UCLA wants more than Ben Howland could deliver—and it’s entitled to
How can they fire a coach who just won a conference championship? How can they fire a leader who spent 10 years winning more than twice as many games as he lost? How can they fire a salesman who last season brought in the No. 2-ranked recruiting class in the country?
Easily, and, perhaps, even admirably.
UCLA fired Ben Howland as its basketball coach Sunday because UCLA still believes its basketball program is about something greater than conference championships, greater than number of victories, and greater than the projected promise of teenagers.
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UCLA still believes its basketball program is about national championships, even though it has won only one in 38 years.
UCLA still believes its basketball program should make the Sweet 16 every season, even though it hasn’t been there in the last five years.
UCLA still believes its program should be a reflection of John Wooden, even though some of today’s young stars neither recognize the name nor appreciate his tenets.
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UCLA still believes, and, as crazy as it might seem, one has to applaud that belief. Maybe the Bruins are delusional, but there is a certain power in delusion, a certain strength in this faith. Maybe the Bruins are just kidding themselves, but it is this sort of blind idealism that is necessary for sports’ resurrection.
The Bruins’ return to glory is impossible unless they first believe they are worthy of glory, and the firing of Ben Howland is an important, if swaggering, step toward this belief.
He is a great coach. But in the end, for UCLA, he was not good enough. Period. To argue that point would be to argue that Bruins basketball should settle, which would be like arguing that Wooden’s pyramid should flatten.
UCLA basketball cannot settle, or it ceases to be UCLA basketball. It becomes something like that mess you see playing across town in the glittering Galen Center. USC basketball is the sport’s leading example of settling.
Is this attitude fair to a coach who once reached three consecutive Final Fours and was the most consistently successful Bruins boss since Wooden? Of course not. Howland deserved a much better ending. But so did Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham, Wooden’s first two successors, each of whom voluntarily left the program after only two years even though they were a combined 102-17. So has virtually every coach who replaced Coach.
Howland deserved better, but he preached the Wooden gospel as strongly as anyone, and he knew the difficult standards, and he could not have been surprised when he was fired for not meeting them.
Some folks will say this was about boring basketball, but that brand worked during those Final Four years. Some will say this was because Howland’s players didn’t like him, but he made so much NBA money for so many, they eventually liked him plenty.
This wasn’t about perception or marketing or image. This was about championships. A lack of buzz at Pauley Pavilion doesn’t matter if you win one. Players’ transferring doesn’t matter if you win one. Scowls become toughness, dullness becomes character, and a grinding style of play becomes genius if you win one.
Howland didn’t win one. He didn’t take enough steps in the last five years to make administrators think he could win one. Empowered by the change of culture instituted by new football Coach Jim Mora, those administrators thought it was time to chase that championship with something completely different.
Howland will now probably move to a smaller program whose lesser recruits will more easily embrace his tough style of play. Once there, he’ll take this school to an Elite Eight for the first time, and he’ll have a job for life, and good for him, he’s a good man and deserves only the shiniest of futures.
Meanwhile, the Bruins will attempt to replace him with the best coach possible — VCU’s Shaka Smart is a good first target — and they’ll be ridiculed for being over their skis, but good for them. They will never again be one of the greatest basketball programs in the country unless they start acting like one. On Sunday, they acted like one.
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