Losing Perspective: Howland and UCLA History

An analysis of the losses in Ben Howland's tenure as coach of UCLA Basketball, and a march back in recent history when UCLA was back among the elites

On the eve of the start of March Madness, I think it is important to put matters into perspective for UCLA Basketball. The Pac-12 has a great promotional ad, called "History Counts". I wish I could find it online, but the fledgling network doesn't have it quite together yet. But it's true. History counts, and history matters. Believe it or not, some idiots on our Facebook page have been posting things to the effect that Wooden's legacy is basically irrelevant now, making fun of the Pyramid of Success and other priceless gems that Coach bestowed upon our program.

But you know, you don't even have to go back to the days of John Wooden to find UCLA at an elite level. Jim Harrick had brought UCLA back among the elites in the 90's, and I posit here that his was the best tenure of any coach at UCLA since Coach left. If you don't believe me, ask yourself this: what would you prefer, a three-year span of a National Championship, 1st round exit, Elite Eight, or three straight Final Fours? I'm pretty sure the answer is clear.

Jim Harrick had UCLA's best sustained period of success and had the program on the upswing before he was let go (although for his own silly mistake) by a petty, gutless athletic director with no vision and a big ego. He never had a losing season, always made the tournament, and consistently won or competed for the conference championship. On top of that, his players liked him and didn't leave the program in droves. Imagine that.

Yahoo has a great video about UCLA's march to the championship in 1995. Unfortunately, because it is Yahoo and they suck (don't get me started about their new CEO), I can't embed the video here. So:

PLEASE WATCH THIS VIDEO!

I still get chills watching this. Never mind the fact that Tyus hasn't changed at all since 1995. Just watch to get a sense of what UCLA Basketball should be all about. Watch to see how endearing Jim Harrick is (yes, even despite his various shenanigans which came after UCLA and weren't really all his). Watch to see what a real team feels like.

Ironically, Howland had a team that was somewhat similar. His 2005-6 squad was, IMO, his best one. I know many of you think the 2007-8 squad was his best team, but I do not. That squad had the most experience and talent. The 2005-6 squad was the best team. They weren't jaded, still believed in Howland, and most of all, they were deep. Ironically, that team was deep because of numerous injuries and they probably wouldn't have been as good if Howland had stuck to his usual short rotation.

I have another way of demonstrating this. Below is a table that shows the cumulative and average record (at the time of the game) of the various teams that beat UCLA in Howland's tenure:

Team

Wins

Losses

Record

2003-4

177

124

.588

2004-5

114

52

.687

2005-6

67

22

.753

2006-7

76

39

.661

2007-8

28

17

.622

2008-9

102

46

.689

2009-10

176

110

.615

2010-11

92

52

.639

2011-12

141

69

.671

2012-13

70

49

.588

Total

1043

580

.643

The 2005-6 team only had one bad loss, to Southern Cal, after which they didn't lose a game until the National Championship game. Even the 2007-8 team lost to Southern Cal as well as to a bad Washington team. (Note: I am not including tournament games in this analysis, only regular season games). You can also see that this year's team lost to some rather average opponents, and while the number of losses is far lower than in 2003-4, the quality of that opponent was mediocre. I would love to do this for the teams Howland has beaten, but I didn't have time to go through over 200 games!

In any case, the summary is that Howland, on average, loses to a team that finishes the season 21-12, or a .643 winning percentage. That's not too bad, but let's compare it to this:

Coach

Career W%

Jim Harrick

.756

Steve Lavin

.650

Ben Howland

.688

As you can see Howland's record is much closer to Steve Lavin's than Jim Harrick's, for one thing, even if he is ten times the coach. Actually that's impossible, since 10 x 0 = 0. So he is infinitely better than Lavin (just like any coach who knows anything about basketball). Furthermore, on average, Howland seems to lose to teams of Lavin's caliber, and specifically, to teams that are worse than his. While this is just an average, a 10-year span gives enough data points to make this meaningful. Now, you will say that it is nearly inevitable for an elite team to lose to teams that are worse, but as you can see Howland has only had a few elite teams. Obviously, I have not done this study for Harrick's or Lavin's losses, or for elite coaches like Izzo, Pitino, et al. I think however that the point remains and is important.

To summarize, Howland's 10-year tenure only included 3 elite years. For those who are still pining to retain Howland, it doesn't really look like we will be losing all that much. I certainly wouldn't want another 10 years like the ones Howland just gave us, with 2 losing seasons, waves of players leaving and a multitude of embarrassing losses. I would much rather have a coach at UCLA like Jim Harrick who provided consistently competitive teams and stability in the program.

We will never again see the likes of Coach John Wooden and his success will forever be unsurpassed. That does not mean we should settle when we know that UCLA Basketball could be so much better. We should not fear change. If you care about Howland, don't worry, he will land on his feet comfortably (if he is as good a coach as many of you think). And if you are worried about UCLA (if you aren't already), think about this: even a fraud of a coach like Steve Lavin had a .650 winning percentage.

History counts. Don't forget what UCLA Basketball stands for.

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