There is a theme emerging with the national media about what UCLA basketball fans want in their next coach. It has been assumed by that a slow, grind-it-out style of basketball is not welcome in Westwood, which is an erroneous representation of the truth.
The UCLA basketball team is looking for a new coach, but what type of leader should they be looking for? As the search for a new coach rolls on (and will not conclude until after the end of the season), it seems that those outside the program infer that UCLA should be looking for a coach that epitomizes the environment they are surrounded by.
It seems that the national perspective expects UCLA to play an entertaining, uptempo style of basketball, seeing as they are right next to neighboring Hollywood. The glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, from an outsider’s point of view, has to be represented by everything within the city limits… because that’s how we do it in this city.
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But let’s bring it back to UCLA basketball… is it essential for the Bruins to be flashy and fast? As we can see from the last six seasons with Steve Alford, who averaged 79.9 points per game and never dipped below 58th in scoring in the nation during that timespan, uptempo basketball does not exactly entertain.
When Alford had his team playing at a high level, the Bruins were very entertaining. Proof of that is when fans flocked to Pauley Pavilion to watch that 2016-17 team with Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf. But for those that have stuck it out to this point in time know that the Bruins have tried to maintain an uptempo style of basketball and have not been able to sustain success. With Alford, what it ultimately came down to was the fact that subpar coaching gives subpar interest.
What matters at UCLA, as with most fanbases, is that the coach brings in wins. Still, there seems to be a misconception in the national media about what type of coach the Bruins should target. The biggest name being connected with UCLA is Tony Bennett who currently has his Virginia Cavaliers aiming for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, yet some question whether he would be a good fit at UCLA, considering his coaching philosophy.
Bennett’s style is very similar to that of former Bruin head coach Ben Howland as both stress defense. That alone seems to give critics the idea that Bennett won’t work at UCLA. Not because he is doomed to fail like Howland, but because the fan base is apparently unwelcoming of that style.
This is completely false. At least with the majority of fans.
Last week in an article from Zagblog, author Adam Zagoria received information from a “source” who stated that Howland was never embraced at UCLA because of his defensive style.
On Wednesday, Bleacher Report published a piece that gave reasons why Bennett should not leave UVA for UCLA. In that piece, author David Kenyon writes, “It’s true former UCLA coach Ben Howland also used a methodical system, and it was a contributing factor to Westwood souring on him as the teams started to underperform.” Unfortunately, this is not true.
Howland played a grind-it-out, defensive style of basketball that led him to three straight Final Fours. His Bruins did so by averaging 70.4 points per game in his first five seasons. At times it was hard to watch, but Howland got results and most importantly, he got the “W” and that is what the fans wanted.
After more than a handful of intolerable seasons of basketball, the UCLA fan base wants some consistency. They want a good product. They want to win. It is as simple as that.
It was after his three Final Four that he changed his approach to recruiting and playing style. After believing that he was limited with the tough 3 and 4-star players he was normally bringing in, he believed that going after more elite 4 and 5-star players would help him get to that next level and a championship. That never happened. In fact, that recruiting style knocked him down a peg.
Howland was getting players that were used to playing more uptempo, flashy basketball, the opposite of what Howland wanted. This caused several players to clash with the coach and led to several players leaving in his final five seasons after that third Final Four. It not only depleted the Bruins but left him without the athletes needed to run his defensive-minded style.
With no athletes to play offense or defense, UCLA struggled to get wins and stay relevant in the conference and in the nation. But that was not the only reason the team struggled. Howland had become disagreeable with some in the athletic department and some on the recruiting trail. He burned bridges with local high school pipelines and even played favorites among his own players. It also did not help that Sports Illustrated published an article that brought to light several allegations of how Howland mishandled the program.
These are the reasons that the fan base had not “embraced” Howland or why “Westwood soured” on him. It had nothing to do with his style. When it was working, his style brought victories, multiple Pac-12 Championships, and deep runs in the Big Dance. Even in his last ill-fated season, with Norman Powell, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, and Shabazz Muhammad who brought Howland another regular season conference championship, the UCLA faithful embraced it. Unfortunately, his tenure had run its course.
But even now, there is a large population of UCLA fans that would welcome Howland back. Over the weekend I did an informal poll asking fans if they would mind if he once again took over the program. The results were a lot closer than I expected. With 415 votes, 52% voted “No” and 48% voted “yes”.
After more than a handful of intolerable seasons of basketball, the UCLA fan base wants some consistency. They want a good product. They want to win. It is as simple as that. UCLA has always sought out to be the best, but success has not always come because they were the flashiest. It has come because they were in fact “the best”.
UCLA will never be what John Wooden made them, but they have to try. There is a rich history and tradition in Westwood, one that the athletic department holds in high regard. If that means bringing in the best available coach to maintain that history and tradition, no matter his philosophy, then that is what UCLA is going to do.