I heard ESPN college basketball analyst and former Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl talking the other morning about what a horrible decision it would be for Athletic Director Dan Guerrero to fire Bruins’ head coach Ben Howland. Pearl was downright nasty, calling for UCLA to have years of failure under what ever new guy that might be hired. Pearl based his criticism on his blanket statement that Howland won, but not enough for Guerrero, and his comments were totally lacking in any analysis of the team, Howland’s coaching, or other factors.
As of Sunday afternoon, there was still no official word on Howland, with the Associated Press even saying that he had not been fired. As least yet. That changed in the early evening, when the official word came. Now, as the dust settles, we can look at what Pearl did not tell us, and why Guerrero made the correct decision.
After a horrible start in his first season at UCLA, and an improved second year, the Bruins put together a string of four great years, but years where, despite a 123-26 record, four straight NCAA Tourneys and three Final Fours, there was no 12th title yet produced. Since then, the team has gone a totally unimpressive 81-51. These years have been marked by depressing losses in key games, including such games as the two tourney Final Four losses to Florida, to the loss to Oregon in the PAC-12 Tournament final a few days ago. Had the Bruins won THAT game, they would have had a NCAA Tournament seed at least a couple of spots higher, would have stayed in the West Region, and could likely be playing near home this Friday, at Stapes, in the Sweet Sixteen.
Big game Bruin losses this season in particular, such as that game against Oregon, have followed a formula. They all seem to feature poor, stand-around team defense, poor rebound positioning featuring a total lack of offensive rebounding in key spots, and star Shabazz Mohammad would seem to always have a very poor first half, with a high scoring second half usually leading the team in a failed comeback. What about the part the injury to Jordan Adams had in both that loss and the NCAA first round loss to Minnesota? Well, just how do you expect a team to win a tournament when the total rotation is seven players, but one in which only six ever really got to play? The Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb defections combined with the failure to give any playing time during the season to any other players, and so little to Tony Parker, the final member of that great recruiting class, resulted in a team strapped for players when it came to crunch time. Whose fault, other than the coach, is it that the team became so depleted in bodies, and that the one injury – though to a star player – could be so much more significant than it should have been?
There are a couple of other areas that Pearl totally ignored, and they have to do with UCLA expectations. Bill Plaschke wrote a great article in today’s LA Times, in which he beautifully described how Bruin expectations are different from other teams, how UCLA should not “settle”, and how they will never again be a top program until they act like one. FIring Howland was the first necessary step in that direction.
Finally, there is the problem of the new Pauley, including increased seating costs, and decreased attendance. The renovated building needs a certain income stream, and exciting games need a packed house of fervent fans. With the average season seat now costing about 35-40% more than it did before the renovation, season ticket holders are leaving, and the only way to bring them back is with a championship team.
Step one is done, Step two is the new coach. More on that later, except to say that a 42-year-old with a super-model wife, who sold his business technology company for $100 Million before turning full time to coaching, and who is taking this year’s NCAA Tournament by storm, could be a good choice, unless of course, this time Guerrero could actually convince a Rick Pitino or, better yet, a Billy Donovan, that his future is in Westwood.