Jim Harrick readily divulges that he holds a deep, emotional bond to the school long after a messy departure in 1996 that came only one year after he helped the Bruins raise their most recent banner inside Pauley Pavilion.
“I don’t know that anybody understands,” Harrick said in a recent telephone interview, “but you have a feeling, a tie there that’s undeniable. I want them to do well, I want them to get back to prominence and I’m very, very passionate about it.”
That’s why Harrick also wants the Bruins to make the right pick in their coaching search. But finding the next coach capable of making a national championship run after a nearly quarter-century drought won’t be as easy as making a list and vetting it twice.
“There’s a lot of good coaches in America; there’s only a handful of what I see as a fit at UCLA,” Harrick said. “I’m looking for the right fit for UCLA. It’s the understanding of Southern California and has a great resume” that are the top qualifications.
Harrick, who made it clear he was not lobbying for any individual candidate but speaking generally about the job, said that resume should include more than a few lines of experience.
One of the biggest questions about the opening created in late December when UCLA dismissed Steve Alford was whether the most established coaches the Bruins coveted would covet them back. That could be the biggest hangup in landing someone like Beilein or Bennett, who have enjoyed immense success in their current positions and appear to have little incentive to leave.
Harrick said he still considered the Bruins’ job one of the best in the country for reasons that go beyond new facilities and increased pay.
“It’s an immensely attractive job because you’ve got 650 high schools right here in Southern California that you can drive to,” said Harrick, 80, who’s now an assistant at Cal State Northridge under Mark Gottfried. “It’s the greatest recruiting area in college basketball.”
Nobody will be hitting the 405 on UCLA’s behalf until the spring. A search committee that includes a slew of athletic department officials and Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers, a member of Harrick’s title team, is in the early stages of the process. No substantial movement is expected until March or April, when the candidates’ seasons end and they can interview for the job.
Here’s an outline of potential candidates the Bruins could target:
The home run hire: Tony Bennett
Why he’s attractive: Bennett, 49, has been a huge success with lesser programs in major conferences. He won 26 games in back-to-back seasons at Washington State, taking the Cougars to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal in 2008, and has put Virginia on equal footing with Duke and North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He is as personable as coaches come and adheres to five leadership principles — humility, passion, unity, servanthood and thankfulness — that smack of John Wooden.
Reservations? Forget Virginia’s historic loss to No. 16 Maryland Baltimore County in last season’s NCAA tournament. The only question regarding Bennett is his willingness to leave Charlottesville for Los Angeles. Some fans might grumble about an offense that can appear stuck in molasses, stirring reminders of the Ben Howland era, but anyone who enjoys winning at the highest level should be fully on board with this hire.
The disciple: Jamie Dixon
Why he’s attractive: Howland isn’t coming back for another decade-long run, but what about his protégé? Dixon, 53, might be the next best thing to his mentor. He replaced Howland at Pittsburgh and took the Panthers to one regional final and two regional semifinals in 13 seasons before moving to Texas Christian, his alma mater, in 2016. Dixon is on track to win at least 20 games for a third consecutive season while blending a high-level offense and defense.
Reservations? The native of North Hollywood and alumnus of Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High has said he’s not interested in the UCLA job, but public declarations don’t always hold up. Remember Roy Williams? He once said on national television that he didn’t give a bleep about the North Carolina job only to take it shortly thereafter. The only potential snags with Dixon are his willingness to leave his alma mater and circumvent what is believed to be a hefty buyout at the private school.
The comeback story: Thad Matta
Why he’s attractive: Matta, 51, regularly made deep forays into the NCAA tournament during his 13 seasons at Ohio State, taking the Buckeyes to the national championship game in 2007, another Final Four in in 2012 and a regional final in 2013. He’s won 74% of his games — a better winning percentage than any coach has achieved at UCLA since Harrick — over his career. Matta also has a reputation as a high-character coach, always a plus in a field that can resemble a cesspool.
