For decades, the Final Four was inevitably intertwined with UCLA. John Wooden’s 12 Final Fours in the 1960s and ’70s made it a March rite in Los Angeles to be among the last four teams standing in the NCAA tournament. Ben Howland reached three-consecutive from 2006-08, and Jim Harrick made his lone appearance count in 1995 by winning the school’s last national championship.
But with UCLA not reaching the Final Four this decade, it marks the first decade without an appearance since the 1950s. With the college basketball world descending on Minneapolis this week, UCLA will still manage to create a buzz like the good old days. Just for all the wrong reasons.
The UCLA coaching search is 92 days old, and it appears destined to underwhelm. If UCLA moves quickly in its search, it will proceed to hire someone that will take the job knowing he is a B-list choice.
Even worse, Kentucky coach John Calipari shamelessly used UCLA to the point of embarrassment again on Monday, taking the school’s interest and reported contract offer and flipping it into a so-called ‘lifetime’ contract. Calipari’s bruised ego was needing a boost after again losing in the NCAA tournament to a team with inferior talent, so he exploited and re-exploited UCLA’s interest as a double-shot of leverage to fuel both his self-worth and bank account. Wooden had the Pyramid of Success. Calipari now can afford to build a pyramid.
In a hat tip to his narcissism, Calipari forced Big Blue Nation to bow at his feet – apparently forever – as he again squeezed its bank account. A good Final Four bar debate: Who looks worse? Calipari for blatantly using UCLA and perpetuating his reputation as college athletics’ most overt mercenary? Or UCLA for being unsophisticated enough to wait all this time for an inevitable outcome only it couldn’t see?
It leaves UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero doing the administrative walk of shame this morning, with über-booster Casey Wasserman and Warriors general manager Bob Myers, a consultant to the search, flanking him as the wingmen. Guerrero is already on the hook for downgrading from Ben Howland to Steve Alford, a complete misread on how poorly Alford’s ego and self-absorption would fit in Westwood. (Only Alford could roll around Los Angeles thinking he was the city’s biggest star.)
And Guerrero now appears on the cusp of underwhelming everyone again, as UCLA is at a unique crossroads. They could attempt to wait out Virginia coach Tony Bennett, which still appears to be a worse fit than Nick Saban guest starring on “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” If UCLA waits for Bennett, everyone will know by Thursday, when coaches begin to pour into town for the Final Four. UCLA will be the laugh track of the sweatsuit mafia at Final Four week, with the Bruins waiting to get their heart broken like Ralph Wiggum on Valentine’s Day.
Guerrero’s other options will be a list of coaches who are solid and accomplished, but certainly not ideal fits. Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin has established himself as one of the country’s most consistent coaches, but his style makes Ben Howland’s look like the Showtime Lakers. Cronin is one of the country’s most consistent coaches, as he’s reached nine consecutive NCAA tournaments at Cincinnati. He’s low ego and easy to work with, which would be a huge upgrade. But his teams have all fit a pattern of consistently exiting the NCAA tournament early. He’s got a 6-11 overall NCAA tournament record – including two dances at Murray State – and just one Round of 16. To project Cronin as a bad hire would be foolish — he’s won 67 percent of his games at Cincinnati (296-147). But there’s a reason why he’s a backup candidate: The flaws are real.
Same goes for Jamie Dixon, a former Howland assistant at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh. (The Los Angeles Times reported on Monday night that Cronin and Dixon were the top targets.) Repeating Howland’s success would be a solid goal considering the failures of those before and after him. Howland is the second-winningest coach in UCLA history and reached three Final Fours. Could Dixon replicate that? He’s another excellent coach, winning 70 percent of his games at Pittsburgh and TCU over 16 seasons. Dixon is 12-12 in the NCAA tournament, and his teams have been known to have the aesthetics of a sumo championship. But he knows what he’s doing. Just ask Pitt fans what happened after he left. (TCU plays Texas in the NIT at 9 p.m. Tuesday night, and winning would likely push back UCLA’s ability to hire Dixon, potentially prolonging the agony.)
There are other names that could still float in the UCLA sphere – Nevada’s Eric Musselman, Lakers coach Luke Walton and Texas’ Shaka Smart are all milling about. Musselman could end up a prime target at Arkansas and LSU, if it opens. They fit the flawed-but-acceptable model previously mentioned.
Unless a high-end coach falls out of the sky, UCLA appears on the cusp of executing the archetype of a bungled search. After three months and with celebrated bold-faced names to help, the Bruins have aimed high, struck out and gotten used for raises in classic and predictable fashion. The good news is that the Bruins play in the Pac-12, which has an unimpressive collection of coaches and revenue issues that don’t exactly project the biggest challenges to getting the program back on track.
But as the Final Four kicks off, a program steeped in lore is instead watching the wrong kind of history repeat itself. UCLA is amid another muddled coaching search, which has so far resulted in an economic – and ego – stimulus in Lexington and little else. A program that for decades was a fixture at the Final Four will be there this season only as the butt of punchlines.
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