I have been thinking a lot about leadership recently in the context of Ben Howland. I know many here have not been happy with us because how harsh we have been towards Coach Howland during various inflection points of this past season. Yet while watching the tourney in last few weeks (during which I was sucked in by the efforts of Michigan State Spartans and Butler Bulldogs) I have been coming to a realization just how much I appreciated what Coach Howland brought to UCLA when he arrived in Westwood. The games coached up by Tom Izzo and Bran Stevens were reminder of how much I fell in love with the concept of Ben Ball which came into total fruition during those halcyon days of initialed warriors.
It's funny. During this past season number of times the old complaints about the style and pace of Ben Howland's offense hit a fever pitch. Of course the outside critics have taken their fair share of potshots at it over the years. Yet it was amusing to see the same critics (coming externally and internally courtesy of people like the trolls who would drive by during the game threads of recent years) woop it up over Butler's tenacious D, even though it was pretty much the same stuff we saw out of AA led Ben Ball warriors.
Watching the tourney was a vivid reminder at least for yours truly of how badly I want Ben Ball back at UCLA and how much I want to go back to the days of suffocating defense that often jump starts fast break offense, hard-nosed rebounding, tenacious efforts on both ends of the court, a smart and efficient offense dictated by a heady pg who optimizes shot selection over razzle-dazzle . Well how do we go back to those days? Well let me share some big picture thoughts on the kind of vision and leadership we are going to need from Ben Howland.
Howland is a great teacher of the game. He knows more about this game than all of us here. The question here though is whether he is a great coach which requires him to be a very good leader. That is the tricky part and it entails knowing more than just about the basketball game. It requires strategic management skills. I think for Howland to show effective leadership he will need to do the following in next two years:
- Re-establish the foundation and principles of Ben Ball based on hard-nosed defense and fundamentals
- Bring in the right mix of players who are truly committed to that foundation based on his defensive mindset
- Effectively communicate with his team reinforcing principles with measures of reasonable expectations and accountability, along with positive reinforcement & reward for performance
- Fairness: apply the standard of expectations in a consistent manner
For starter, I strongly believe Coach Howland needs to re-establish and profess total commitment to re-establishing the foundation of defensive minded tenacity and efficient offense that put the Ben Ball stamp in Howland wood few years ago. This means Coach Howland not only need to commit himself to that principle in all aspects of his game management (including the kind of personnel he puts on the floor) but also having a staff in place that totally commits to that vision and are skilled enough to bring in student-athletes who would genuinely aspire to live up that vision.
Sure Howland still needs to bring in elite athletes (AA and JF - the two cornerstones of Howland's first warrior class - were MickyDers) but also bring in the right mix of players who will embrace that defensive mindset during practices and game days, but just not through some soundbites to make them sound appealing to agents and NBA scouts. This also goes back to putting together team that will be most conducive to developing the right chemistry. You can sense when a team has chemistry. I thought Howland's first two Final-4 teams had that chemistry. The third one was wonderful to watch and enjoy but in retrospect something might have been missing (that is perhaps worthy of a whole separate post for some other day)
Second, Howland needs to figure out as much as practicable the roles he envisions from his student-athletes and convey to them how he thinks they would be able to accomplish those objectives wearing those four letters in Westwood. This means not only smart and sincere communication resulting in a "true meeting of the minds" but it also entails constant follow-ups and a developing a relationship of trust that enhances those follow-ups. It is not clear to us whether that has been the case. There are reasons to be concern about the attrition rate in our program and we will have to see how Howland goes about clearly defining the roles for all the key recruits in his program who are brought in with a valuable scholarship earmarked for UCLA basketball.
Third, it all goes back to communication. Not only Howland needs to help our athletes map out their envisioned roles he needs (through the help of an able and strategically minded staff) to set up reasonable standard of expectations when it comes for each and every one of his players in the program. A student-athlete should know exactly what is expected of him both on and off the court as member of John Wooden's basketball program. If an athlete is not giving the requisite effort and dedication needed to meet those expectations, then he should be held accountable, which also should be balanced out with constructive feedback helping him to get back on track.
Fourth, building on the concept of communication and expectations, Howland needs to be consistent with regards to treatment of all the student athletes in this team. I think this is where the critical breakdown took place in this program in last two years through what appeared to be special treatment for couple of athletes on the court. I am not going to bother naming them at this point. No need to rehash those discussions in detail. I think what is important now is for Howland to find a way to reset the program in a way so that every member of his team is treated in the same fair manner. It means an upperclassmen should be treated the same way as an underclassmen, in case he is not living up to the principles that initially formed the foundation of Ben Ball at UCLA.
Lastly, there will always be room for flexibility. In fact a great leader should always give him reasonable room to adjust, adapt and recalibrate without compromising the basic principles and visions of his team.
I believe Howland is probably the best teacher we have had on basketball court since departure of John Wooden. I don't have any question in my mind that when it comes to teaching the game he is in the top-10 if not the top-5 in this game. The question I have is whether he is a great leader. As the Caretaker of Coach Wooden's basketball program, we need Howland to be more than just a very good teacher of this game. We also need him to be very good leader who can take UCLA hoops where it belongs. A good leader would ensure not only he is learning from his mistakes (no one is perfect) but also doing everything he can to surround himself with the right lieutenants who will not only effectively help execute his overall vision but also offer constructive feedback (or even pushback) when necessary.
I strongly believe Howland cares about this program and his legacy at UCLA as much as anyone else (and yeah I don't let the DePaul talk bother me even though I don't necessarily agree with number of takes here on BN). It doesn't matter to me that Howland might have contemplate going somewhere else. What matters to me is I think Howland is more consumed about getting our program on track than anyone else around the Bruin Nation. The question is whether he is going to reflect on what has gone wrong in recent years, realize some of the missteps, and then strategically adapt to fix those issues to bring back the magic he captured few years ago. Again this will require Howland to be more than just a tough (and a very good) teacher of the game. We are going to need him to be a very good leader exhibiting smart management skills.
Part of me truly believes that he is capable of being that good leader and bringing back that magic. Yet right now I have no idea how this story is going to unfold in next few weeks, months and years. That is why the other part of me is anxious.