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Planning a Transition Out of Howland Era at UCLA (After Removal of Dan Guerrero)

It is past time for UCLA to bring in new leadership at the top of athletic department, so contingency plan to move beyond Howland era can be put in motion. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
It is past time for UCLA to bring in new leadership at the top of athletic department, so contingency plan to move beyond Howland era can be put in motion. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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At the current pathetic state of UCLA basketball program it doesn't seem all that worthwhile to go over every micro details around a specific game. I know we collectively can't help it since we are are addicted. For now though to start this week I think everyone is thinking about the big pictures around the mess that is UCLA basketball. Let's start this post by comparing the record of last four years of Coaches Jim Harrick, Steve Lavin and Ben Howland at UCLA:

Coaches in Last 4 years Overall Conference Pac-10 Titles Tourney Final-4s NCs
Jim Harrick (1992-1996) 98-27 (.784) 57-15 (.792) 2 7-3 1 1
Steve Lavin (1999-2003) 75-52 (.591) 41-31 (.569) 0 6-3 0 0
Ben Howland (2007-now) 73-47 (.608) 37-24 (.606) 0 2-2 0 0

Let's see here. I picked the last four years because I think that gives a good sense of how the state of the program after it went through the early years of rebuilding process (in case of Lavin it was a situation of maintaining the championship level success under Harrick).Over the weekend we saw more analysis on Howland's career numbers from KSBruin and WoodenMania. Needless to say the numbers look bad for Howland and it can get worse depending on how the Bruins finish this season.

I will always be eternally grateful to Coach Ben Howland for the incredible run he put together in his first five years at UCLA. That chapter of "Ben Ball warriors" IMO was two of the best time periods during the Post Wooden Era of UCLA basketball (the other being the last 4 years of Jim Harrick). What transpired with the core of AA, JF, JS, LMR, LRMAM, PAA, RW, DC, MR, and KL was one of the most joyful experiences we have had in the world of UCLA hoops. For that Howland should be remembered with nothing but a sense of gratitude after he has moved on beyond Westwood.

That gets me to the current state. IMHO it is time to think about transitioning out of the Howland era at UCLA. Going to share some extended thoughts which include immediate courses of action for UCLA alums, students and fans after the jump.

We have talked about host of problems that have inflicted a deep sense of malaise around our basketball program in last four years. The downward trajectory started with the arrival of the cursed freshman class of 2008. It has shown no signs of reversing momentum. The 2009 class is now shaping up to another massive disappointment. There is also the fact that Howland and his staff failed to bring in a decent point guard in our program in last 4 years.

I guess there was a little semblance of "hope" when Bruins barely met minimum expectations during 2010-11 season by making the tournament. However, the serious long term issues that have plagued Howland's program reappeared with a vengeance since the early departures of Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt. Those guys were just two of the latest in a growing group of players who either left the program early for NBA or were chased off to other programs due to number of personnel issues.

On the recruiting front the commitments of Jordan Adams, Dominic Artis and Kyle Anderson created a nice buzz before the season, but it all dissipated with the decommitment of Artis and Shabazz (wisely for him) holding off on making a commitment till spring. Now the wheels appear to have come off the wagon. Things got ugly right before the season after Jerime Anderson (one of the biggest busts in recent years) got caught with someone's laptop. While he faced some legal penalties, he did not face any serious disciplinary measures from Howland (just like Howland didn't bother to send a strong message to Nikola Dragovic when he got tangled in off-court mess multiple times at UCLA).

Now it looks like Howland is losing support from great kids such as Anthony Stover. I don't need to go into details about the Reeves Nelson saga and the tragicomic situation around Joshua Smith. I should point out that we have also been reading about disturbing reports of ugly off-court behavior by this team, which is consistent with other disturbing stories previously discussed on Bruin Nation.

