Will UCLA's lofty standards hinder its current coaching search?
Dreaming big and reaching high are typically great qualities. So applaud UCLA for that, if you want. But it's exactly that -- the really lofty and mostly unreasonable standards -- that could make hiring Ben Howland's replacement more difficult than it ought to be.
UCLA has made five Final Fours in 37 years. Ben Howland is responsible for three of them, and yet he was fired Sunday merely two weeks after winning an outright Pac-12 title because the powers in Westwood believe they're still entitled to national championships like John Wooden produced even though they've won just one in nearly four decades.
Which is fine.
Dreaming big and reaching high are typically great qualities. So applaud UCLA for that, if you want. But it's exactly that -- the really lofty and mostly unreasonable standards -- that could make hiring Howland's replacement more difficult than it ought to be.
"I'd rather have the USC job than the UCLA job," one high-major college basketball coach told me recently. "You still get paid. You still get LA. You still get LA recruits and a nice arena. And you get all that without the possibility of getting fired for only winning conference titles. Am I crazy? I think the USC job is better than the UCLA job."
To be clear, I don't agree with the last part of that statement.
The USC job is not better than the UCLA job.
But I wanted to share that quote because it offers a glimpse into how some coaches think, and it's a perception Dan Guerrero will battle as he tries to make this hire because, right or wrong, fair or not, the following is all true: Guerrero has employed two coaches since becoming UCLA's athletic director in 2002. He fired the first, Steve Lavin, after Lavin made six NCAA tournaments in seven seasons, including five Sweet 16s. He fired the second, Ben Howland, after Howland made seven NCAA tournaments in 10 seasons, including three Final Fours. Furthermore, again, Howland just won an outright power-conference title 16 days ago, and no men's coach in modern history had ever been fired immediately after winning an outright power-conference title until Howland was fired Sunday.
Combine all that with the fact that UCLA has never been willing to pay top-dollar for a coach and never traveled like a top-shelf program. Then combine all that with the reality that the agent culture in Los Angeles makes it difficult to keep even borderline NBA prospects like Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee in school. Then combine all that with the undeniable truth that trying to fill an arena for weeknight games that tip at 6 p.m. is hard given that it takes roughly 90 minutes to get anywhere in Los Angeles in rush-hour traffic, and who, exactly, is going to leave a good and well-paying job to tackle a new challenge where history suggests an outright league title won over two current Sweet 16 teams might not be enough to save you?
(That's a rhetorical question.)
Which is not to suggest UCLA can't possibly hire a great coach.
Maybe VCU's Shaka Smart will actually take it.
All I'm saying is that UCLA holding itself to the standard set by Wooden four decades ago is viewed as ridiculous by most outsiders and almost all coaches, and that lack of self-awareness and understanding of the current culture of the sport will prevent many men from even considering the job, crazy as that might sound. So, yeah, the right coach can win big at UCLA. I'll never deny that. But can UCLA hire the right coach under these circumstances? That's a fair question. Because there's a decent chance the school won't land somebody better than the somebody it just fired, though it's pretty clear, at this point, UCLA was willing to risk getting a worse coach just as long as it didn't have to keep same coach who won an outright Pac-12 title two weekends ago.
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