Right mix of coaches key

Steve Lavin was 32 years old the first time he recruited Rico Hines, who was then a pretty good but not McDonald's All-American player from Saint John's at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md.

The North Carolina native was the first of what ended up being a star-studded recruiting class that ranked second in the country, and Hines finished his career as a co-captain at UCLA.

It was part program lure, part a lack of any better offers that helped bring Hines to UCLA, but it was mostly Lavin's ability to win over not only the young guard but also his family.

"My mother loves Coach Lavin," Hines said. "She thinks he's a handsome man."

So when Lavin, 45, was named the head coach at St. John's University after years as an ESPN analyst, he decided to try his luck with Hines again. But this time, Hines wasn't a young high school kid looking for a chance -- he was enjoying life as an NBA assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. It was a dream job by most coaches' standards, one that didn't come with the exhausting demands of recruiting and smaller salaries of a college assistant.

Lavin, of course, won him over again.

"He told me when I was a player he wanted me to be a coach," Hines said. "[After he got the job at St. John's] he called me and said, 'I want you to come conquer New York with me.'"

And that might be tougher than winning any Pac-10 title.

Coaches have come and gone from St. John's since its glory years with one big problem: They just can't get kids to play in Queens. It was often theorized that if Norm Roberts, who was fired from St. John's in March, had managed to sign Kemba Walker or Lance Stephenson, both of whom flirted heavily with the Red Storm before choosing other Big East schools, he might have held on to his job.

"I think he was chasing all the right kids," said Bob Hurley, who has won numerous titles at St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J. "The problem with recruiting is [if] you come in second, and you spend all of your time on this one kid and you don't get him, it doesn't do you any good."

Is it really possible for Lavin, who had been out of the game for seven years when he was hired, to do that? It might depend largely on his staff of trusty assistants reconnecting him with the world -- and working twice as hard.

And with an impressive roster, many area coaches said they might be the right merry band to do it.

In addition to Hines, Lavin has hired Mike Dunlap, a former Arizona assistant under Lute Olson; Tony Chiles, who coached at Manhattan, Iona and Drexel; Derrick Wrobel, who came from UC Berkeley; and Mo Hicks, a well-known AAU and high school coach from the New York City area.

Hines' NBA experience looks excellent for players who want to get to the next level. Dunlap's long history with AAU and high school programs in New York gives St. John's a boost. And even the hiring of Hicks, who as director of basketball operations is by NCAA rules not allowed to have anything to do with recruiting, gives the school an obvious pipeline to many New York-area recruiting hot spots, including Harlem's Rice High School, which produced Walker, Shane Southwell (Kansas State) and other top Division I prospects.

"Each staff member is gifted in specific areas, and they have complementary skills," Lavin said. "As a group, they mesh very well."

The coaches meet for family-style dinners at least once a week, and they quickly adjusted to the rush of having to put together a recruiting class for 2010 as well as meeting with the current Red Storm roster.

Most importantly, they've concentrated on getting started quickly on the recruiting trail, where they're already months, if not years, behind other Big East programs.

Lavin said his recruiting philosophy is to make sure to get kids from not only the New York area but also around the country and even the world.

"We want to get our share of the best New York-New Jersey metro area players," he said. "If we get our fair share of those and recruit nationally and internationally as well, I think we'll be successful."

Hines described his job as making sure that Lavin knows which kids to look at and gets them in front of him.

"Coach Lavin is a wonderful recruiter," he said. "If you can get a kid in front of him, he will take care of the rest."

"I think it's just important that we be visible when the NCAA allows it," added Dunlap, who said the staff had been working tirelessly to catch up.

So far, the results have been positive. The staff worked with efficient pace to sign Dwayne Polee, one of the school's most exciting prospects in years. Polee decommitted from USC, and his mother, Yolanda, said St. John's did exactly what it needed to pick up the pieces -- quickly.

"It was all Coach Lavin," she said. "In terms of his style of coaching and Dwayne's style of playing, it was the right fit."

And a mark off a long checklist for a weary band of coaches.

Nina Mandell is a freelance writer in New York. She can be reached at ninamandell@gmail.com.