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Losing, off-court issues justifiably lead to firings of Ben Howland, Tubby Smith

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

There has been a great lamentation arising from Cult of the Coach members in the past couple of days.

Ben Howland was fired at UCLA Sunday and it was a gross injustice, according to the cultists. Tubby Smith was fired at Minnesota Monday and it was more of the same, they said.

(What it might really be is the sprint to Shaka Smart, but that's another column for another day.)

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Ben Howland was 233-107 in 10 years at UCLA. (AP)

The schools were unreasonable, unrealistic and unfair, the cultists said. They have a warped view of their place in the college basketball hierarchy. They were lucky to have those coaches and will be even luckier to find a replacement as good.

And so forth.

Pardon me for not sharing their outrage.

Howland (three Final Fours) and Smith (one national title) have had excellent careers, probably both worthy of Hall of Fame consideration someday. Both will be snatched up on the open market if they want to continue coaching. But the notion of them as blameless, powerless victims being chewed up by the College Sports, Inc., machine does not ring true to me.

I'm not just talking about on-court production, though we can discuss that as well.

Divide Howland's 10-year UCLA tenure into two periods and you see a major dropoff: the first six seasons were Camelot; the last four were Losealot. The Bruins had three 30-win seasons and four top-12 Pomeroy Ratings in those first six; they averaged 13 losses per season and were no higher than 43rd in the Pomeroy Ratings in the last four. For a school with UCLA's traditions and aspirations, that's trending the wrong way.

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In the case of Smith, he gave Minnesota six years of good and zero years of great. And with a salary of nearly $2 million this year, the school was paying for great (or at least really, really good). Tubby had a losing Big Ten record and took the Gophers to three NCAA tournaments in those six seasons, never getting better than a No. 10 seed and winning just one of three NCAA games. That, coincidentally, came against Howland and UCLA Friday night.

But there are significant off-court reasons why the two schools are justified to make a change, even if it means firing a big name and incurring the wrath of the Cult of the Coach members.

There has simply been too much mess and doubt at UCLA. Too many players transferring out or being kicked out, and arguably too many concessions made and risks taken for those coming in.

Howland took a swing at a freshman class that was supposed to deliver what Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague delivered at Kentucky in 2012 – a national title during their layover on the way to the NBA. UCLA's class delivered a Pac-12 title and a round-of-64 NCAA elimination. That's not worth everything that went along with the freshmen.

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Shabazz Muhammad led UCLA with 18.3 points per game this season. (AP)

Shabazz Muhammad was suspended for only three games to start the season in large part because the NCAA had to fold its cards due to self-inflicted incompetence. There was widespread belief, both at the NCAA and college coach levels, that Muhammad was no amateur – that he'd received plenty of goods and services as a teenage phenom – but that case evaporated after reports that an enforcement rep's boyfriend was overheard blabbing about it on an airplane. Confronted with bad publicity, the NCAA basically dropped back and punted, firing the enforcement rep in the process as well.

The questions about Muhammad resurfaced last week, when the Los Angeles Times reported on the wheeling, dealing and conniving Muhammad's father, Ron Holmes, had engaged in to make his son a star – up to and including lying about his age.

In the story, Holmes was asked about funding for his son's more than 15 college visits. His answer: "When you're good enough, you don't have to pay for your trips."

When a one-and-done college recruit has a father with that level of expectation of being taken care of, does this sound like a comfortable situation for UCLA?

The Times story also noted, "A Los Angeles basketball trainer paid for a trip to the University of Memphis, records show, and a New York financial advisor donated an undisclosed sum to Dream Vision [the player’s AAU team] in hopes of getting close to Muhammad."

AAU teams often are set up as non-profit organizations and take donations from various sources, which can include agents and boosters. The source of the donations does not have to be made public, despite the non-profit status.

The donation Dream Vision solicited was sizable, running well into six figures, sources told Yahoo! Sports several months ago.

Dream Vision coach Clayton Williams denied to Yahoo! Sports Monday that donations of that size were ever solicited or received.

"To say hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, that’s not accurate," Williams said. "We’ve never received sizable donations and haven’t done anything illegal as far as Dream Vision is concerned.

"We’re funded by Adidas. There’s no money in it. We’re trying to send kids to college."

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In addition to the AAU situation, UCLA hired an assistant coach friendly with the Muhammad family: Phil Mathews, who the Times reported was far and away UCLA’s highest-paid assistant last year at $205,000.

Mathews was joined on UCLA's staff in 2011 by Korey McCray, CEO and coach of the Atlanta Celtics AAU club. His previous full-time college coaching experience, according to his UCLA bio, consisted of a season at Mercer University in 2007-08 and a season at Chipola College in 2004-05. McCray was instrumental in UCLA landing two other members of this year's freshman class, Atlanta-area standouts Jordan Adams and Tony Parker.

This season, McCray made at least one recruiting visit to Eastern Kentucky to scout prospective recruits Emanuel Owootoah and Ray Kasongo, both Canadian expatriates playing in small towns in Appalachia. According to Kasongo and his coach at Pikeville High School, Bart Williams, McCray was accompanied on that visit in January by Brandon Bender, Kasongo's "mentor" and a basketball figure who was named in some of the recruiting violations committed by Central Florida. UCF was given a postseason basketball ban for this year as a result of those violations. Part of the school's self-imposed penalties was to permanently disassociate Bender from UCF's athletic programs.

Not your ideal recruiting companion.

The other prominent member of UCLA's freshman class was Kyle Anderson of New Jersey. The NCAA also investigated his amateur status prior to the season before declaring him eligible in late October. Anderson's recruitment left a lot of bruised feelings among those who were involved in the process.

Maybe all the things UCLA has done the past couple of years are the price of recruiting at the top tier in modern basketball. But there was no payoff at the end of this season.

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Tubby Smith was 124-81 in six years at Minnesota. (AP)

For Smith at Minnesota, the constant roster churn and melodrama inhibited the program. There are several former Golden Gophers who transferred away and thrived: Royce White at Iowa State; Colton Iverson at Colorado State; Justin Cobbs at California; Devoe Joseph at Oregon. White was in and out of legal trouble at Minnesota, as was current big man Trevor Mbakwe. Assistant coach Saul Smith, Tubby's son, was placed on administrative leave earlier this season after being arrested for driving under the influence.

In addition to those issues, Tubby Smith was continually campaigning for a basketball practice facility and never got the desired results. Second-year athletic director Norwood Teague has that on his to-do list, but Tubby won't be the beneficiary if it gets built.

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That might be part of the reason why Smith put out feelers for several other jobs during his six years at Minnesota. He never left of his own accord, but that's not because he never looked. Most recently, sources said Smith had his eye on Auburn should the school choose to let go of Tony Barbee after three struggling seasons. That would have been akin to the exit Smith orchestrated at Kentucky – beating the posse out of town to Minnesota and then hearing outsiders pile on the school for running off a good coach.

So Tubby Smith was willing to entertain the idea of jumping, but he got pushed first. And now that makes Minnesota the bad guy in the Cult of the Coach worldview.

I'm not buying the outrage. Not for Tubby Smith and not for Ben Howland.

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