It's kind of ironic that March Madness culminates in April, but setting the irony aside, tonight, we'll be watching the NCAA tournament final, which once again, will not feature the Bruins (who, once again, failed to make the tournament under Ben Howland). Instead, we'll watch two other college blue-bloods, programs that are able to sustain excellence and demand accountability when their head coaches fail to meet the expectations in an elite program. Wouldn't it be nice if the same could be said of UCLA, the program with more national championships (11) than both Kansas (3) and Kentucky (7) combined?
UCLA is at a critical juncture. What kind of basketball program do we want to be? Do we want to be a run-of-the-mill, solid-but-not-spectacular program that occasionally make the NCAA tournament, periodically rises to the top of the college basketball world, then cycles back down to mediocrity? In other words, do we want to be Stanford or Cal? Do we want to be a formerly great program, once untouchable, and now just a whisper with fond memories of past dominance? Do we want to be the next University of San Francisco?
Or, do we want to keep our place at the table of college basketball's true elite? The blue-blooded programs that even the most casual college basketball fan knows will show up in March Madness: Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. Ironically, isn't it kind of odd that each of the elite blue-bloods wear, well, blue? Eat that U$C.
I know what I want: I want UCLA to not only keep its place at that table, but to resume its position at the head of the table. This isn't just some college basketball program. This is Coach's program. This is the program painstakingly built by a legend, by a great man, by Coach John Wooden. It's a program that should reflect his Pyramid of Success, and yet, instead it comes woefully short.
It's funny when people say UCLA fans are "spoiled" or "unrealistic" and that we're "unreasonable" for demanding more from Ben Howland and our basketball program. It's the tired line we heard from Steve Lavin's blind, deaf, and dumb supporters. It's the battle-call for the sycophantic Howlers, who want to latch on and ride the S.S. Howland down to the bitter end, just as the Dorrellistas and Neubs stood fast with their failing leaders.
So, let's do some comparison work, shall we? Let's talk about how, under Chianti Dan Guerrero, there is absolutely zero accountability at UCLA for our current men's basketball coach. Let's use some statistics to highlight Chianti Dan's complete and total failure to provide decisive leadership in Westwood.
Let's look at the numbers and compare Ben Howland and the UCLA men's basketball program to the two blue-blooded hoops programs we'll watch tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats and the Kansas Jayhawks, as well as the other college basketball elites, after the jump.
Let's start in the more-modern era of college basketball: let's start with the 1984-85 basketball season. Why? Because that's the first year of that the tournament was in the 64-team format we've had in place ever since the expanded 68-team field took hold last year. It's also the era where many of the current elite coaches began their head coaching careers, so it's not like we're throwing in comparisons to John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, or Phog Allen out there.
First, before comparing each program to UCLA, let's look at the raw numbers:
|Since 1984-85 Season
|NCAA Tour. Misses
|NCAA Tour. Appearances
Here are some immediate thoughts that jump right out at you. The four other elite programs have combined to miss the tournament 9 times. UCLA, alone, in that same time span, has missed it 7 times. UCLA has far fewer Sweet Sixteen appearances, far fewer Final Four appearances, and just 1 national title in 28 years compared to at least 2 for each other school.
The most glaring statistic? In 28 years, since the 64-team tournament, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina have combined for just 3 losing seasons. UCLA, alone, has the same amount. So, let's compare how each of the fellow elite programs fare in individual comparisons to UCLA.
Duke vs. UCLA
So, let's begin our individual program comparisons with Duke, because the comparison is not even close. It's laughable. But, for good reason: Mike Krzyzewski is arguably the second-best college basketball coach of all-time. Look, I know the guy isn't popular in some corners (even though, personally, I do like him), but the bottom line is that the man took a middle-of-the-pack, occasionally good (but never quite great) program at Duke and turned it into an absolute dominating powerhouse in college basketball. His four national titles speak for themselves. Under Coach K's watch, Duke has been the most dominating program since the 64-team tournament: 27 NCAA tournament appearances (UCLA with just 21), 20 out of 28 years with a Sweet Sixteen (UCLA with just 11), 11 Final Four appearances (UCLA with 4), and 4 national titles (compared to UCLA's one).