If you analyze the Howland era from last 4 years, to me it's eerily similar to the career path of Bob Toledo. Arguably the 20 game winning streak during Toledo's era (during which we appeared in two New Year's Day Bowl games) was very similar to the three Final-4 runs under Howland. However, it all went downhill for Toledo after December 5, 1998 (kind of like UCLA's letdown against Memphis in the Final-4) with bad coaching moves (departure of Al Borges to Cal is similar to Kerry Keating leaving the program), uninspiring assistant hires, and massive underachievement (or lack of development) by highly ranked recruiting classes in Westwood.

This season is so far down the gutter that Howland was talking publicly about Bruins' only way to get into the Big Dance is winning the Pac-12 tournament before the recent meaningless mini 3-0 run against bad to atrocious Pac-12 programs. That statement from few weeks earlier demonstrated the mindset of a coach, who signaled to his players that it was OK to give up on the regular season. The statement was also incredibly unwise because it will serve as a horrible data-point for the selection committee, if the Bruins were to make a miraculous run to end the Pac-12 regular season and find themselves on the proverbial bubble.

I think the fact that Howland is even in that kind of mindset should spell the end for this run at UCLA. Bruins should never be in a desperate situation in which they have to win the conference tournament to make the tournament. If it happens again this year, it will be 2nd time in 3 years and 3rd time in his 9 year career at UCLA. That kind of track record is simply unacceptable for a coach at UCLA. We gave him a mulligan for his first losing season at UCLA because it was the result of total disintegration of the program under the previous coach. Yet despite total incompetence from Lavin, UCLA still found a way to win 20+ games in every one of his seasons except for the last one when his inability to coach and build a program could no longer be hidden through raw abilities of NBA caliber hoops talent. In the case of Howland, there is no excuse for the way this program has imploded after he built into a "UCLA caliber" program in his first five seasons.

It is now time for this community and the UCLA community in general to publicly think about transitioning beyond Howland. The Howland era at UCLA is effectively over. Things are not going to get better if we somehow make a miraculous run in the tourney (or close out the regular season) and then bring in Shabazz. A class of Shabazz, Anderson, and Adams will be great. However, together they will provide nothing more than a band aid on this ailing program for a year or two (before they bounce to the NBA), without addressing the long term issues related to personnel management and coaching stubbornness that have sadly crippled this program in the last few years. From what I see, for the benefit of the program if UCLA were to have competent leadership overseeing it's athletic program, they would be focusing on the long term health and think about making strategic moves that would address those issues.

So what would a competent athletic director do right now? Okay, don't laugh. I will get to the Chianti situation below. But stay with me here. What would a competent athletic director do right now at UCLA? Well if we had someone who is not living in a delusional world fantasizing about "strapping it on" every day, he or she would be working to execute a contingency plan for UCLA basketball right about now. The broad outlines of such a contingency plan would include (but not limited to) the following:

