UCLA Basketball: The Birth of Apathy and the Death Spiral of College Hoops

Stephen Dunn

College basketball used to be a special game, especially the unique and special brand of hoops founded in Westwood by a man who was not only one of the greatest coaches of all time, but one of the best human beings of all time. Now, it's a broken game used as a final pre-NBA showcase for one-and-done AAU mercenaries, with the head chair in Westwood occupied by a mediocre coach who not only embraces nepotism to the detriment of UCLA, but is an unrepentant, arrogant, rape apologist who has done nothing but sully the UCLA name.

So, if you've been paying attention, it would appear that our Bruins went to Salt Lake City last night and got beat by an inferior Utah Utes squad in a manner that calling it Lavin-esque would be unfair to Steve Lavin. But I wouldn't know. Why? I didn't watch the game. In fact, I haven't watched very many games at all this season. Actually, the more I think of it, I think I've only watched one, maybe two. And even then, I wasn't really watching: it was more like the game was on as background noise as I was doing something else in my man cave office. Today's post is my 510th for Bruins Nation. If you were around back in November of 2008 when I started writing here, you'll recall that four out of my first five posts were on Ben Howland's squad or connected to UCLA hoops. Back then I used to religiously check the TV schedule and make excuses to make time to watch UCLA basketball. Now? I could care less when UCLA basketball is on.

Why?

It's probably a combination of a lot of factors. First, college basketball isn't the same since the one-and-done rule. Before the NBA imposed one of the least-well-thought out ideas in sports on us, elite basketball players from the AAU circuit went directly into the NBA: there was no artificial waiting period for LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, or Dwight Howard. And now we have to pretend that shady-not-really-amateur AAU-trained mercenaries who fill the college ranks for one year are "students" when we all know they are using the college as a show-case for the NBA Draft. Our very own Shabazz Muhammad is a perfect example: he came from the shady AAU circuit, the product of his allegedly shady father, and was marginally an amateur athlete. And yet, we all had to pretend that a kid who should have just went directly to the NBA was a UCLA "student-athlete." It's intellectually dishonest, to say the least. And the increasing connection to the AAU is troubling, which is certainly a factor in the current college hoops malaise, but it would seem the biggest factors (at least to my own apathy) are unique to Westwood.

UCLA basketball is supposed to be one of the top-tier, elite brands in college basketball. With the history of success in the program, not just Wooden's titles, but the number of NBA players produced (more than any other program since 1948), UCLA is on par with Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas (and perhaps Duke, although historically they have been good-but-not-great, with their current run of success really the product of Coach K's once-in-a-lifetime career). Yet, we're barely on the national radar these days, in large part because the on-court product has been decidedly mediocre the past 4-5 seasons, we haven't gotten to the Sweet Sixteen since the 2007-2008 season, and of course, our athletic department's "marketing" has been an abysmal joke: between Adidas and Morgan Center, you'd barely know UCLA even existed (yet Adidas has no problem displaying Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC, and Real Madrid football kits in the Adidas stores in San Francisco and Santa Monica, yet a curious absence of UCLA gear). It sort of develops a "if UCLA doesn't care about it's basketball program, why should I?" mentality, even in former die-hard adherents of the program.

With Jim Mora and John Savage, it's significantly different: with both men you get the feeling they are achieving success in spite of Morgan Center, that they have the force of will to push their respective programs upward despite being crippled with an inept athletic director and an athletic department that still operates in an amateur-hour, 1992-style model, with an e-mail "blog" newsletter from Chianti Dan and an incoherent and inconsistent marketing "strategy" that has kept UCLA as the secondary brand in Los Angeles, despite Southern Cal's fall from grace and Jim Mora's #BruinRevolution. But I digress: back to the malaise that is our men's basketball program.

Certainly, Chianti Dan's shady and lazy hire of Steve Alford didn't help. The program was stumbling under Howland, in large part because the defensive specialist became the victim of his own success: he built his Final Four squads around three- and four-year players, hard-working kids who were still developing. Those teams had Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Josh Shipp, and Darren Collison at the core, complemented by effective role four-year role players, such as Alfred Aboya, Lorenzo Mata-Real, and Michael Roll. But, buoyed by the success of his Final Four teams and the Kevin Love experience (who was a very unique one-and-done type player, mentally-speaking), Howland fell in love with the new-AAU-style one-and-done athletes (Jrue Holiday, Shabazz Muhammad), and tried to complement those players with "core" three- and four-year players, guys who he knew would not jump ship after one season, but who were woefully under-talented for a program of UCLA's stature (read: Dragovic, the Wear twins), all while bringing in multiple recruits who were nothing like the hard-working Afflalo, Farmar, Collison, Westbrook, Mbah a Moute, etc. generation of players: guys who thought they were elite, future-NBA-players who didn't have the same drive (Tyler Honeycutt, Jerime Anderson, Joshua Smith, J'mison Morgan) or sanity (Reeves Nelson, Drew Gordon). So, the brand remained in tact, and while the program had certainly stumbled, Howland didn't leave the program as devoid of talent as Lavin did. With a solid foundation, Chianti Dan had an opportunity to give UCLA the elite hire it deserved, and instead he fumbled another coaching search (to no one's surprise) and brought in a mediocre coach with a single Sweet Sixteen on his resume, who is now a favored son in Harvard Yard, not for his intellectual prowess, but for delivering the Crimson their first NCAA tournament win ever by letting the #14-seeded men from Cambridge drop his #3-seeded New Mexico Lobos in embarrassing fashion (ironically, in Salt Lake City as well). We were told we'd hire an elite coach, with names like Brad Stevens being tossed about: in short, we were promised a Porsche and Chianti Dan delivered a used Saturn Ion.

