Why Howland Must Go: A Dispassionate View From a Former Howler

-Bumped. BN Eds.

I agree with Class of 66’s eloquent words regarding the SI article. It is not the reason Howland should go. Some of it isn’t news, and the most salacious details are now being contested.

And, as with the slow, painful demise of Rick Neuheisel, the slow movement towards consensus about Howland has caused passionate exchange on both sides. In Howland’s case, the arguments rage fiercer because of the confusing dichotomy between Howland’s Final Four years and the recent abominations.

Some argue Howland is really a great coach, and has just been unlucky with NBA departures and a few bad apples. Some argue that Howland is a mediocre coach, who lucked in to a string of great recruits in his first years which masked his deficiencies. I don’t find either of these stories convincing. Others argue that the dichotomy is explained by changes in Howland and his staff, pointing to the departures of key assistants, or positing that Howland changed his coaching philosophy in an attempt to get beyond being known for 3 Final Fours. I think the assistants angle is pretty plausible.

However, I find another line of logic more compelling:

Howland’s coaching style is suited to building programs, not sustaining them

This has as its corollary:

Howland could theoretically succeed again at UCLA. With a perfect storm, he could even win a championship. But his coaching cannot sustain the program as nationally relevant on a year-in, year-out basis. Occasionally making a run is not good enough at UCLA. Missing the tournament is not acceptable at UCLA. Howland cannot be the coach UCLA needs and deserves.

[apologies for the length of what follows - the analytic catharsis took on a life of its own, and it represents my complete take on the Howland years. Comments appreciated if you read through; apologies if you want the time of your life back after reading.]

What Howland does well

Howland does a great job of teaching defensive fundamentals to players who are willing and able to learn them, and he teaches an offensive system that is more efficient than pretty, but which is good preparation for having to learn set plays at the NBA level. Players who have bought in have gone on to succeed at the next level, because they have been trained to be disciplined on offense and defense and can immediately bring more to the table for an NBA team than they take away, whether as a starter or bench player.

What Howland doesn’t do well

Howland does not manage egos well. He does not create team spirit. He leans heavily on players to motivate and police themselves. He does not seem to make good in-game adjustments, and despite a history of succeeding with different types of teams at different schools, he does not appear to be flexible in how he marshals the players at his disposal.

What Howland needs to succeed

Howland needs kids who are both talented and hard-working, thick-skinned, mature, willing to make sacrifices and willing to be coached. He needs upperclassmen who can inculcate underclassmen in the serious business of succeeding as college athletes, and a squad of players who raise each other’s games through competitive practice. He needs upperclassmen and underclassmen who are willing and able to earn their playing time on the practice court.

How this has played out

Howland’s first recruiting class had four hard-working local kids, two of whom were McDonald’s All-Americans. The program had bottomed out, so Howland could build around those kids; JF was pushing Ced hard in practice to try to win the PG job from the incumbent before Ced’s injury, AA and JS beat out former Tar Heel and RS Senior Brian Morrison for the 2/3 spots, LM-R practiced hard and made the most of his limited minutes behind Hollins and Fey. The freshmen were bounced by TTU in the first round of the tourney, and realized how much more had to be done to get to the next level.

Howland’s next recruiting class had another group of hard-working, but under-the-radar guys. After an injury setback, PAA pushed Luc in practice at the 4. DC and JF went at it for PG minutes, with Howland eventually finding ways of getting them both on the court at the same time for short periods. AA and LM-R came back as chiseled athletes, with LM-R pushing Hollins in practice. Ced Bozeman- whom Lavin had pimped as the next Magic – selflessly bought in to a new role as a defensive small forward. Team made it to the championship game.

Next recruiting class was necessarily small, but added a talented, hungry, raw recruit in RW who pushed DC every day in practice. A core group of guys returned – a good thing for the team, but this meant very few minutes available for freshmen… with two archetypal warriors in the back-court and selfless defensive machines in the front court, team gets back to the Final Four. Two early fouls for AA hurt in a loss to Florida.

Next recruiting class was also small, but added a mature, professional uber-talent in KL. Howland’s best offensive team, led by two future NBA point guards and KL, lost to a Memphis team which had added Derrick Rose to an Elite Eight squad. Many question Howland’s in-game tactics.

Crucially, the middle of the program is hollowed out when KL and RW jump early to the NBA and Chace Stanback transfers, leaving almost nobody behind from those two recruiting classes. Luc leaves as a junior. Suddenly there is a big gap between senior veterans DC, PAA and JS, and a group of talented incoming recruits who are all top-50 players and have been hyped to high heaven.