  • A "short list" of coaches: Develop a "short list" of 8-10 candidates (I am not going to get into naming those candidates in this post) who can succeed Howland at UCLA. If Chianti was competent, this list should have been in place before the start of this season;
  • Putting out "feelers": Put out feelers to possible candidates through intermediaries, building relationships and gauging their realistic interest in the job (so that the AD is not caught with his pants down when the actual hiring process is in motion). This would enable the AD to further polish up his or her "short list";
  • Keep uber donors in the loop: A competent AD would keep uber donors in the loop about a contingency plan and keep them regularly updated, so that when time is right they are ready to provide resources for UCLA to make a move. Steps like this can be done in a way so that there are no leaks either to message boards or blogs (like us) if there were competent leadership at the top;
  • Setting clear and concise set of expectations and communicating them to Howland: Convey a clear and concise set of expectations to Ben Howland about this season, so that he knows he will no longer be a viable long term option in Westwood if certain thresholds are not met. What are those set of expectations? It shouldn't be that hard to discern if a competent AD at UCLA has any shred of pride in the program built by Coach Wooden. It would mean putting together a solid regular season, winning Pac-12 conference championships (especially when the conference is in the dumpster), and cruising into the Big Dance with decent seeds without finding the program in desperate situation around conference tourney times. The expectations would also encompass maintaining a healthy and productive atmosphere in the program (reflected in personnel management/development, recruiting interesting and fan interest);
  • Make the decision (at least in background) when the choices become clear: Think back to the football season. What kind of hiring process would have taken place if a competent AD had made the right decision, immediately after the Arizona game, to get a new coach? We had Chianti sending out clueless missives about Bruins making a run for Pac-12 title (even after 0-50!). It only led to division among the UCLA fanbase and a pathetic sham of a hiring process. Yes, perhaps the Mora hire will work out (we are all rooting for him), but what transpired was Guerrero turning UCLA into a national embarrassment both on and off the field;
  • Help Howland plan a respectable exit route: If it becomes clear that Howland will not meet the expectations at UCLA and Bruins will need to make a coaching change, make that known to Howland's agent and help him plan an exit route for Howland. If this is the case, a competent and secure AD would let Howland know about this during the season, and get him to send out feelers to other programs. I think Howland could be really successful in rebuilding a program somewhere else with a fresh start. Think some place like Boston College, where the Eagles could really benefit from Howland's tough nose approach and at least get their program built in next 4-5 years.
  • Execution of the contingency plan: When UCLA is in a spot to make a coaching move, it shouldn't be starting from scratch. It should be executing on the steps outlined above. At this point a competent AD would essentially have the general parameters of agreement drafted and ready in place for the top 2 or 3 choices (knowing that they also have genuine reciprocal interests), and finish out the last steps in getting an agreement done. This is when the donors are activated so that logistics like having charter jets and meeting places (in neutral sites) are all lined up.

This kind of strategy planning is hard to stomach for many casuals fan of UCLA basketball. Even in this community which is as plugged in as any when it comes to UCLA Howland enjoys considerable support, which took a huge hit after the Oregon game. Majority (54%) of UCLA fans on BN either want Howland to go or are unsure about his viability as the head coach of this program. However, that is exactly what a confident, secure and brave athletic director would be working on right now in Westwood. The problem here is we have an incompetent leader in charge of UCLA athletics. That makes the problem more complicated.

The solution here is not necessarily the firing of Howland right away. An immediate firing after this season will not be totally helpful if Chianti Dan is still in charge. Again, how the heck you can trust a clueless bureaucrat, who thinks there is nothing wrong with Spaulding? The clear solution here is for UCLA is the immediate removal of Guerrero and the hiring of a new athletic director. From what I see, I will be supportive of retaining Howland for another season, if it means that Guerrero is relieved of his AD duties, and we have someone competent (who understands and gets the culture of major revenue college athletic programs) working to address our basketball mess.

One of the issues out there is the clusterf**k that is Pauley renovation. It is a total mess. If Bruins do not bring in a new AD who will essentially make Howland a lame duck coach next year (provided there is no miraculous run rest of this season), the interest will only plummet in Bruin hoops next year. It will not matter how many dumb posters UCLA's incompetent marketing department puts out, if this is continues to be a mess, no one really is going to be excited about renovated bathrooms at Pauley.

If we have a new AD come in who can have a methodical and strategic contingency plan in place for the hoops program, I will be able to stomach another joyless season of Howland basketball, because it would entail at least having some hope that we will have a competent leader addressing long term issues related to UCLA basketball.

So if you are feeling depressed and desolate about the state of UCLA basketball, and want to do something about it as an alum, student or a fan, then here is what you need to do. Keep generating heat on Chancellor Gene Block to can Guerrero. Apply pressure in every UCLA related touch points (see amazing blogs posts from tazmiami, KSBruin and DrJay32) and let every UCLA related institutions know that you are not going to support the school in any way, until we have a wholesale regime change at the top of athletic department. This regime change is a prerequisite not just to usher in a smooth transition to the Post-Howland era in Westwood, it is a must if we want to ensure that Jim Mora has all the tools necessary to succeed in Westwood. How the heck can you count on some dude who has no idea what is wrong with Spaulding?