On the day he hired Ben Howland 10 years ago, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero set the bar high for his new coach, telling reporters, "We expect that he will return UCLA basketball to the nation’s elite."
Howland accomplished that goal during the first half of his tenure but he was fired on Sunday night because he couldn't sustain it.
Despite his three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 and his Pac-12 title this season, Howland wasn't the victim of impossibly high expectations at UCLA the way some have suggested the past 24 hours. Guerrero made the correct decision letting him go because recruiting had slowed, transfers had become an epidemic and he had lost the faith of a significant portion of the fan base.
In the past five seasons, UCLA has fallen from title contention to mediocrity, missing the NCAA tournament twice and failing to make it out of the opening weekend the other three times. The structured, demanding style that made Howland so successful during the first half of his UCLA tenure also wore on his teams, contributing to his woes recruiting players and retaining them.
Between 2008 and 2012, 17 players left UCLA with eligibility remaining, some to enter the NBA draft early but the majority to transfer to other schools. Especially damaging were the departures of all-conference talents Chace Stanback (UNLV), Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV) and Joshua Smith (Georgetown).
The roster attrition became a bigger issue once Howland began having less success landing elite recruits and identifying hidden gems.
Hampered by a string of underwhelming high school classes on the West Coast and by fractured relationships with Los Angeles-area high school and AAU coaches, Howland endured some lean recruiting years from 2009 to 2011. He swung and missed chasing top-tier out-of-state prospects like Adonis Thomas, Terrence Jones, Jahii Carson and Ray McCallum and passed on impact LA-area players like Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State), Spencer Dinwiddie (Colorado), Kendall Williams (New Mexico) or Allen Crabbe (Cal).
Between the transfers and the downtick in recruiting, UCLA always was scrambling to fill holes in its roster into the spring and summer.
Twice Howland resorted to signing junior college transfers, a rarity at UCLA. More recently, he brought aboard North Carolina castoffs Larry Drew II and David and Travis Wear, a decision that admittedly worked out better than many expected. In 2o11, he had Matt Carlino graduate high school a year early to try to fill UCLA's hole at point guard only to have Carlino transfer to BYU early in the season when he wasn't good enough to see immediate playing time.
Howland revamped his staff after the 2010-11 season, bringing aboard Phil Matthews in part to aid in the recruitment of elite prospect Shabazz Muhammad and adding Atlanta-area AAU coach Korey McCray to try to open an unlikely pipeline from Georgia. The strategy proved effective as the Bruins landed a decorated 2012 recruiting class in part because of those hires, but it still seemed unlikely that the idea of a UCLA coach trying to bring players East to West could be sustainable.
Even as this year's team survived an early loss to Cal Poly, the transfer of two ex-starters and Muhammad's November eligibility issues to win the Pac-12 title, there were plenty of red flags about the future of the program.
Only five times this season did UCLA manage to draw more than 10,000 fans to newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, and frequently crowds were far smaller than that. Howland also still wasn't having much success recruiting Los Angeles, losing top class of 2014 point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright to rival Arizona. And while UCLA did get a trio of Class of 2013 recruits, next year's roster looks thin, especially if Kyle Anderson were to follow Shabazz Muhammad in declaring for the draft or freshman center Tony Parker were to transfer.
As a result, Guerrero parted ways with Howland and began the search for a new coach who can return UCLA to the nation's elite and sustain it once he gets there. It's a worthwhile risk but a gamble nonetheless since there's no guarantee Guerrero will be able to lure a Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart as a replacement.
As for Howland, it's a safe bet he'll land somewhere else in the next year or two and thrive once he gets there.
Whoever lands him will get a coach who led Northern Arizona to the NCAA tournament, built Pittsburgh into a power and took UCLA to three straight Final Fours before falling on harder times the past few seasons. They'll also get a coach who handled criticism and media scrutiny the past two seasons with dignity and class, never once suggesting that he was the victim of unreasonable expectations
Howland is a good coach and a good man. He just wasn't the right fit for UCLA anymore.
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