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Ranking the UCLA Basketball Head Coaching Hires

Where does the hiring of Mick Cronin rank in the post-Wooden history?

NCAA Basketball: UCLA-Press Conference Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I had the one reaction to Coach Cronin’s hiring that is not allowed for a fan or blogger who has watched almost every UCLA Bruins game the last decade and the majority of games for more years than I want to count before that. I was and am meh, bleh, nonplussed, etc. As a passionate fan and blogger, I am supposed to have strong reactions one way or another. Yet, I am not one to say the world is coming to an end, this is a disaster, or another bungled Guerrero mess. But I am not excited either. Before Steve Alford was hired, I was ecstatic at the list of possible candidates and, then, angry with “how the heck did we end up with Alford?!” This time I was kind of “Really?” Rick Barnes? Jamie Dixon? I was not even excited about the John Calipari talk because I am not sure I want him as a coach with his baggage and the coming end to his area of expertise: the one and done.

That I am meh is not a bad thing. The last coach I felt similarly about won a national championship.

That brings me to the subject of this post. As the self-appointed resident Bruins Nation historian of UCLA Basketball, I thought I would put the hiring in the context of all hirings of UCLA coaches since Coach Wooden. Note: this is the thought at the time of the hiring and what was known about them. I am not as focused on how they turned out, although I will discuss that as well. I will grade on an A to F scale.

The Great Hires that Turned Out Almost Great

Larry Brown: A

The Vagabond Coach

Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame Coach. He has won championships at every level and is one of the greatest coaches of all time. In, literally, his last days, UCLA AD JD Morgan recognized that Brown had a great basketball mind. JD Morgan found another great coach. While Wooden was the greatest of all time, Larry Brown was arguably one of the ten best of all-time.

His only flaw, which was not known at the time, is Brown is also crazy.

Brown was also a walking NCAA violation. He is an eccentric person who is always on the mov, and another victim of the worst part of JD Morgan, chronically underpaid. Morgan may have been the cheapest AD in modern sports and Brown rightly complained he was barely making enough to live in Southern California. It was hardly a salary for an elite coach or even a rising star at the nation’s premiere program. That said, recognizing a great coach and hiring at that price was a great hire. Brown responded and took an undersized young team and led them to the finals when no one expected it. Bottom line: Brown is a great coach and his problems were not known at the time.

Best Finish: NCAA Finals Runner Up

Worst Moment: NCAA Sanctions

Ben Howland: A

Some Kids Don’t Like Vegetables

One of the knocks against Brown that started early was that he did not really want to be at UCLA. He once changed UCLA’s uniform to Carolina-blue, for example. The reality was that Brown did not want to be anywhere for long. That was not Ben Howland. He coveted the UCLA job. He showed the proper respect to Coach Wooden and, even when it was known he was about to be fired, he was giving it all, leading UCLA to a Pac-12 regular season title.

Contrary to what people think, at the time of his hiring, Howland was not just a defensive wizard. Earlier in his career, he had the best shooting team in the nation at Northern Arizona. Howland was a guy who understood basketball at a level few others ever could. He was a great hire who led UCLA to three final fours and one national runner-up, just like Brown.

Howland’s flaw was he did not deal as well with kids. Darren Collision once said playing for Howland ”You need the vegetables from Coach Howland. [Then] dessert in the NBA is kind of your reward.” Howland lost his way, in large part, when he went away from great kids willing to work hard (eat vegetables) like Luc Ricard Mbah a Moute to talented selfish head-cases like Reeves Nelson. Howland thought he could make anyone a great player. He did not realize that some kids are not just in need of learning basketball but being taught about life. Coach Wooden always considered himself a teacher first and he taught young kids how to be men.

That said, he was a great hire that was working well until he lost his way.

Best Finish: NCAA Finals Runner Up

Worst Moment: Reeves Nelson “scandal”

Gary Cunningham: B

The Coach Who Should be AD

As badly as Ben Howland wanted the job, Gary Cunningham did not. Cunningham was the second coach to follow Wooden. He may have been a great choice to follow Wooden because Cunningham, while a good coach, did not need the job. JD Morgan had to offer him the job because of school politics and was surprised he took it. That said, he had the right temperament to replace the irreplaceable Wooden. He was a good choice at the time of his hiring. Cunningham was not one who cared either way about the limelight and understood as well as anyone what It meant to replace the greatest coach of all-time. That said, long-term Cunningham was more suited to replace JD Morgan than John Wooden. He went on to do just that and he became the Athletic Director at UC Santa Barbara.

