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UCLA athletic department looks weak in failed pursuit of basketball coach Jamie Dixon

UCLA athletic department looks weak in failed pursuit of basketball coach Jamie Dixon
Texas Christian coach Jamie Dixon applauds a February win over Kansas State in Fort Worth. (Richard W. Rodriguez / Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Remove John Wooden’s name from the UCLA campus. Take down the Wooden statue outside Pauley Pavilion. The late coach deserves better than to be associated with such a joke of an athletic department.

How naïve the Bruins were to think a defeat to Liberty last year would mark rock bottom for their signature basketball program.

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UCLA could at least blame that loss on Steve Alford, which it did by firing him soon after. And that is what makes the quixotic search for Alford’s permanent replacement worse than any single defeat, that there is no individual who is entirely responsible for this mess — no simple solution. The incompetence is systemic.

In the wake of their apparent inability to land their 20-something-th choice, Jamie Dixon, the Bruins have to confront some uncomfortable realities.

Any remaining delusions about them being a dormant basketball dynasty have been eviscerated. The Pyramid of Success has been flipped upside down. The school’s new guiding philosophy is the Vortex of Failure.

UCLA remains a prisoner of the past, and while athletic director Dan Guerrero and lieutenant Josh Rebholz have the keys to open the cell door, they clearly have no understanding of what they should do once on the outside.

Who knows with whom UCLA will end up as its coach now? Mick Cronin? As with Dixon, he would be a compromise.

Earl Watson? As much support as he has from his fellow ex-Bruins, choosing him would feel too similar to the kind of incestuous decisions that resulted in USC selecting the likes of Pat Haden and Lynn Swann to be its athletic directors.

How humiliating for UCLA. How amateurish.

At the same time, how predictable.

From how the Bruins allowed themselves to be used by John Calipari to how they appear to have lost Dixon over the terms of his buyout with Texas Christian, there is no part of this story that is a shock.

Guerrero botched the basketball program’s previous coaching search by selecting Alford to replace Ben Howland, who had reached the Final Four three times. Little wonder he botched this one too.

In retrospect, the school’s ambitions of making a signature hire are almost laughable. When the Bruins landed Chip Kelly as their football coach, they convinced themselves of what they always wanted to believe — that financial limitations and outdated facilities were the reasons their revenue-generating teams underperformed in recent years. The sponsorship deal with Under Armour and their upgraded facilities were supposed to take them into a new era. Kelly was evidence of that ... or not.

What the Bruins failed to see was that they just happened to satisfy the particular conditions desired by a particular high-profile coach. Kelly’s hiring was more a reflection of Kelly than it was of UCLA.

The Bruins were therefore the last to know what everyone else did: Their reputation was so damaged that they wouldn’t be able to get any of their top choices to seriously consider taking over their basketball program.

They had their millions from Under Armour. They had their new facilities. They had Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers making phone calls on their behalf.

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It didn’t make a difference.

This absence of self-awareness explains why the Bruins reached out to coaches they had no chances of landing, one of whom was Calipari.

UCLA had the audacity to offer Calipari a deal that would pay him less than he was making with Kentucky. Predictably, he declined. And, predictably, he leveraged the proposal into what is basically a lifetime contract with Kentucky. If Calipari didn’t do this, one of the other Hail Mary targets would have. And the Bruins would have found themselves in the position they are now, where whomever they end up hiring will be compared to the big-name coach they weren’t able to land.

This was the position Dixon was in when he started to negotiate his move to Westwood.

As it was, Dixon was a hard sell. As a former assistant to Howland at three separate schools, Dixon symbolized a begrudging acceptance on UCLA’s part that Howland’s defensive-minded style of play was something to which to aspire. The message to the Bruin faithful was: You didn’t like Howland’s style? Well, it’s better than whatever we had under Alford.

By offering the position to Calipari, UCLA showed it was prepared to operate outside the boundaries it previously set for itself. Calipari was the same coach who had two of his Final Four appearances vacated, with UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008. This was the same coach who during his failed tenure with the New Jersey Nets called a reporter a “Mexican idiot,” which wouldn’t play well in a Latino-heavy market.

The Bruins expanded their candidate pool by relaxing at least some of their standards, and Dixon was the best they could do? If they were OK with Calipari, maybe they should have taken a longer look at Kansas’ Bill Self or Texas Tech’s Chris Beard.

All of this would have been bad enough, so it’s understandable why UCLA didn’t want to pay Dixon’s contractually stipulated $8-million ransom. But if the Bruins had no intention of satisfying the terms of his buyout, they never should have made him their target. They’re now paying a very public price for doing so.

The focus now has to be on minimizing the damage.

UCLA basketball isn’t Wooden’s program any more than the Detroit Tigers are Ty Cobb’s team. That’s over. That dream is dead. UCLA should be mindful of what its basketball program is in danger of becoming, something like Long Beach State’s, only with higher academic standards and a brighter spotlight.

The Bruins saved $8 million by refusing to pay Dixon’s buyout. Unless they can salvage the situation by hiring a coach who can generate excitement, the cost to their athletic department’s reputation could be considerably more.

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