Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ben Howland May Have Reached His Expiration Date at UCLA

The month of March is described as madness at UCLA because it’s when the Bruins usually wave goodbye under Ben Howland, a coach who has been under heat and scrutiny lately for not having much success in the NCAA tournament. The dreaded ending is something we’ve typically seen coming, and it seems every national expert picked Minnesota as the upset pick over No. 6 UCLA.

If you were UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, then, how tough would it be to face a decision on whether or not to dismiss and lean toward replacing Howland? This 83-63 loss to 11th-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament was the sign of a reign coming to an end, and rumor has it he won’t return for his 11th season. The truth is, he has past his expiration date to coach UCLA and couldn’t ever bounce back after falling to Florida in the national title game in 2006 and then suffering two heartbreaking losses in the Final Four appearances. This was supposed to be a moment to shine, celebrate another trip to the Final Four and represent the unvalued Pac 12 conference.

If this was another one of those magical UCLA teams, the kind we’ve seen advance to the Final Four and write miraculous stories — a UCLA library of books with stories to tell — it certainly wasn’t a story to be told this year, and in reality, Howland’s tenure is coming to an end. There is a slight chance Howland probably coached his final game as a UCLA head coach after a decade of accomplishments and disappointments. He is the biggest reason the Bruins had three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-2008, despite falling short in all three trips. He is the biggest reason UCLA rolled to 25 wins and won the Pac-12 regular-season title, the most victories the Bruins had since winning 26 in 2008-09.

For the Bruins, this year at least, March Madness was March Sadness and UCLA was eliminated from the tourney early. Once again, before tip off Friday night, UCLA wasn’t favored by every metric. There is a problem that can’t be solved until Howland is escorted out of the door and to his car. This is definitely a moment to rebuild and recreate a brand that defines the late John Wooden, an all-time UCLA great who built a pyramid of success. No one will ever come close to Wooden obviously. But you know — like I know — that this is a deep and talented team.

The brilliance of bringing together one of the nation’s top recruiting classes by UCLA’s polarizing coach is overlooked because of Howland’s conservative style of coaching and a suffocating defense. Either his players aren’t listening to him or he can’t coach five-star studs. If that was the case Friday night, Howland might be the one critics point fingers at, following a blowout loss that raises much concern about his job status. The Bruins seem to be in opposite directions and yet Howard landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.

As we’ve seen so many times from other programs, the Pauley Pavilion was renovated but UCLA was barely making progress at home, winning a bulk of its games on the road. Before we judge, he represented UCLA with class and dignity but couldn’t give what a demanding program was anticipating as an ambassador who was once admired by a community that truly was confident that he would restore the general principles of success and pedigree. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Obviously he’s not Wooden.

There’s your hit for what had gone wrong at UCLA, definitely bringing forth a discussion that became old as time progressed, that annoyed fans and had everyone speculating about Howland’s job status. This might be the time he won’t make it through this latest fiasco, and won’t be given another shot to rid the failures he and the Bruins have encountered lately.

For a very long time now, his players have done their own thing and detached themselves from Howland, with an attitude that it was their way or nobody else’s way. The bad thing is, Howland’s inability to bond and inspire his players has divided the team and affected the Bruins’ performances in the past four seasons. In a postgame news conference in front of reporters, after a painful ending to what could lead to a divorce, he couldn’t answer the last question.

“Do you think you’ve coached your last game as UCLA coach?” he was asked.

“No comment,” he said.

Meanwhile Howland is still employed, saying all the right things to salvage his job year after year, when the program can wave goodbye and begin a coaching search for someone who is worthy to take on a challenging task. But, we can only hope that he won’t return next season. The way the athletic department figures it, for business purposes, this will be Howland’s last season. That, by the way, means UCLA will buy out his $2.3 million contract. So maybe he could have saved his job only by getting the Bruins to the regional semifinals, having missed the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year.

Now, because he failed to build on his three Final Four appearances, he’s being pushed out the door. Easy thing would be to cut ties with someone who is described as a control freak, and even when he’s responsible for the letdowns at UCLA, fans behind the Bruins bench gave him a standing ovation in his final moments. It’s too bad freshman point guard Jordan Adams’ season-ending foot injury in the Pac-12 tournament derailed a season and even possibly ended Howland’s tenure. At the beginning of a miserable night, the Bruins were in a drought and failed to score a point in the first four minutes.

And while Larry Drew III and Shabazz Muhammad were missing easy layups, you have to wonder whether or not if his players ever respected him. It was late in the first half when the UCLA starters made their first field goal. By halftime, the Bruins had nine turnovers and missed an array of shots. Then in the second half, the Bruins were still in the game while Minnesota made nine threes and blew open its largest lead. It was more disgusting to see Muhammad, who is UCLA’s leading scorer, miss all seven shots in the first half and never really find a groove.

I happen to like Howland and mainly thought he was good for UCLA and its program. For instance, I defended him over the years while former UCLA big man Bill Walton recently called for Howland’s coaching job, which a bevy of growing critics continues to pick apart his slow, methodical offensive sets and poor clock management of the game. The criticism of Howland won’t ever cease and certainly not after the Bruins were eliminated in the first round of a tournament they once were allowed to brag and celebrate about — after a long history of dominance and Final Four trips. These haven’t been easy times for the Bruins, and especially not for Howland, whose job security could be in jeopardy.

The program embodies the essence of extraordinary traditions and achievements, but lately the team has had poor discipline and lack of leadership from players who performs individually and selfishly, not playing as a team and pouring on effort. The whole idea of having a coach is to recruit brilliantly and build a competitive athletic program, and while Howland has accumulated talent, the Bruins have floundered to find ways to win when it counts.

A nation of fans lost no sleep when Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers routed UCLA and sent a distinguished program back home to Westwood, California, where fans clad in classic blue and gold were cheering for the Bruins, who usually makes the tournament and rarely misses the action in the month of March.

Logic is, Howland’s UCLA career has been a great run but it is essentially over.

Leaving fans wondering, once again, will he return?

My guess is no.