As freshmen, the Flop Five never buy in, failing to get in shape and failing to take things seriously, not working hard to win playing time from the upperclassmen. For the first time in the Howland era, the kids with most talent don’t back it with work ethic and don’t buy in to what the upperclassmen are saying. I tutored one of those upperclassmen; he lamented at the time that the freshmen ‘just don’t get it’. DC doesn’t get pushed by Anderson; due to the non-emergence of Bobo and Gordon, PAA shoulders a massive burden inside. With Westbrook and Stanback gone, there are no athletic soph/junior 2/3s to push Holiday and JS. The starting 5 has enough talent/experience to do ok in the Pac-10, and then gets totally outmuscled by Villanova – unthinkable for any of the Final Four teams.

The rest is history: the Flop Five class was a bust, and broke the cycle of each recruiting class competing with and learning what it takes to be a competitor and a winner from their older peers. The following recruiting class also had issues, compounding the dysfunction. The remaining players from the Final Four era were role players forced to take on leadership; some potentially good players transferred. The team last year had a mini-bounce-back based mostly on talent (and, with Honeycutt, Lee, Jones, and the Wears (and Lane?) all taking their business seriously in practice), and then crashed again this year when the most talented players expanded (Smith) or imploded (Nelson).

Why Howland will never lead us to sustained success

Simply put, Howland cannot consistently have the types of players in the program that are needed for teams to play his style at an elite level. This is down to a few factors:

(1) it is tough to find guys who have elite level talent who are also willing to buy in to Howland’s defensive and offensive philosophy. Kevin Love is an exception as a guy who knew Howland would help him get better at things he needed in the NBA. DC, RW and LRMAM were all relatively unheralded recruits. JF and AA were both local, tough-minded kids with high ability and remarkable maturity. Finding kids that fit this mold and also reach UCLA academic standards is tough, even before you take into account the competition with other schools for those players. Howland does not deal well with prima donnas or thin-skinned guys.

(2) it is tough to manage a roster to ensure a consistent culture of healthy competition, dedication and self-policing among players. That worked with the Final Four teams, but the cycle was broken when the program hollowed out after the third Final Four. Reloading with a massive recruiting class was always going to be a challenge, and it doesn’t suit Howland’s style. Trying to manage a roster to be consistent over time, adding a few players each year to replace a few players graduating or leaving for the NBA, is tough. Other coaches might be able to reload, take one down year at most (with maybe an early round tourney loss as the floor) and bounce back. That doesn’t work for Howland and his reliance on self-motivating, self-policing players. If players transfer, or leave early for the NBA, this may be more damaging to Howland than to other coaches

(3) Howland favors a ~8 man rotation, his style is to give players minutes based on current performance, and doesn’t believe in giving guys minutes just for the sake of developing them; and the exacting nature of Howland’s systems on offense and defense means there is a significant experience advantage for 2nd+ year players. This makes 1) and 2) above even more difficult, as talented recruits may worry they won’t get court time as freshmen, and freshmen get disheartened by lack of playing time and want to transfer.

(4) Given Howland’s abrasive personal management style, recruiting and retaining elite assistants may be difficult. This has negative repercussions for the evaluation and recruitment of talent, and makes it harder for Howland to overcome his own coaching shortcomings with deputies. (I suspect this situation has been exacerbated by Morgan Center, if Howland hasn’t had a competitive budget for assistants to come and work in Los Angeles. On paper, we do not seem to have hired top assistants away from other major schools, but I haven’t followed this closely.)

The bottom line

Howland could succeed again at UCLA. Some of his coaching skills are excellent, some are very lacking, but given the right combination of players over time, he could put together a run. But the chances of such a perfect storm are fairly low, and when things start going badly it is difficult for him to course correct. He is not a terrible coach who lucked in to a couple of great recruiting classes, nor is he a great coach who has had a string of bad luck. He is a good but limited coach who needs a steady stream of mature, competitive kids in order to sustain success, and he and his staff have not managed to do that year in, year out. An influx of talented freshmen could improve next year’s team, but unless they bring about a culture change – and sustain it by sticking around for 3-4 years – it will be but a temporary solution.

I don’t trust Guerrero to hire a better coach if Howland leaves, so in my ideal world Guerrero is gone before Howland leaves. But after years of fighting Howland’s corner, I am now resigned to the fact that Howland cannot remain the coach at UCLA in the long run. I am glad of the Final Fours, and the interest the NBA now holds for me with so many great Bruins playing leading roles; and whenever I hear an over-enthusiastic Gus Johnson I am reminded of the Gonzaga game. I am also embarrassed by many things on and off the court in the years following, and hate the diminished interest I have consequently had in college hoops. I hope the eventual parting of ways is on classy terms, and that Howland will follow the example of Rick rather than CHP on his dismissal.

Go Bruins - and Fire Dan Guerrero.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of BruinsNation's (BN) editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of BN's editors.

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