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All Saia needs is for someone to give him a chance

Jim Saia waits, and waits, and waits, for the chance that so far has eluded him.

He's a college basketball coach, a very good one. His Columbia College Claim Jumpers went 61-10 during two crowd-pleasing seasons in the mid-1990s, a run that earned him a rollicking seven-year term as an assistant coach at UCLA. As promotions go, this is leapfrogging from drill sergeant to two-star general.

A decade later, Saia, 42, hasn't yet landed the head-coaching job he covets. He's felt it all, from glory to ridicule, and that doesn't even refer to what's happened on the court.

"I could write a book," he says.

We'll title it, "So Much For Patience."

Jim Saia's basketball teams win, yet he can't get an athletic director to say, "You're hired." Instead, he's collected a file of "Thanks but no thanks" letters.

He's been a finalist for head-coaching positions at Fresno State (twice), UC Riverside, Cal State Fullerton and UTEP. He's been rejected more times than Susan Lucci at the Emmys.

Last year, he was turned away by Fresno City, which eventually won a state title under Ed Madec. For Saia, it was the ultimate diss.

"I was in that league and won it twice," he said. "I've been humbled, for sure."

We'll assume Saia hasn't robbed banks with his grandmother or done business with bookies in Las Vegas. Perhaps he flopsweats during interviews. Why he's not walking his own team onto the floor each winter qualifies as a mysterious oversight, not unlike Tony La Russa's blind spot concerning Mark McGwire. Simply, Saia was born to coach at the college level.

Problem is, he all but fell off the hoops map for two years. He stayed in touch by working with NBA draft picks and, this season, mentoring a young coach at Citrus College. Saia installed the team's offense, attended two practices a week and attended most games. The Fighting Owls won 21 games and made their deepest advance into the State Tournament, due in part to the coach minus the title.

That was Saia's reward for the events of two years ago at USC, which hired him after his tenure at UCLA. When the Trojans fired Henry Bibby four games into the 2004-05 season, they hired Rick Majerus, who changed his mind five days later. Saia was asked to pick up the pieces as an interim coach.

The Trojans staggered through a 12-17 season and won only five Pacific-10 Conference games, but Saia's impact wasn't recognized until USC reached the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight this month.

That pretty flower was planted by Saia, who benched his seniors two years ago and settled on three promising underclassmen — Lodrick Stewart, Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt. The trio paid its dues but blossomed this season, thanks to Saia's early push. USC coach Tim Floyd praised Saia last week for his perseverance during a tough time.

Suddenly, the hoops world's memory was refreshed: Wasn't Saia the guy who recruited like a soothsayer under Steve Lavin at UCLA? Didn't he sign 10 future NBA players, a crop that slam-dunked the Bruins into the Elite Eight once and Sweet 16 four times?

True enough, but such results translate into failure in Westwood, where the bar is raised above the clouds. The public perception was of a program blessed with superior talent but guided by in-over-their-heads neophytes. Later, all it got Saia was a foot in the door, only to be later shown the door, by many athletic directors.

By the way, Saia still likes the Bruins.

"If I'm a betting man, and I'm not, I'd put my money on UCLA over Florida," he said in reference to one of this weekend's Final Four matchups. Saia says Georgetown will win it all but not before a stunning upset Saturday.

"Darren Collison (UCLA's starting point guard) came off the bench last year as a freshman and made the big difference. Now he's replaced Jordan Farmar, who wasn't bad. He's in the NBA, but Collison is faster, defends better and shoots just as well. Collison will surprise everyone in the rematch. He reminds me of Tyus Edney, maybe better."

As for Saia, he believes his luck soon will change. Such an attitude has allowed him to keep his sanity in an otherwise dog-eat-dog profession.

"I've had to reinvent myself. I know I'm a better coach than I was at UCLA," he said. "I'm just not a hot commodity. I'm two years out. Athletic directors want to win the press conference. They can't do that with a guy who's been out for two years."

During his days at Columbia, Saia recalled a young assistant coach from Baylor scouting talent at the Modesto Junior College Tournament. That hungry coach was Billy Gillispie, who's no longer hungry. He's resurrected the Texas A&M program, where he stands to make millions either by staying in College Station or swept away by Arkansas, Kentucky or another well-moneyed suitor.

With one bounce of the ball or the right job at the right time, Saia could have been Gillispie.

Saia will interview next week for the head-coaching position at Fresno Pacific, an NAIA school. Memo to the Sunbirds: You'll see a man of energy, skill and faith, a perfect fit. Give him a chance.

He's earned it.

To comment, click on the link with this story at www.modbee.com. Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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