Are UCLA Basketball Fans Unreasonable?

UCLA Basketball fans are again catching flack for being unreasonable and demanding. This narrative has raised its ugly head every time Bruin fans have grown unhappy with the basketball program over the last 40 years. And it’s nonsense.*

Why do people keep insisting that UCLA fans are unrealistic and that the pressure inherent in the UCLA Basketball head coaching position outweighs the opportunities for success?

RELATED: UCLA Is Not Going To The NCAA Tournament

The elite tier in the history of this sport consists of five programs: North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and UCLA.** None of those other programs would tolerate a Steve Lavin or a Steve Alford.

None of them would be scoffed at for parting ways with coaches that consistently underperform and fail to develop talent. No one would tell Kentucky or North Carolina to be happy with the Sweet Sixteen and the occasional missed tournament.

Yet this is what UCLA fans keep hearing from college basketball media and fans. Why?

Begging the Question

The logic behind this narrative – that UCLA fans are unrealistically demanding – is essentially an argument that UCLA simply doesn’t belong in that five-team list. If UCLA isn’t actually the equal of the other four blue-blood programs, then Bruin fans are delusional for having the same level of expectations.

If people want to have that argument, fine, but we have to actually have the argument. I think it’s absurd, but I grant that that there are points to consider. But, again, they have to make them.

They can’t just underwrite their condescension to UCLA fans with the unspoken but highly dubious assumption that UCLA is a has-been program without the resources and opportunities to succeed at the highest level.

Yes, the other four blue-bloods have split nine titles among them in the last 20 years, but Bruins fans’ argument is that UCLA’s lack of comparable success is a function of poor decision-making and squandered opportunities. That’s the whole reason they’re upset in the first place.

The onus is on the detractors to prove that this frustration is misguided and that UCLA’s two-decade drought is really the product of inherent, structural limitations in the program.

They have to dismiss UCLA’s profound West Coast recruiting advantage. They have to prove revenue and donor shortfalls. They have the tall task of showing that the difference between UCLA and the other four is not just in outcomes, but in the very factors and foundations of the program.

Instead they just take as given that that’s the case, and then scoff at UCLA fans for being uppity.

East Coast Bias

That old bugaboo. While most people think that the concept of an East Coast bias is a conscious dismissing of or even distaste for western teams, it’s really more about unrecognized biases and lack of exposure.

Jan 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of statue of former UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden before an NCAA basketball game against the Southern California Trojans at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 13, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; General view of statue of former UCLA Bruins coach John Wooden before an NCAA basketball game against the Southern California Trojans at Pauley Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The media establishment doesn’t hate western teams; they’re just not as familiar with them and are too lazy to do anything other than fall back on cliches and stereotypes to fill the gaps in what they know.

You’ll notice that USC rarely complains about East Coast bias. That’s because they benefit from it. USC football is always overrated because national media aren’t familiar with the PAC-12, but they do know that USC is ‘always good’. So they get higher preseason rankings every year, and any returning starting quarterback is inevitably put on Heisman watch-lists.

For the purposes of this discussion, what the average college basketball analyst/fan knows is that UCLA had a legendary coach with tough shoes to fill. Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham were unfairly held to John Wooden‘s standard, and the narrative – that UCLA fans are stuck in the Wooden era and haven’t adjusted their expectations – was born.

Never mind that UCLA has had as many coaches since 1990 (four) as Kentucky and North Carolina. It’s UCLA fans that are intolerant because it was always thus.

Never mind that UCLA fans aren’t asking for national title contention every year, but rather conference title contention and occasional deep tournament runs. UCLA fans are entitled because it was always thus.

Never mind that Jim Harrick was essentially fired for cause because he lied to his own athletic department to cover up recruiting violations; that Steve Lavin was given six years in which to approach, not the success of John Wooden, but of his immediate predecessor; that Ben Howland was fired after an embarrassing Sports Illustrated expose that detailed his complete lack of control over an increasingly troubled team. No, UCLA fans are impatient because it was always thus.

Never mind that UCLA fans aren’t asking for national title contention every year, but rather conference title contention and occasional deep tournament runs. UCLA fans are entitled because it was always thus.

The expiration date on this narrative has long passed, but the college basketball talking heads have turned up their noses so high that they don’t notice the smell.

And it becomes self-fulfilling. If reports are true that Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart both turned down the UCLA job after Howland was fired because they didn’t think the fans’ unreasonable expectations would give them a chance to succeed, then this tiresome conversation is doing real damage to the program.

The Howland Wars

This narrative got an extension after the ugly firing of Ben Howland. The headline of that decision was – and still is – that UCLA fired the coach who brought them to three straight Final Fours. People couldn’t (and can’t) see past that.

The debate still rages within the fan base. Had his style of play really hurt recruiting? Had he really alienated the local prep and AAU pipelines? Were Nikola Dragovic and Reeves Nelson really that out of control? Had Howland really let the culture get that toxic?

That’s a good discussion for another time. But the bottom line is that Howland was fired more for off-court headaches than for a lack of on-court success. It was never that the ’06-’08 run wasn’t enough, but rather that the man behind that run seemed to have burnt and/or checked out. UCLA didn’t fire 2003-2008 Howland. It fired 2009-2013 Howland.

Regardless of how you feel about that call, the consequences still ring through coverage of UCLA today. It’s lazy, and it’s unfair, and UCLA fans ought to rebut it wherever possible, but this narrative is not going away any time soon.

*This is adapted from a twitter rant of mine from earlier this week. Special thanks to @FourthGenBruin, @MalkovichPlan, @TheBigDisco, @TonyBruin, @LifeOfABruin, and @Tazbruin25 for participating in the back-and-forth.

**Apologies to Indiana, Louisville, and UConn.