Monday, March 25, 2013

A Few Words on Ben Howland's Firing

To nobody's surprise, Ben Howland got his walking papers barely 48 hours after seeing UCLA lose by 20 to Minnesota in the first second round of the NCAA Tournament. It's a long time coming.

First things first, I give Howland credit as the most successful coach since John Wooden in terms of getting to 3 Final Fours. He also made critical adjustments to turn this season around and open up the offense to benefit his personnel. I also believe that if Jordan Adams didn't break his foot against Arizona, we might be having a different conversation.

That said, I grew up in the Steve Lavin era where Sweet 16's and great recruiting classes were an annual occurrence in Westwood. I watched Baron Davis fly around, Earl Watson drop dimes and Jason Kapono light up the court. So my standards aren't Wooden-esque, it's about creating a program where people want to add to the legacy, not just come on reputation.

I admitted before the season that Howland's job was at stake depending on how this season went. Once Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith transferred, it was only a matter of time. 12 players in total. transferred under his watch and it appeared that the most promising season in 5 years was heading into the drain before he changed it up.

It was all good 5 years ago for Ben Howland when Kevin Love and Co. led the Bruins to their 3rd straight Final Four.
If you look at Howland from 2003-2008, he had a great run. He built back a program with glue guys led by All-Americans Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. He recruited Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday - the two biggest hauls since B. Davis. He found a hidden gem in Russell Westbrook, who went from a Pac-10 Defensive POY to an NBA All-Star.

But since then? Things fell apart like the late, great Chinua Achebe's novel. UCLA got boring to watch and players left early because Howland's coaching style wore thin. There was no reason Holiday was held back from doing more when he was the best California prep guard I've seen since Baron Davis.

Prep kids barely gave UCLA a thought by 2010 - only 2 years after making the Final Four. Allen Crabbe, Deonte Burton, Bryce Dejean-Jones and the rest of the 2010 All-State First Team all went to other schools and it seemed that Howland stopped making recruiting top local talent a priority. Look at Arizona and California's roster and notice how many L.A./Orange County area kids are on them.

Darren Collison (Etiwanda) and Josh Shipp (Fairfax) were local kids who brought UCLA back to prominence. Since they left in 2008, not too many locals have been attracted to Westwood.
Sources have also expressed to me that Howland wasn't consistent in who he supported and who he disciplined. Case in point, Josh Smith's weight issues were a problem but while he deserves some blame, where is the coaching staff to push and motivate him to keep it up instead of being so negative? It's the difference between scolding and teaching - something I learn every day at my tutoring center.

UCLA made the NCAA Tournament 3 times since 2008 and were beaten soundly each time. Prior to this year, good luck to non-Californians naming folks who wore a Bruins jersey besides Holiday, the mercurial Reeves Nelson and current NBA pros Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee. It was a faceless, boring program that was just like what Howland had at Pittsburgh.

That, my friends, is why it's time for a change. It wasn't just about W's and L's. It's about not being able to handle stars or being too late to adjust his style and keep his success going. It's about UCLA becoming a chore to watch and fans not attending Pauley Pavilion. It's about seeing local kids and elite prospects not even consider Westwood as they thrive at other schools. It's about transfers leaving here and succeeding like Drew Gordon and Mike Moser.

Howland received a Hail Mary with Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams but it appears his magic touch will have one last effect as fellow freshman Tony Parker is thinking of transferring. UCLA has a decent class coming next year but it's up to the next coach to do what Jim Mora did with the football team - make it relevant, exciting, competitive and appealing to kids in L.A.

(As for the next coach? I'm hearing Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens as logical choices. You gotta be delusional to think UCLA is luring Rick Pitino or Billy Donovan away. I'm not fond of Stevens' low-scoring coaching style at Butler even though he's a great coach so my eye is on Smart for now. I prefer a coach who knows the L.A. prep scene or at least will try to be active around it.)

The pressure to win at UCLA is hard. I know many of my fellow Bruins fans have lofty dreams but we have to realize that right now, we need a coach who'll make us competitive in the Pac-12 first and then

I thank Ben Howland as a Bruins fan for restoring my love with the program and recognizing the legacy he inherited. He had a great run and I won't kick him out without acknowledging that. But it's time for a new direction to shake up the future of Bruins basketball.

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