Also, the single losing season Coach K picked up (1994-95 season), doesn't really count since he missed most of the season due to medical issues. Of the 12 games he coached that season, Duke went 9-3. Pete Gaudet, Coach K's top assistant coach, took over the team in an interim role while Coach K was out.
But, since it'd probably be unfair to compare Howland to Coach K, who really is one of the greatest coaches the sport has had, let's quickly move on to some other comparisons.
Kansas vs. UCLA
Now Kansas is a more fitting model. They've had great coaches (, Roy Williams, and Bill Self), but no single, dominating winner like Coach K for the entire duration. But, with Kansas, like Duke, the comparison is just not even close, but laughable. Starting with the 1984-85 season, the Jayhawks have won two national titles (1987-88 under Larry Brown; 2007-08 under Bill Self) and have missed the NCAA tournament just once. The best part? The one time they missed the tournament was because they were on NCAA probation from recruiting violations under Larry Brown. That's it. One tournament miss in 28 seasons. 27 out of 28 seasons in the NCAA tournament. 16 out of 28 resulted in at least a Sweet Sixteen. 8 out of 28 resulted in a Final Four appearance. Finally, in that span, 0 seasons with a losing record. None. Zero. Zilch. That's a model of consistency: even when Kansas has a "bad year" or a "rebuilding year" they still find themselves in the NCAA tournament and no matter what, they never come close to a losing record.
How has UCLA done in the same span? Ironically, the 1984-85 season was also the first of the ill-fated Walt Hazzard era. Since that season, UCLA has missed the NCAA tournament 7 times, with only one national title (1994-95 under Jim Harrick). So, chalk us up for 21 out of 28 seasons in the NCAA tournament. 11 out of 28 resulted in at least a Sweet Sixteen. Just 4 out of 28 resulted in a Final Four appearance. Losing seasons? Unlike Kansas, the Bruins have 3 (2002-03 under Lavin; 2003-04 and 2009-10 under Howland). Howland represents the opposite of Kansas: a model of inconsistency. He owns 3 out of UCLA's 7 tournament misses in that span as well as 2 out of UCLA's 3 losing seasons, but also owns 3 out of UCLA's 4 Final Four appearances. But, unlike the Jayhawks, Ben's bad years and rebuilding years do not go well: not even being eligible for the NIT in 2003-04 and 2009-10, and getting snubbed for the second-rate poser tournament this year.
So, by the rubric Kansas has going, UCLA has come up short, and Ben Howland would be a marked failure in Lawrence. Would he have been fired at Kansas? I like to think so, but we don't have any definite data points to make that conclusion since every Kansas basketball coach since 1984-85 has gone on to another job successfully (Larry Brown left for the NBA; Roy Williams left for North Carolina, his alma mater).
North Carolina vs. UCLA
I'm going to skip Kentucky for now (we'll get back to the Wildcats in a bit). North Carolina is an interesting model to compare UCLA to, because at the beginning of our statistical sample, the Tar Heels found themselves still smack dab in the Dean Smith era. While Smith is no Wooden (or even Coach K), he's still one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all-time. The coaching progression in Chapel Hill, as it has been in Westwood, has been focused on finding the appropriate heir to a legendary coach's throne. While the Bruins have suffered through eight coaching changes (Bartow, Cunningham, Brown, Farmer, Hazzard, Harrick, Lavin, Howland) since Wooden retired, North Carolina managed to find (what appears) to be a proper successor in Roy Williams on their third try (Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty, Roy Williams) following Smith's retirement. But, while North Carolina hasn't enjoyed the stability that Kansas has, unlike Kansas, they do show us what an elite program does when a coach falls woefully short of expectations. Side note: in writing this, I came across this interview of Roy Williams, which really makes me like him as a person.
