Here’s how quickly things change.
Year after year it seems Ben Howland is a fixture on the Final Four floor.
But last year the Bruins lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament and Howland is given tickets for the Final Four in Detroit’s Ford Field, Howland’s seats, he estimates, “100 yards from the court” in what is usually a football stadium.
This year, when the tournament is played in Indianapolis, he should be so lucky to be allowed in the building.
UCLA had a better year in football than it did in basketball, and that’s how far Howland’s program has sunk. Steve Lavin went 10-19 in his seventh season as head coach at UCLA, his only losing season, while Howland’s team is 13-15 in his seventh year on the job, potentially his second losing season.
Two conference games yet to play on the road, at least one Pac-10 tournament contest and it’s a longshot UCLA finishes the season above .500.
He might have to call on Rick Neuheisel to deliver a .500 pep talk.
Now ordinarily the Bruins are just boring, but now they are both boring and apparently lousy.
I can’t say for sure. I caught maybe five minutes of play this season, five minutes longer than I would have planned, but I was hanging out with John Wooden at the Wooden Classic and the gosh-awful Bruins were just unavoidable.
I’ve never been one for defense or coaches who come across as control freaks, which is to say I’m no fan of Howland’s style of coaching. Howland began the season with three times as many wins as losses, and good for him, but the Bruins have been unwatchable even at their best.
But I’ve always liked Howland. He doesn’t take himself seriously as a basketball coach as some other coach in this town does with regularity, and he peppers every conversation with respectful talk of Wooden, still fretting Tuesday about Saturday’s loss, which was played in front of Wooden.
“It really made me feel terrible,” Howland says. “Coach Wooden’s health has not allowed him to be with us much this season, but he was here Saturday with his championship ’70 team watching us play zone defense, turning over the ball and not winning.
“I remember looking at video later that night and seeing Coach Wooden sitting there, and it really hurt me.”
There’s no denying Howland is good at what he does, the proof on the court most years for those who care to watch, but now losing makes him more interesting.
How does he rebound — to use a basketball term —and overcome adversity —to use a cliché?
What’s it like to beat the system and go to the Final Four three consecutive years, an epic accomplishment in this day of players leaving early for the NBA, only to appear so clueless and out of it a short time later?
“You can say I know failure because that’s what it has been relative to our expectations here,” he says. “It’s no fun. I have sleepless nights wondering how the heck did we get here.
“But all of it starts right here with me. I’m in charge of making this program competitive year after year, but I did a poor job of evaluation of some of our recruits — from a talent, as well as a character standpoint.”
As Howland talks, it sounds as if there is a lot more to be said about what is going on internally with this present group of Bruins. But there are two more games this week, an abrupt end to the season more than likely next week, and then the promise to rebuild.
“The bottom line is it’s about players,” Howland says. “The reason we had success with those three Final Four teams was because we had really good players, that were not only great players, but great competitors and great kids.
“You can see it in the nine kids that are in the NBA now — seven of them starting and the two that aren’t, Jordan Farmar and Kevin Love, two of the best we’ve had here.”
Howland has three recruits lined up for next season, and while he says they’re good, he probably said the same thing about those who now disappoint.
“I have no doubt the team is going to be better next year,” he says. “The best indicator of the future is the past, and this is going to be a blip on the screen. We are going to get back.”
Nice speech. But UCLA is always supposed to be a cut above in basketball, or so Bruins fans think. “When you’re successful here, that’s the expectation,” Howland says. “Winning to me is relief, losing is like dying. It’s gut-wrenching.
“This is really the low point since I’ve been at UCLA — it being year seven, and not year one and starting over. I thought it would be a tough year, but not as unsuccessful as it has been.”
There are probably any number of excuses and explanations to mitigate the disappointment that comes from suddenly falling so flat as a program, but Howland doesn’t go there. And why should he, it really is his doing, recruiting miscalculations leading to this debacle.
“I know the answer — players,” Howland says, while stretching the word for added emphasis. “It’s like Coach Wooden says, there are a lot of coaches who haven’t won with good players, but not many who succeed without good players.”
We know this, he’ll have more time to recruit than 65 other coaches across the country who will be busy participating in the NCAA tournament.
“I have a strong belief in God,” Howland says. “There’s a reason why this is happening. There’s something good to come out of this. I know it.”