The grinder: Mick Cronin
Why he’s attractive: Cronin, 47, essentially slipped his resume onto UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero’s desk when his teams thumped the Bruins in each of the last two seasons. Cincinnati has won at least 22 games in eight consecutive seasons under Cronin, advancing to the NCAA tournament each time, and is on pace to do so again. His teams are gritty and always among the best in the nation defensively. Cronin also possesses the wit to win over recruits and the national media, who have all but ignored UCLA in recent years.
Reservations? Cronin has advanced to a regional semifinal only once in 12 seasons at Cincinnati, raising questions about his ability to make a deep NCAA tournament run. And the passionate, forthright demeanor that endears him to many can irritate others who prefer more restraint.
The rising star: Kevin Keatts
Why he’s attractive: Keatts, 46, needed only three seasons at North Carolina Wilmington to land the North Carolina State job. His upward trajectory has continued with the Wolfpack, who advanced to the NCAA tournament in his first season and were nationally ranked this season before a recent downturn.
Reservations? He’s gone 0-3 in NCAA tournament games, and few will forget his team’s 24-point clunker against Virginia Tech. His presence on Rick Pitino’s Louisville staff at a time when the Cardinals committed NCAA violations that led to the vacating of their 2013 national championship also could be a bright red flag.
The loyal servant: Mike Hopkins
Why he’s attractive: The former longtime Jim Boeheim assistant has been a hit rivaling Starbucks in Seattle, making Washington a runaway winner in the Pac-12 Conference in only his second season. Hopkins, 49, is also a Southern California native who played at Santa Ana Mater Dei High, giving him a recruiting edge on the West Coast.
Reservations? His success with the Huskies is partially a function of a historically bad conference and he’s yet to coach a game in the NCAA tournament. There may not be enough meat on his resume.
The recovering NBA coach: Fred Hoiberg
Why he’s attractive: Myers knows Hoiberg well, having been his agent during Hoiberg’s playing days, and informally spoke with him in 2014 about the Warriors’ vacancy that went to Steve Kerr. Hoiberg, 46, guided Iowa State to one regional semifinal appearance before being wooed by the Chicago Bulls. He made one playoff appearance in three-plus seasons in the NBA and was fired in December after a 5-19 start.
Reservations? Some have tabbed Hoiberg as a more personable Alford, having built a reputation as a strong offensive coach with foundering defenses. He’s also gone on record as saying he disliked recruiting, comments that he may regret making the next time he sits down to interview with a college athletic director.
Plan Bs and beyond
Chris Beard: His Texas Tech defenses are a thing of beauty, his team recently whipped Kansas by 29 points and he took the Red Raiders to a regional final in only his second season, but he’s considered a diehard Texan with strong family roots in the area and might be reluctant to leave.
Randy Bennett: He has quietly built St. Mary’s into one of the most consistent winners on the West Coast, though his hiring would generate less buzz than a closed practice.
Larry Krystkowiak: Widely considered the best tactician in the Pac-12, nobody has done more with less. But his Utah team is on track to miss the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season, considerably reducing the luster of his candidacy.
Gregg Marshall: Making Wichita State nationally relevant has catapulted Marshall onto the short list for a litany of major-school jobs, though he’s already said no to N.C. State and Alabama. Some also find his volatile personality offputting.
Eric Musselman: He’s won big at Nevada, but his reliance on junior college players and his hiring of assistant coach Yanni Hufnagel, who faced sexual harassment accusations from a reporter while working at California, could make him unhirable.
Nate Oats: One of the hottest young coaching names amid a meteoric rise at Buffalo, his biggest shortcoming may be having just started what looks like a promising career.
Steve Prohm: He’s on pace to take Iowa State to the NCAA tournament for the third time in four seasons at the school, though he’s never made it past a regional semifinal.
Earl Watson: The popular pick among UCLA alumni, the former Bruins point guard would like to come home to resurrect his coaching career after a failed NBA stint with the Phoenix Suns. But his lack of success and college experience make him the longest of longshots.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch