Ben Howland, who led UCLA to three Final Fours, was fired Sunday, the school announced, ending the longest tenure for a Bruins coach since John Wooden retired in 1975.
Howland spent 10 seasons in Westwood, finishing with a 233-107 record. He is coming off one of his best coaching performances, with the Bruins winning the Pac-12 Conference regular-season championship. Yet his star had fallen considerably since he took UCLA to consecutive Final Fours in 2006, ’07 and ’08.
He was informed Sunday that he was fired.
UCLA needed to go deep into the NCAA tournament to save Howland’s job. The Bruins were bounced by Minnesota, 83-63, in their first game Friday.
“We went into the season with high aspirations of winning the conference championship and making a run in the tournament,” Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said. “We were successful at the former, but not the latter.”
Guerrero, though, said that “I evaluate a coach on a number of other things besides wins and losses. I looked at the entire program, where we were and especially where we’re headed. Now was the appropriate time to make a change and get a fresh start.”
UCLA officials have already identified potential candidates.
Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens top the list, according to a person familiar with the athletic department who was not authorized to speak publicly. Neither is likely to be easily pried away.
Failing that, UCLA officials may seek a former NBA coach, the person said.
“Obviously, we’ll move forward looking to bring in someone here that will excite the fan base, work with student-athletes and get them to compete at a high level,” Guerrero said. “There is a lot to sell about coming to UCLA.”
There are also a lot of empty seats to sell.
UCLA officials are concerned about ticket sales at renovated Pauley Pavilion. Only five crowds topped 10,000 this season despite the Bruins’ having the nation’s No. 2-ranked recruiting class and chasing the conference title while playing an up-tempo style.
The Pauley renovation cost $138 million. UCLA officials need the arena to produce revenue. But selling season tickets, with a per-ticket donation to the Wooden Athletic Fund ranging from $100 to $17,000 for priority seats, proved difficult.
“There are a number factors that dictate whether people come to games or not,” Guerrero said. “Certainly not all of that is on Ben’s shoulders. We obviously do need to generate as much fan support as we can, get people in the seats.”
So, Guerrero said, “We will look for someone who plays a fun brand of basketball. We don’t want to bring in a coach who averages 50 points per game.”
Howland’s contract, which runs through 2018, has a $3.5-million buyout — $2.3 million for his 2013-14 pay and $1.2 million for his remaining base pay. The buyout can be “mitigated,” Guerrero said, if Howland is hired elsewhere.
Howland’s popularity dropped as the Bruins’ success waned. UCLA missed the NCAA tournament twice in his last four seasons, and hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2008.
There was criticism about his perceived tight-fisted control, in games and with the team and staff. There were concerns about the number of players who transferred, though only a few found success elsewhere: Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (Nevada Las Vegas), Chace Stanback (UNLV) and Matt Carlino (Brigham Young).
A Sports Illustrated story a year ago portrayed the program as being out of control. Howland and Guerrero met at the end of the 2011-12 season and there were promises of change, but Guerrero said that there were no benchmarks in place for Howland to reach.
“I wanted to give him a chance to try to move things forward,” Guerrero said.
Howland brought in a stellar recruiting class, some considered to be one-and-done players on the way the NBA. But the season came with considerable turmoil.
Freshman Shabazz Muhammad went through a lengthy NCAA investigation, and wasn’t cleared to play until three games into the season. Freshman Tony Parker had a series of injuries and was slow to develop. Junior guard Tyler Lamb and junior center Joshua Smith, who battled weight problems, transferred in November, sapping the Bruins’ depth. Smith was also UCLA’s most formidable inside player.
Still, Howland was able to win his fourth conference championship, more than any UCLA coach other than John Wooden. The Bruins’ postseason chances were dealt a blow when freshman guard Jordan Adams broke his right foot in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.
Muhammad is expected to declare for the NBA draft and Kyle Anderson might follow.
Guerrero maneuvered around the question of whether UCLA would continue to seek high-end players who might jump to the NBA after one season.
“It’s important to recruit student-athletes that can make the grades and graduate,” Guerrero said. “But we’ll certainly look at all of them.”