But it's not just Alford's mediocre (and that's being generous) coaching record or the fact, when you look at his resume, he's really just the college basketball version of Lane Kiffin: continuing to fail, but somehow failing upward. It's more that Alford is a terrible human being. At his core, he's a douche bag. He's a dickhead. He's a jerk. When you hear him speak, you have the urge to punch him in the mouth. And none of that takes into account the terrible manner in which he handled the entire Pierre Pierce situation in Iowa and more importantly, his refusal to accept any responsibility for it, even a decade later. Sure, there was the forced apology that reeked of being forced and only in response to massive outcry over his hire by professors and alums. Of course, knowing we're saddled with the Hoosier Loser, who is a loser both on and off the court, for the foreseeable future due to Chianti Dan's incompetent leadership and the obscene contract we gifted a coach with a single Sweet Sixteen appearance over a 18-year Division I career, doesn't help.

With Steve Alford at the helm of Coach's program, it's hard to care. Yes, you want to support the players, but every UCLA win is also a win for Steve Alford, and honestly, it's next-to-impossible to root for such a terrible human being. A lot of people around these parts can't stand Mike Krzyzewski, and while he can embody a lot of Alford-like qualities (Bobby Knight disciple, arrogance, douchebaggery, etc.), if you take away all of the wins and national titles in Durham, there's at least one redeeming quality in Coach K: he did serve his country honorably for five years in the United States Army. So, if nothing else, there is that. What redeeming quality is there in Alford? He's an insufferable douche (which is evident in how he reacted when Reggie Miller was taken by the Pacers ahead of him), and he's hated by the fans of his former stops. Never mind the fact he's the kind of coach who swears at opposing players when he should be shaking their hands following the game and the sort of guy who will sign a ten-year extension one day and then leave for another job the next. If you're a parent with a child who plays Little League or youth soccer or junior basketball, you've met a Steve Alford: he's that dickhead coach who was a big-time athlete in high school but now has some Average Joe job (if he has a job at all) who is living vicariously through his own son or daughter and feels he's doing all of your children a huge service by coaching the team and imparting his "expertise" from his playing days. He's the guy who will always put his kid in first, regardless of whether that's what's best for the players (including his own kid) or the team. Nepotism and yelling at the umpire: you know exactly who I'm talking about folks, and UCLA basically hired that guy to run our most storied, most cherished program.

So, Alford is certainly a significant factor. I just can't bring myself to root for the guy, which sucks because I really love UCLA and I used to really love UCLA basketball. Does that make me a bad fan? Maybe, I suppose it depends on who you ask. But, I just can't bring myself to root for Steve Alford to ever win a game, even if that means UCLA loses. But my conscience just can't abide by rooting for the Bruins as long as Steve Alford is in charge, especially in the wake of another LOL-worthy loss in Salt Lake City, where Steve's nepotism got us 0 points on 0-11 shooting, for a paltry 4 assists compared to 3 turnovers, by playing a kid who had exactly zero scholarship offers from programs not coached by his own dad.

Does this make me a bad fan? Maybe. But it should be a pretty damning indictment that some of the most strident UCLA fans are simply turning away from the program out of conscience. Yes, the common refrain will be to support the players, support the four letters, not the coach, but how do you really separate the two? How do you maintain the intellectual dishonesty that a win for the players is not a win for a terrible human being who is our coach? From reading the comments here, some can, and for them, that's fine. But I cannot. I cannot be excited when Steve Alford gets another win to put on his resume, even if every win he has registered in Westwood has been a meaningless victory over an also-ran team, with not a single signature win to his credit.

It's the birth of apathy, which is really the first marker in the slow death of a college program. Let's be real: based on the on-the-court results, UCLA has not been elite for the past 6-7 seasons. If his coaching resume is any indicator, we certainly won't be returning with the Hoosier Loser as our head coach. We haven't won a national title since 1995. We have been relying on the aura and luster of the Wooden era for a long time, especially following the collapse of Howland's regime, when it became clear he was not going to get us the program's twelveth banner. And now, we have a coach that is turning fans away from the program. Apathy in a fan base is the first step toward the complete collapse of a program, and sadly, it's happening.

It's sad, and we really have no one else to blame by Chianti Dan Guerrero. Why support a product that I could care less about? Why donate to a university that thinks this kind of hire and this kind of mediocrity is acceptable? The faculty certainly understood that, but sadly their calls fell on Gene Block's deaf ears. Eventually, one day, Guerrero will be gone (probably due to diabetes or a heart attack, given his poor physique and fondness for chianti and doughnuts) and Alford will be a distant memory, and when that day comes, I will return as a fan, the day when we have a coach who isn't a detestable scumbag and something resembling competent leadership in Morgan Center.

I only hope by then that UCLA basketball isn't so far gone that it will be destroyed forever. I'll see you hoops fans on that other side, whenever that is.

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