REFRESHER: Why the National Sports Media Still Hates UCLA Basketball

Stephen Dunn

A thorough debunking of the baseless, ignorant and uninformed media narrative of current UCLA basketball fanbase - particularly alumni being spoiled beyond belief by the Wooden dynasty, and would not accept anything short of that success again.

Bumping this post back up - which was originally published on February 11, now that we have ignorant national media hacks such as Seth Davis, Jay Bilas, Doug Gottliebs of the world beating the same, tired drum of "unreasonable UCLA basketball fans." GO BRUINS. - BN Eds.

Bruin Blue returns on BN with another must read post. We urge every UCLA alumni who is concerned about the state of our basketball program to LIKE and SHARE this post on Facebook and also share via TWITTER (use the buttons above and also under the picture). GO BRUINS. - BN Eds.

Apparently UCLA basketball has managed to light a fire in the national sports media once again. But it's certainly not due to any great wins, or being a legitimate national championship contender. No, it's in the negative way that the national media usually prefers to cover UCLA basketball, and essentially has for the last 37 years, ever since the incomparable John Wooden retired from coaching.

We know what has occasioned this new outburst. The great Bruin Bill Walton has been doing color commentary on the ESPN Pac-12 Thursday night package, and he has been very outspoken in his criticism of Coach Howland. And as usual with Walton, he pulls no punches, says anything that is on his mind, and therefore is prone to be overly expressive, and go over the top. But so what? With all the mediocre announcers on telecasts these days, Walton is rather unique and refreshing. And of course we know that he loves UCLA and UCLA basketball, and he is very upset with what has been going on here for the past several years. And many of his criticisms are indeed valid.

But this has allowed the usual suspects in the national media to take out again after UCLA, the school they love to hate. Yes, we are reading and hearing that UCLA fans are "the most spoiled in sports." That we are whiners, constantly complaining because we do not win ten titles in a row. I should probably specifically reference the various articles, coming from Seth Davis and Mike DeCourcy, but I can't bring myself to actually read more than the gloss, because I get too upset at the blatant unfairness; and to be honest, the stupidity, inherent in such pieces.

So what I will do is trace the roots of this negativity toward UCLA, as having been a theme in the national sports media, both broadcast and print, for over three decades. It started, obviously, with the absolute domination of college basketball by Coach Wooden and UCLA. No one could beat us. The NCAA tournament was sometimes sardonically called "The UCLA Invitational Tournament." Ten titles in twelve years, and another one which we just barely missed. UCLA not only won all the titles, we scarcely ever lost a game. And all the fans and writers and broadcasters who loved Carolina basketball or Kentucky basketball, or East Coast hoops, had to put up with UCLA crushing their favorites, year after year.

Since Coach Wooden was such a towering and revered figure in the sport, the media couldn't do much about it. But there were some coaches who greatly resented Wooden, for being so good, and for being so exemplary a person. Some of them waspishly referred to him as "Saint John." And then there were those, like Jerry Tarkanian and Digger Phelps, who were so jealous of UCLA's dominance, that they started this narrative that somehow it was alumnus Sam Gilbert who was responsible for UCLA's success, by giving illegal benefits to the stars. No matter how much this is refuted by all contemporaneous accounts, this story has taken on the aspect of urban legend; and that is because the likes of Tarkanian and Phelps and a disreputable "journalist" or two keep inventing and embellishing it. It is a disgusting attempt to sully UCLA, and to minimize the incredible accomplishments of Coach Wooden. No other school in the country is subject to this kind of libelous attack. But somehow because it is UCLA, in hated and envied Los Angeles, some members of the national media try to keep this nonsense alive.

So the media had waited for many years to see UCLA fall. And when Wooden retired, UCLA hired the wrong coach (Gene Bartow instead of Denny Crum), and things started to slip. By 1980, ACC honk Curry Kirkpatrick of Sports Illustrated got to pen the headline that they had wanted for years: the notorious, "The Bruins Are In Ruins" cover story. That simply came after a week in which UCLA had lost to #1 DePaul and a strong Notre Dame club. But the undisguised glee with which Kirkpatrick tried to write the demise of UCLA was palpable. Well, Larry Brown and UCLA threw it back in their face by coming within a hair of winning the national title. But unfortunately Brown left, and then UCLA went through a miserable saga of hiring the wrong coaches; and too many alumni and fans supported and enabled this, so things got worse.

As UCLA declined, with a few notable high points still remaining, including the eleventh title in 1995, the media purveyed a basic narrative which was useful to them. This was that UCLA supporters, particularly alumni, were simply spoiled beyond belief by the Wooden dynasty, and would not accept anything short of that success again. The media actually had the gall to write stories implying that UCLA fans wanted something like ten titles in a row; anything less than that, and they would childishly whine and complain. The truth, of course, was that UCLA fans were actually much more tolerant than fans at Kentucky (Kentucky pushed out two coaches, Joe B. Hall, and Tubby Smith, who had won titles there), Carolina (they pushed out Bill Guthridge, who had taken them to two Final Fours in his three years there), and other programs. But hey, the national sports media never needed to have truth get in the way of their cheerful UCLA hatred. So they got to both mock UCLA's lack of success, while trying to make sure that UCLA would never be a national force again.