First, let's look at the numbers. North Carolina has missed the NCAA tournament just three times (compared to UCLA's 7 misses), made 18 runs to the Sweet Sixteen (UCLA with 11), and had 9 Final Four appearances. While the Tar Heels won 3 national titles and only suffered 1 losing season, the Bruins did it in reverse: 3 losing seasons and just 1 national title.
Now, let's talk about how North Carolina did with a coach that failed to meet expectations. Matt Doherty was a Tar Heel, a former player, who was part of the larger Dean Smith coaching tree (having been an assistant coach for Roy Williams at Kansas, who was a Tar Heel alum and Dean Smith protege). Doherty started strong in Chapel Hill, making the NCAA tournament in his first season, finishing with a 26-7 record. The next season, like Howland's 2009-10 season, was a total nose-dive: finishing 8-20 with the first losing record at North Carolina since the 1961-62 season. Like Howland's 2010-11 season (23-11, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament), Doherty rebounded, finishing 19-16, but missing the NCAA tournament, instead making a trip to the NIT quarterfinals.
The North Carolina fan base was not nearly as patient with their head coach as the UCLA fan base appears to be. Expectations in Chapel Hill were set much higher than the NIT (which is reasonable for an elite program) and Doherty, like Howland, had reportedly created a toxic environment in the locker room: numerous players either transferred or threatened to transfer if Doherty returned (gee, sound familiar?), the lack of a respectful environment (where have I heard that before?), a lack of fan support, and star players questioning the head coach.
Unlike Gene Block and Chianti Dan, rather than sit around and play wait-and-see and risk Doherty further damaging the North Carolina basketball brand, UNC's administration took decisive action, telling Doherty he could either resign or be fired.
But, I know what the Howlers are thinking: "Matt Doherty couldn't even hold Howland's jock!" True, Howland brought UCLA to three straight Final Four appearances. Doherty never got past the second round of the NCAA tournament. Fair point. That brings me to the next comparison, the one that seals the deal.
Kentucky vs. UCLA
The best comparison, I think, is with the Kentucky Wildcats. First, they have the same historical elite status as UCLA. Second, they have had "struggles" in the not-too-distant past (like UCLA). Third, they have had coaches fail to meet their expectations, which gives us a rubric to really see if UCLA fans are "unreasonable" and "unrealistic" as the Howlers would have you believe.
First, in looking at the numbers, in Lexington, the 1984-85 season was the final year of the Joe B. Hall era (who had previously won Kentucky a national championship in the 1977-78 season), who ended his Kentucky career with a pedestrian 18-13 record and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Since then, the Wildcats have won 2 national titles (1995-96 under Rick Pitino; 1997-98 under Tubby Smith), and either they or Kansas are picking up another title tonight, and have missed the NCAA tournament only 4 times. 2 of those misses came during the first years of the Rick Pitino era when Kentucky was barred from the tournament due to sanctions arising out of some egregious rule violations during Eddie Sutton's reign. But still, 24 out of 28 years in the NCAA tournament is pretty strong (compared to UCLA's 21 out of 28). 17 out of those 28 seasons led to at least a Sweet Sixteen (UCLA has 11 out of 28). 6 out of 28 resulted in Final Four appearances (UCLA has 4 out of 28). Losing seasons? Kentucky has just one (compared to UCLA's 3).
Now, like UCLA, Kentucky has struggled to replace their coaching legend, Adolph Rupp, who brought Kentucky 4 national titles in a nearly 40-year reign, while compiling 20 NCAA tournament appearances and a career 82.2% winning percentage (as compared to Coach's 80.4% winning percentage). Kentucky, since Rupp, is on its sixth basketball coach (and likely to be moving on to seven when Calipari, who has had sanctions follow him wherever he has gone, brings the NCAA's scrutiny to Lexington). Kentucky, with seven national titles, has just as high (if not higher) expectations for its basketball program. Just ask Tubby Smith or Billy Gillispie.
The last time the Wildcats missed the NCAA tournament was the 2008-09 season under Gillispie, when they still finished 22-14 and ended up in the NIT (as compared to Howland's last season, where we went 19-14 and got snubbed by the NIT). Gillispie had been in charge in Lexington for only two seasons, but following a stumbling effort in the second half of the season, and just weeks after missing March Madness, Kentucky gave Billy the axe. The lesson to learn: at one of college basketball's elite programs, if you miss March Madness, you may not be around to see the next season.
