Ben Howland’s Recruiting Evolution


UCLA Coach Howland has taken quite a few hits the last three years, with this past season seeing criticism of his coaching tenure at UCLA reaching a fever pitch. Many question his dogged commitment to man to man defense, his plodding offense, and recruiting missteps. Others site his mishandling of freshmen playing time, kids with bad attitudes and/or Prima Donnas. All these areas and more are legitimate grist for at least debating Coach Howland’s body of work. To me, though, there’s a key indicator that says to me that he appears to have learned from his past issues: his improved approach to recruiting.

Let me get a couple things squared away first. I love his dogged commitment to man to man defense. As a former coach, half court zones (with apologies to Jim Boeheim) say one thing: we are weaker than you. Short-sighted critics slammed him for sticking with man to man rather than using a zone more frequently to hide his team’s deficiencies, but I saw a man committed to his principles and building players. I write this because it is true: you want a player to be their absolute best on defense; teach them man to man principles.

I also love his style offense because it is designed to win championships with talented personnel. Check out the scores from the 2012 Final Four. Kentucky beat Kansas while scoring just 67 points to claim the champion. Kentucky and Kansas scored 69 and 64 points respectively to win their semi-final game. Did anyone complain about their plodding offenses? No one with a brain or an ounce of basketball savvy did, because those who truly understand the game know there are two factors critical for teams wanting to win an NCAA Championship: take care of the ball and play great defense. Sound familiar? Because this is how you win championships, I’m ok with this being my coach’s style.

Not playing freshmen enough? Well, that’s a judgment call; nothing more. I tend to trust the guy who, with the help of his staff, is paid to analyze the players. I trust the guy who sees them at every practice, tracks their progress and so on. You can choose to do otherwise.

Most of what else has ailed UCLA centers largely in recruiting. Prima Donna players, players with  bad attitudes, or poor work ethics; all that mess starts with recruiting. It is in this area that Howland has shown signs of steady, though sometimes shaky evolution.

His first few recruiting classes were fantastic. No real superstars so much as talented diamonds in the rough to one degree or another with great attitudes and significant upside. Coach Howland got to the NCAA championship game within three seasons of his arrival with Jordan Farmar, Aaron Afflalo and a cast of hard working kids. You could argue Farmar and Afflalo were highly touted, but they were not superstars. This all changed when Coach Howland went after Kevin love.

Kevin Love was his first monster recruit; his first superstar. Love’s recruitment was hailed in the Bruin Community as a coup, and rightfully so. However, what I remember most about Kevin Love announcing he would attend UCLA was a remark he made about Coach Howland after he had signed. It was something to the effect that when he told Coach Howland he would be a Bruin, Coach Howland cried or started to cry. My thought then was, “Wow. This guy is flat out feeling the pressure. This is not good”.

That was 2006. In 2007 Coach Howland recruited the class that would derail him. The criticism he faced at the time was the idea that he could never win a championship with players like Darren Collison because they couldn’t handle the Derrick Roses of the world, and so on. Coach Howland had been to the well and come up short; and everybody and his brother knew why: second tier players. What followed was Howland pursuing first tier players, but not assuring that they were of good character. That 2008 recruiting class, and the one that followed, signaled an abandonment of his recruiting principles in order to “get over the hump”. He picked hype over character and paid for it.

The train wreck that ensued showed that Coach Howland really lacked the ability to identify with or handle the difficult players he’d brought on board as a result of bowing to the pressure he was feeling. Virtually every issue that cropped after that was a manifestation of Howland being stuck with players with the wrong type of mentality or attitude, and he had only himself to blame. I won’t dwell on this further except to say the past four years have provided plenty of lessons for Coach Howland.

Fast forward to 2012 and the open question of “has Coach Howland learned any lessons from his foibles”? From a game strategy style, I hope he continues to tinker offensively, but I don’t think a significant change is necessary. You’ll hear others who have never actually coached a team above biddy-ball argue to the contrary, but trust me; they’re wrong. From a recruiting standpoint, I believe and sincerely hope, that the answer to the “lessons learned” question is “yes”. ESPN currently rates our recruiting class #1. Anderson, Muhammad, Adams and Parker appear to be highly talented, quality kids. Howland’s hiring of a former AAU Coach Korey McCray appears to have paid dividends, at least in the short term. Time will obviously be the best judge.

It is fairly universally accepted in basketball circles that Coach Howland received a reprieve in not being forced out the door at the end of this past season. I for one am glad that he was allowed to continue on. I believe the key to his prolonged survival, whether he ever wins a championship or not, is continuing to successfully recruit the “right kids”. Success or failure flows from this foundation.