How does this work? Well, if you purvey the theme that UCLA is a terrible place to coach, because they are never satisfied there, and will be angry at you if you don't win multiple titles, maybe you can discourage some prospective coaches. And then you also get to continue the narrative that UCLA really isn't a school or program deserving of national success; that the great programs are Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, and a few others. That UCLA is a school which was fortunate to have had that one great run 40-50 years ago, and that otherwise they are not worthy of attention--except when they start getting a bit uppity there, in which case we will smack them down by condemning their fans for being demanding whiners.

If you think that this media narrative is inconsistent and stupid, you are right, of course. But that has never stopped the media before, has it? The absolutely infuriating thing about this is that UCLA has won only one national title in basketball in 37 years. This is of course mostly because of bad administration, very bad coaching hires, and a fan and alumni base which somehow has put up with and even supported such nonsense, for far too long. But when you realize that in that 37 years, Duke has four titles; Carolina has four; Kentucky four; Connecticut three; Indiana three; and so on, how in the world could UCLA fans be overly demanding, when they only have one? What are they demanding of? That we have at least as many as the other elite programs? What does the media think would be a reasonable expectation for UCLA basketball? They never answer that, of course.

The national print media, at least certain members of it, have returned again and again to this theme. Can you imagine Seth Davis saying that UCLA fans are the most spoiled and entitled in sports? How could anyone who had any modicum of sense, actually think that a school which has one title in 37 years is spoiled or demanding? See how long Kentucky keeps a coach who is not doing the job (can you say two years, Billy Gillispie?). Did Carolina not only push out Guthridge, but also trump up a story about Matt Doherty verbally or physically abusing players, just to have an excuse to fire him and grab Roy Williams before UCLA could? Does USC football fire a coach every three years or so, if he doesn't win a national title? UCLA fans are pussycats compared to these and many others around the country. But we get the worst of both worlds: we don't win anything, and our fans are accused of being demanding and whiny!

I must also mention the broadcast media, specifically ESPN. They've got a lot of long-time UCLA haters on there. Digger Phelps, of course, who was insanely jealous of UCLA and Wooden. Bobby Knight, also jealous, and also a protégé of Pete Newell, who had a very fierce rivalry with Wooden in the late '50's. Doug Gottlieb, who very much wanted to go to UCLA, but was passed over by them, and has never let it go. Gottlieb's scorn of UCLA is evident in every comment he makes about the program. Hubert Davis, who is Carolina all the way, and who disparaged UCLA all through their three final four runs under Coach Howland. I do want to give credit to Jay Bilas, who has usually been quite fair, and even supportive of UCLA. And I have no problem whatsoever with the impeccable Rece Davis. But most of the rest of these people are clearly anti-UCLA, and it is not my imagination.

Do you remember ten years ago, when Ben Howland was rumored to be interested in the UCLA job, that Digger Phelps and Dick Vitrale almost went on a crusade to try to convince Howland to stay at Pittsburgh, and not take it? That of course goes with the dominant narrative; that UCLA has lost its national prestige, and is not a preferable place to coach. I remember Tim Brando, whom I usually like, saying on his national radio show something llike, "Get real, UCLA; it's a different era; you're not going to get Howland, or any other name coach.." I'm serious, he actually said that. And then, when Howland came, and when we had the great success early, there came this new theme, that UCLA plays "ugly basketball.' I remember UCLA being in the Final Four, and on some national radio show, Jay Mariotti was saying that "UCLA will try to muck up the game," as if they were doing something contrary to the essence of the sport. Now, of course, with Howland about to lose his job, they are all crying out in favor of him, and how he should never be fired; because, you know, UCLA fans are....too demanding!...and whiny!...and the program is no good anyway, so why do they have the effrontery to expect it to be better!

What has been really disappointing over the years is that far too many UCLA fans have seemed to accept this venomous narrative. Sometimes I have felt that people here have felt guilty about winning all those titles, and as if it would be gauche or déclassé to expect any more. I even see people who at least identify themselves as supporters, parrot this same theme, that we are simply unreasonable in our expectations. To them I would say this: We have won one title in 37 years, less than every other would-be elite program, and even some non-elite ones. We have enough natural advantages here to be at least a top five program, season after season, and we have not been. We have allowed a smug and insular administration to dump a series of unqualified or flawed coaches upon us, and too many people have accepted this as our deserved small portion.

Ultimately, we cannot change the national media. They will write and say what they will. No matter what we do, they will criticize us. If we spend big money to hire a great coach, they will criticize that. If we do not succeed, and continue along our current mediocre path, they will be gratified, and will then ignore us as irrelevant. We need to look to ourselves, and to do what we need to do to regain our place at the very pinnacle of this sport. Do it honorably, do it right, but do it; and do not let our concern about what the biased members of the media might say or write. The Yankees never let that bother them, nor did the Cowboys, nor Red Auerbach and the Celtics; nor Alabama, Ohio State or USC football. Yes, Bill Walton can be a bit embarrassingly overstated at times, but he is a great Bruin who actually cares about this program. And if the rest of the media want to ridiculously term it, "typical UCLA complaining," let them--as long as we act like a program which expects to be great, and knows what to do to get there.

I will guarantee you that no matter whom we look at for our coach (I'm all for Brad Stevens, by the way), the media will actually try to convince him to stay where he is, or go somewhere else, just not to UCLA. And they'll criticize what we spend on the coach, and everything else. And what we need to do is to absolutely ignore all of it, and concentrate on UCLA, like we used to do so many years ago, when we knew that we were the best basketball program ever, and we were proud of it, and even somewhat arrogant about it. Being meek and accepting little Bruins, cowed by the anti-UCLA national basketball media, has got to stop.

- BruinBlue

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