brown came from the professional ranks.

Not even Brown, with his ABA and NBA coaching exploits in Carolina and Denver, brought the stature of Pitino, burnished by the bright lights of UK, the Celtics and the New York Knicks. Put it this way: Brown commanded a whopping $40,000 salary.

Lavin is making $578,000 a year. The going rate for top coaches these days is $1 million-plus. So how big does that ``plus'' need to be to get Pitino's attention?

Pitino walked away from the $27 million remaining on his Celtics contract, suggesting he doesn't need money, and money needn't be an issue with UCLA.

Then again, money is always an issue.

Where does this leave everyone?

Pitino: Waiting to hit on the 18th at Doral, checking the L.A. real-estate listings.

Lavin: Wondering what would be happening if he weren't on a three-game winning streak.

Dalis: Looking up the definition of ``talk'' in the dictionary.

You: Dreaming away - but remembering you didn't wake up to a sack full of sugar plums.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo: RICK PITINO

Former Boston Celtics coach and UCLA AD Peter Dalis have been in contact.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 10, 2001
Words:680
Previous Article:PITINO: FROM BOSTON TO BRUIN? HE, DALIS HAVE HAD TALKS; LAVIN IN THE DARK.
Next Article:RESEDA SCHOOL TRIO CHEERED AT CAMPUS.


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