Yes, I know, the same logic applies to Gillispie as it does to North Carolina's Doherty. No big successes, like three consecutive Final Fours to fall back on. Okay, fair point.
Too bad that logic doesn't work when it comes to Tubby Smith. Smith took over when Rick Pitino left following the 1996-97 season to coach the Boston Celtics. In his first year in charge (1997-98), Tubby took the Wildcats to the promised land, putting together a 35-4 season and winning Kentucky it's seventh national title. Sure, Tubby rode the success of Pitino's success, but he followed it with 9 seasons, each with at least 22 wins and never missing the NCAA tournament. That's right: Tubby, who wanted to play a slow-paced, defense-oriented style, dubbed Tubby Ball (sound familiar Bruin fans?), brought the Wildcats a national title, three Elite Eight appearances, and two Sweet Sixteen appearances, all in a 10-year run where he never missed March Madness. Despite that, Tubby's seat got real warm. Why? Because Tubby wasn't in charge of some middle-of-the-road program, but one of college basketball's elites and the Kentucky fan base's expectations weren't met. Just making the tournament wasn't good enough in Lexington. Feeling the pressure from the fan base, Tubby gave up one of college basketball's most coveted jobs and left for a nobody program in the Big Ten, Minnesota (read: the Big Ten's version of Oregon State).
Let's get this straight. Tubby, who actually won a national championship, while never missing the NCAA tournament in 10 years, with zero losing seasons, with a 76.0% winning percentage (263-83) at Kentucky, is run out of town by a fan base tired of just making the NCAA tournament.
UCLA, on the other hand, continues to employ a head coach who has not won a national championship (and as Jordan Farmar explained, only national title banners get hung in the rafters at Pauley Pavilion, not Final Four appearances), has missed the NCAA tournament 3 out of his 9 seasons in charge, put together two losing seasons (one entirely of his own making), and only has a winning percentage of 68.1% (205-96) at UCLA. Heck, let's give Howland the benefit of the double and erase his 2003-04 season (since it was the first year after he took over from Lavin, who totally tanked the program) and the terrible 11-17 record that came with it. Even doing that, Ben's winning percentage at UCLA only goes up to 71.0% (194-79). Still well below the Tubby line.
And yet, people call us unreasonable?!
Never mind the recent Sports Illustrated story which blew the lid on the toxic environment that Ben Howland has fostered at UCLA (at least Doherty didn't have players physically hurting one another on purpose during practice), where guys are desperate to get out of Westwood (either by declaring early and ending up in the D-League or transferring). The numbers alone, when compared to other elite programs, justify firing Howland.
Instead, we have a fan base that appears, unlike their counterparts in Lexington and Chapel Hill, to be willing to give Ben Howland a free pass. Instead of taking decisive action and terminating Howland for another sub-par season which should be unacceptable to all UCLA fans, Chianti Dan Guerrero is content to play wait-and-see, while the UCLA basketball brand swirls down the proverbial drain.
Even if Ben Howland, in his tenth season in charge at UCLA, goes on an undefeated 40-win season and wins a national title, his winning percentage at UCLA will only rise to 71.9%, or 4.1% percentage points short of the Tubby line. And let's be real: there is no way he's winning 40 games, going undefeated, and winning a national title, even with Shabazz in the fold.
76.0% and only one national title wasn't good enough for the fan base in Kentucky.
So, why is 68.1% and zero national titles acceptable in Westwood?
It shouldn't be, not if UCLA really wants to count itself among the true elite blue-bloods of college basketball, and not turn into the next University of San Francisco. It's time for decisive action, but instead, Chianti Dan and UCLA's incompetent administration do nothing but wait-and-see, hoping an 18-year-old one-and-done Adidas mercenary will somehow save Coach's program.
And the Howlers say we're the ones who are unrealistic.