Unlike most of his peers who merely have to tune out criticism from hecklers in the stands or angry callers on sports talk radio, UCLA coach Ben Howland doesn't have it so easy.
The most vocal critic of Howland is one of the greatest players in the history of the UCLA program and a guy the 10th-year coach grew up watching.
Legendary center Bill Walton has used his new gig as an analyst for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network as a forum to attack Howland's coaching methods and highlight the need for a change in leadership. During Thursday night's broadcast of UCLA's 59-57 victory over Washington, Walton said he's not a fan of Howland's coaching and all but called for his firing.
Howland acknowledged Friday he is aware of Walton's criticism but insisted he is not upset by it. He suggested part of the reason Walton is dissatisfied is the high standard the former Naismith Award winner holds the program to since he was part of the Bruins' record 88-game win streak during his college career.
"He has been critical in all the games he has done of ours this year," Howland said. "As a broadcaster and an analyst, that's his job. It's perfectly his right to be critical. As I've said in the past, to me, Bill is one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball. He holds such a special place in UCLA basketball lore. I just try to do the job to the best of my ability."
Asked if the criticism was harder to stomach coming from Walton, Howland said curtly, "It is what it is."
If missing the NCAA tournament two of the past three years has made Howland a target for criticism recently in Los Angeles, then few have taken aim as frequently as Walton.
He blasted Howland for "inexplicably" substituting for Shabazz Muhammad with the Bruins holding an early 21-5 lead at Arizona. He called it "sacrilegious" that UCLA lost to rival USC the night it retired Reggie Miller's jersey. And he has repeatedly railed on Howland for his substitution pattern, his structured offense and his habit of stopping the game "excessively," once lamenting "as soon as they score in transition, Coach Howland loves to call timeout."
Some of those criticisms were unusually blunt for a game analyst, but Walton's assessment became even more harsh during ESPN's broadcast of Thursday's Washington-UCLA game. Asked for his assessment of UCLA this season, Walton called the Bruins "disappointing" and sarcastically quipped, "They were able to beat Irvine and Northridge. That made everyone run out and buy season tickets."
When Walton harped on the empty seats at Pauley Pavilion once again in the second half and suggested the fans in attendance looked like they were "getting ready to go to the dentist,” play-by-play man Dave Pasch followed up by asking his broadcast partner what UCLA should do about it. That led to a memorable exchange that has drawn attention the last 24 hours.
Pasch: "You’ve criticized the attendance now five times. Give me a solution. How do you fix it?"
Walton: "Play better basketball."
Pasch: “OK, well, that’s obvious. How do you play better basketball?”
Walton: “Better style.”
Pasch: "Alright, so, is that the coach? Is that the players?"
Walton: "It’s the coach."
Pasch: "So you’re not a Ben Howland fan?"
Pasch: ”Well, he went to three straight Final Fours. He hasn’t made the tournament the last three years. Has his time run out here in Westwood?"
Walton: "I’m not in charge. If I were, things would be different."
Even though UCLA is 17-6 overall and in a second place tie in the Pac-12, there are plenty of other UCLA alumni besides Walton who have soured on Howland. What's unusual about Walton's stance, however, is his reasoning.
Instead of lamenting the recruiting misses and frequent transfers that have plagued UCLA recently, Walton appears focused on the fact that Howland's preferred style of play doesn't match his own. And while it's fair to criticize Howland for being too structured and for not giving his players enough freedom in the past, Howland has taken the reins off this year's players and encouraged them to push the ball far more than any other season in his 10 years in Westwood.
Howland, to his credit, took the high road Friday, wisely refusing to get into a war of words with the loquacious Walton.
Instead Howland insisted he chooses to remember Walton for his accomplishments as a UCLA player and for the way he supported the Bruins from the stands during the first of three straight Final Four runs in 2006.
"Bill was 60-0 his first two years," Howland said. "His reference point is pretty special. I understand that. What they did, I think it will be hard to see often again in the history of college basketball. Their expectations are so high, and I get it. It's part of what makes UCLA special."
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