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Is UCLA still a top tier job?
This question has repeatedly come up after UCLA made a job offer to John Calipari, only to have him turn around and sign a lifetime deal with Kentucky that will carry him comfortably into retirement. I think the better question is: "Did UCLA leadership allow the idea of pursuing Calipari get in the way of reaching out to other potentially great hires?" Nate Oats has been picked up by Alabama. Buzz Williams is rumored to be the next Texas A&M coach. Meanwhile, Chris Beard and Tony Bennett have taken Texas Tech and Virginia to the Final Four respectively. But, Ben Bolch of the LA Times is reporting that UCLA will complete its coaching search by early next week, which would indicate Beard and Bennett are out of contention.
I am undeniably biased, but I have to believe that the UCLA job is still one of the better jobs in the country. I say this because, in my memory, the last two coaches who were moderately competent each ended up in Final Fours. Howland, obviously, is one with two Final Fours and one runner-up while Harrick, with a championship, is the other. Between now and then, we have been saddled with Steve Alford and Steve Lavin.
This made me really think and ask myself if the numbers held up. I went back through the history books and pulled up the following.
Immediately after John Wooden stepped down, we had three two-year coaches. Gene Bartow, who went 52-9 (.852) and garnered a Final Four and a Sweet Sixteen, was the first. Gene was followed by Gary Cunningham, who went 50-8 (.862) and put up a Sweet Sixteen and an Elite Eight. After Gary came Larry Brown who went 42-17 (.711) and added a championship game and a round of 32 appearance before walking away from Westwood.
This was followed by two legacy hires in Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard, who both played for John Wooden. Farmer coached three years and went 61-23 (.726) and had one tournament appearance. Hazzard coached four years and went 77-47 (.620) with one tournament appearance and one NIT championship. That makes five coaches across 13 years at which point UCLA got the reputation of having unrealistic expectations. There was a certain truth to this. However, if you told me we were about to enter a thirteen-year period that would include a championship game appearance, a Final Four, an Elite Eight, two Sweet Sixteens, and three tournament appearances, I would have asked, "Where do I sign up?"
That being said, 1988 was over 30 years ago! You would think the national media could come up with something new. Every UCLA coach since then has enjoyed much better job security.
After this period, we have the Harrick, Lavin and Howland tenures. Harrick coached for eight years and went 192-62 (.755) with a national championship and an Elite Eight appearance. He never missed the tournament in those eight years. Lavin was head coach for seven years and went 145-78 (.650) with a peak of an Elite Eight appearance and the four Sweet Sixteens, for which he would become known as "Steve Sixteen." He was followed by Ben Howland who coached ten years and went 233-107 (.685) with that miraculous 3 Final Fours in three years. This 25-year period also looks much better in retrospect. I, for one, will never understand the firing of Jim Harrick. And, while I can concede Howland’s tenure ended as poorly as it began, I can easily say he was the best coach UCLA has had since John Wooden.
Which brings us back to the question at hand. Is the UCLA still a top tier coaching job?
Let’s examine some cold hard facts. We all know UCLA sits in one of the country’s hot beds of basketball talent. We all know that NBA players play pick-up games at UCLA with and against UCLA players. That last fact, at minimum, will win over most potential recruits. It should, therefore, win over any potential coaches.
Here is something else to consider: Harrick went 192-62 (.755) across ten years at UCLA, but slipped to 45-22 (.671) at Rhode Island and 22-10 (.687) at Georgia. That’s a drop of .084 and .068 percentage points, respectively, after leaving UCLA. Steve Lavin went 145-78 (.650) at UCLA before taking the St. John’s job where he went 81-53 (.604) for a .046 drop in percentage points to his win loss record. And, while it is still too soon to judge Ben Howland, he has gone from his 233-107 (.685) record at UCLA to a current 78-56 (.582) record at Mississippi State for a shocking .103 drop in percentage points. All three coaches benefitted from coaching at UCLA and it shows.
Alford’s numbers are an aberration. He went 78-48 (.619) at Southwest Missouri State, 152-106 (.589) at Iowa, 155-52 (.749) at New Mexico before going 124-63 (.663) at UCLA. While his winning percentage dipped from NMU to UCLA, his overall winning percentage over the course of his career before UCLA and at UCLA are exactly the same, but his three Sweet Sixteens at UCLA are undeniably the peak of his coaching career to date.
In the long run, UCLA basketball is a winner. In the 43 years since Wooden last coached a game, UCLA has made 32 Tournament appearances. Of the eight coaches I listed for examination, four have made it to an NCAA Championship game. Six of the eight have made it to an Elite Eight or higher. Very few programs can boast a similar level of success across such a time span. Certainly none of the other schools, Kentucky, Kansas, UNC, or Duke are asked to justify their position in this stratosphere, or second-guessed for holding out for a top-tier coach.
In my opinion, the only thing holding UCLA basketball back is UCLA "leadership." In 2012-13, Dan Guerrero reportedly could not wait for Wichita State to conclude its tournament run and jumped the gun with the Steve Alford hire. If Bolch is correct and UCLA is finishing up its coaching search "within the next week," it really makes you wonder what they’ve been doing since Alford was fired. If Jamie Dixon and Mick Cronin are the best options UCLA can come up with, Dan Guerrero and the search committee are going to look incredibly incompetent. How incompetent? Incompetent enough that it really does beg the question; "Is the UCLA basketball job still a top tier job?"