UCLA’s Howland losing his grip

One of the best-kept secrets in college basketball is how easy it is to coach at UCLA. You would think expectations would be as high as the 11 national championship banners that hang in Pauley Pavilion.

It’s like that at Kentucky, where if John Calipari doesn’t get to the Final Four, the grumbling in the Blue Grass would begin.

Or Indiana or North Carolina, where coaches who followed Bob Knight and Dean Smith went to the Final Four and then were out the door when they didn’t.

But at UCLA it hasn’t been that way in more than 25 years. The Lakers, it isn’t. SEC football, it isn’t either. 

The ghost of John Wooden is very real, but it does not live in those banners. Instead, it exists in the ideal/myth he left behind: 

Don’t cheat (or get caught), recruit solid citizens who go to class, play hard and play together. Do all that and the winning — occasional visits to the Final Four, another banner or two, please — will take care of themselves.

In other words, the edict is: Don’t embarrass us. 

But increasingly, Ben Howland has. 

What was supposed to be a turnaround season for the Bruins, with a heralded recruiting class and a renovated arena, instead has been more of the same with embarrassments coming on the court and off. 

In the last week, the Bruins lost at home to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and lost two players, Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith, who by quitting have left the Bruins with eight scholarship players, half of them freshmen. 

It does not seem much different than last March, when the Bruins were not in the NCAA Tournament, but many of their former players were — Chace Stanback and Mike Moser for UNLV, Drew Gordon for New Mexico and Matt Carlino for Brigham Young. 

For those keeping score, in the last four seasons UCLA has a won-loss record of 2-11: That’s two NCAA Tournament victories and 11 players leaving the program. 

It might seem puzzling that this has happened under Howland, who — believe it or not — is the first coach since Larry Brown left that UCLA could assure wouldn’t be overmatched on the sidelines. 

When Howland arrived, he recruited well, getting big fish like Kevin Love and finding gems like Russell Westbrook. Players who stuck around got better, like Arron Afflalo, Darren Collison and Ryan Hollins. And, voila, by his third season, the Bruins, who played with tenacity to match their talent, were playing for the national championship. They reached the Final Four again the next season. And again the year after that. 

This success neatly masked the rough, roguish edges on Howland. He’s less a hard-driving coach than he is a bully, not so much Krzyzewski as Knight, and not particularly a joy to work for or to play for — a conclusion that his staff and recruits began to reach. 

Soon enough, UCLA either began to recruit the wrong characters or Howland and his new staff became unable to reach them. Discipline waned and rifts widened. The recently departed Smith, whose gifts are as great as his girth, is the latest example — a player who was the envy of every program in the country coming out of high school, but who has ballooned to 300 pounds and never gotten his game in shape, either.

Call them evaluating mistakes, leadership shortcomings or teaching failures, when they happen repeatedly, the blame lies with Howland.

If this is a mystery to many, it should not be to the athletic director Dan Guerrero. He once had the opportunity to hire Howland, then an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara, at UC Irvine. He did not and one reason may have been that an administrator said he would quit if he had to work with Howland, whose reputation had preceded him. 

When Howland, now in his 10th season, was hired at UCLA, it was a popular choice. He had turned Pittsburgh from Big East bottom feeder to nationally relevant, and had come with the recommendation of many influence peddlers, as well as the gold-stamp approval of Jerry West. But the decision was not made until after an overture to Mike Montgomery, who did not want to leave Stanford for another year until a rich pension fully vested. 

It is interesting to wonder where the Bruins would have been with Montgomery — whether his coaching competency, understated, underrated and so successful at Stanford, would have blended seamlessly with UCLA’s standing as a talent magnet. 

Would they have been to three consecutive Final Fours? Maybe. Maybe not. 

But more important than banners at UCLA are appearances. With another class of sought-after freshmen in tow and their historic arena now brought up to date, the team playing in it may as well be tracking mud through the house. 

It’s a mess, and if Howland is unable to clean it up soon, someone else will.