Who is Ben Howland?
That is the question that is being asked by the LA Times and Sports Illustrated which I will discuss in a minute. It is a question that many fans are asking. It is obviously the subject of much debate. Personally, I am not interested in Howland the person as much or even the coach. I think UCLA did the correct thing when they hired him ten years ago. He was a good coach that had the potential to be great. While some argue that you should pay a fortune for the well-established coach (an easier option now with PAC 12 money and donors allowed to play a role), I think that Howland was a reasonable selection.
But the gamble by any long term standard has failed. Howland is not a great coach and, well, has some issues. And ironically UCLA Dan Guerrero may is making it worse. For Howland is not Steve Lavin, Walt Hazzard or Larry Farmer, he is a good coach who should be coaching somewhere at mid-major or non-basketball powerhouse. He is also not Jim Harrick or Larry Brown as he has been, at least as far we know, always officially ethical and has avoided NCAA problems.
UCLA followers have nothing against shutting down opponents. But with a .689 winning percentage through nine-plus seasons, Howland ranks below other post-John Wooden coaches such as Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham and Jim Harrick.
That should be a big part of the bottom line. Howland isn't all bad but he is not as big a winner as Jim Harrick. (Keep in mind Harrick's "biggest choke" was to a NCAA tournament team, Howland's biggest choke this season was to a mid-major with a losing record.)
Rumors are Howland was fired if UCLA lost badly to Missouri. Insiders are convinced Howland is gone at the end of the year. And, of course, keep in mind he is not being fired for this season but the last five years. Or the fact that UCLA is having trouble recruiting in California.
I mean this seriously to any Bruins Nation reader or UCLA fan: are you happy with five years without being relevant to the national discussion of who will be the NCAA Champ? Four years without even a Sweet 16 and two missing the tournament? Is that were you think UCLA basketball should be?
If you think this team will win the National Championship, okay, I get that. Pull for Howland. That is a reasonable reason to want Howland to stay. But watch a Duke or Indiana game and tell me if that is realistic.
It seems Dan Guerrero could learn something from his counterpart at USC.
USC fired Kevin O'Neill this morning after a 7-10 start to the season. CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman said one reason why he was fired so early is because AD Pat Haden didn't want him long term and wanted to preempt any winning streak.
This is basically the same cause Dan Guerrero would have had to fire Ben Howland after the Cal Poly loss and the Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith transfers. Now, the nine-game winning streak has put a midseason dismissal out of the question. Howland could very well be gone in three months.
Guerrero made his job more difficult when he fires Ben after the season. And Ben must be laughing or then maybe not. In an interesting LA Times piece Ben Wharton writes that Howland is a hard guy to figure out. I will take three points from that article as quick examples that show Howland's problems that will keep him from being a great coach. I will use the article to try and figure him out.
First point is on Drew Gordon who the article says that Howland was BOTH "too easy on him" and "drove him off." Seems contradictory right? How about being inconsistent driving people crazy? I know this happen to Reeves. Howland let Reeves get away with crap (how much is debatable but not relevant here) because he "produced." But when Travis and David Wear became eligible; Howland stopped putting up with it because he had other options. Reeves predictably lost it.
But Gordon is more important for a second reason. While I think Gordon is not a good person, his family is connected in recruiting circles. As is Jrue Holiday's. As are a number of other kids UCLA recruited over the years that have left. This sort of inconsistency has damaged Howland's reputation in California.
Which brings us to the second point, why is Howland playing fast this year? Howland says:
"I think it will be a real positive recruiting-wise," he said of playing a faster brand of basketball. "I'm not sure it translates to the NBA, but [young players] all want to play that way."
Howland is not stupid. He knows he can't recruit any more in California so he is trying to sell a different brand of basketball. Not because he believes it is better but because he is desperate recruiting. In other words, Howland is a coach going against what he believes to lure in 18 year-olds to come play with him.
Which brings us to the third point. What should a coach do or who should he be? Where better to answer this question then with John Wooden. Wooden was a teacher. He retired from coaching basketball because he did not like the games anymore and other aspects not related to teaching. Wooden loved practice and teaching. He had a philosophy and approach to teaching, tactics changed widely from the full court press years to the Kareem years to the Wicks years, etc. But he was always a teacher and had a philosophy.
The article tries to find a long term philosophy for Howland. It can't because he doesn't have one. Howland is all about:
"I'm just worried about winning our next game," he said. "It's all about your next game."
And that is the problem. UCLA fans can enjoy the next game, personally I think it will be the most "fun" of the season against the no defense Beavers, but for Howland it is about the next game not the program. And while the next game looks real good, the long term health of the program does not.