The ghost of John Wooden strikes again as Ben Howland became the eighth victim of the curse that hovers around the UCLA men’s basketball program.
Howland was fired as the basketball coach on Sunday despite taking the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08 and winning four conference championships in 10 seasons. He had a 233-107 record as the longest-tenured coach in Westwood since Wooden retired in 1975. Wooden won 10 national championships in a 12-year run, a feat that may never be achieved again. Only Jim Harrick managed to win a NCAA Tournament title in the post-Wooden era, and he was run out of town too.
Howland won 97 games during that three-year Final Four run, more than any other coach in school history. He embraced and reveled in UCLA’s history and tradition, and kept Wooden close to the program until the legendary coach died in 2010. He produced several NBA standouts such as Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, Trevor Ariza, Jordan Farmar, Aaron Afflalo, Darren Collison, and Jrue Holiday. Love, Westbrook, and Holiday are now NBA All-Stars.
Any other college program would love to have Howland’s resume. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough. What ultimately led to his firing was his inability to excite the Bruins’ fan base.
Howland was known as a defensive coach who favors the grind-it-out halfcourt approach. He brought toughness to what used to be the Pac-10 conference, and remade UCLA’s image by recruiting players who played hard on both ends. Because Howland’s teams preferred to walk the ball up, it became tough to get into an offensive flow. Oftentimes, UCLA games turned into a war of attrition and fast-break baskets were few and far between. Howland also didn’t put a premium on shooters, which severely hampered his teams. If the Bruins had a sniper in one of those Final Four trips UCLA may have championship banner No. 12 and Howland may still have a job.
The pressure of the job forced Howland to change his rigid ways. He began recruiting players who didn’t fit his system and took chances on certain guys. And this season — in a last-ditch effort to save his job — he changed his slow-down approach and gave his players more offensive freedom. UCLA won the Pac-12 conference and returned to the top 25. Things were looking good until freshman Jordan Adams went down with a broken foot in the final seconds of the win against Arizona in the conference tournament in Las Vegas. The Bruins were doomed. They not only lost arguably their most complete player but they lost their best outside shooter.
Not having Adams’ outside shooting killed UCLA in the first round of the NCAA tourney, as it struggled to score against Minnesota’s zone defense and eventually lost by double digits.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero didn’t waste any time in ousting Howland. His team was eliminated from the Big Dance on Friday then a Yahoo! Sports report surfaced on Saturday that Howland was on his way out. The official word on the firing came Sunday after Guerrero met with Howland.
From the Associated Press:
”As I looked at the entire program and where I felt we were, especially headed into next year, I felt like now was the appropriate time to make the change and get a fresh start,” Guerrero said in an evening teleconference.
”I would certainly not lay all of that on Ben’s shoulders by any stretch of the imagination, but we need to generate as much fan support as possible and get people in the seats,” Guerrero said.
Guerrero was in a similar position in 2011 when the UCLA football program was on life support. He got rid of the popular Rick Neuheisel, a Bruin alum, in favor of former NFL coach Jim Mora Jr. It turned out to be the right call as Mora has brought plenty of excitement around the football program, highlighted by the win over USC and a berth in the Pac-12 title game.
Guerrero is hoping lightning would strike twice.