As a coach, he won the Pac-8 twice and did a good job. Coaching was just not a job he wanted but, with the shadow of Wooden still long, he had the right mentality.

Best Finish: He went a perfect 14-0 in the Pac-8 in 1977-78.

Worst Moment: It’s tough to say. I will pick losing to DePaul in the Regional Final after beating them by 20 earlier in the season.

The Ho-hum Hires

Jim Harrick: C+

The Rodney Dangerfield of UCLA Coaches

Jim Harrick’s first contact with UCLA was as Cunningham’s assistant. Harrick wanted to stay at UCLA but, understandably, Larry Brown wanted to choose his own coaches. Surreally, Morgan said he had to keep one of the assistants and another future UCLA Coach Larry Farmer was chosen.

That was the beginning of a trend for Harrick. UCLA never really treated Harrick as well as they should have. When Harrick was hired, he was the last on the list. Of course, as Harrick pointed out, that was an amazing list including Hall of Fame coaches like Jim Valvano, Larry Brown, and Mike Krzyzewski. Larry Brown was even on a plane to take the job before changing his mind. The hiring of Harrick after a search that teased big names was a letdown. Harrick had been dominating at Pepperdine in the Western Athletic Conference, but had struggled the previous two seasons.

On the other side, Harrick knew the West Coast and knew UCLA having been an assistant coach under Cunningham. The icing on the cake, Don MacLean said he wanted to play at UCLA but would not play for Coach Hazzard. So, the hiring of Harrick brought a star recruit and the Bruins’ all-time leading scorer to UCLA.

The era Harrick was hired in was also different in that there was a limit in what UCLA could pay coaches. Yes, JD Morgan’s cruelly low salaries were gone, but there were limits as to what a UC coach could be paid at the time. Harrick was a solid choice, just a letdown after the big names thrown out there.

Best Finish: NCAA Championship

Worst Moment: I know some will say getting fired for an expense check, but I am going to say some of his first round losses in the tournament, especially 1994 when the “Bruins started their season with an excellent 14-0 record. After finishing 2nd in the Pac-10 The Bruins accepted a bid to the NCAA Tournament. They were seeded 5th in the Midwest Region, but lost to 12th Seed Tulsa in the first round in a high scoring game, 102-112.”

Mick Cronin: C

Months of Waiting for . . .

Mick Cronin, like Harrick, was not at the top of the list for the next UCLA head coach. Other names were offered the job before Cronin was offered and accepted. The Larry Brown circus of 1988 was replaced by the John Calipari circus of 2019. Was Calipari just using UCLA? Regardless, it did prove that UCLA could pay the big bucks for the right coach. That said, Jamie Dixon and Rick Barnes are not Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano, the other names from the 1988 list. While Harrick was last on a list full of National Champions before him, Cronin was on a list of one National Champion and a bunch of “solid coaches.”

On the positive side, Cronin, like Howland, by all accounts really wanted the job and never wavered as other coaches were offered. Cronin has been saying and doing the right things since being hired, unlike, say, Steve Alford who came in clueless, talking about Bobby Knight. Cronin has the desire and the background to be successful. He just is not as sexy as others and does not have the West Coast background.

Best Finish and Worst Moment: TBD

The “At Least, They Were Coaches” Hires

Gene Bartow: D+

You Can’t Be Thinned-Skinned and Follow the Greatest Coach of All Time

Every time the UCLA coaching job comes open, these tired tropes come out about how UCLA fans still expect John Wooden and won’t support anything less than a national championship. That is complete BS today, but it was not when Gene Bartow was hired. If Bartow won a game by 10 points, he would hear how Wooden would have won by 20. It is literally impossible to be as good as the greatest coach of all-time as there can only be one greatest. In that spot, you can’t lose it because some yahoo on talk radio criticizes you as Bartow did. You can’t get upset at the clueless alumni who have the money for elite access but has less basketball knowledge than a youth league coach. Yet, that is what Bartow would do.

Bartow was a very good basketball coach. He just was a bad fit for a big market like Los Angeles and for an incredibly difficult job of replacing a legend. In some ways, it was karmic payback when his son Murry Barton got the UCLA job. Gene Bartow did not deserve the abuse he received as the UCLA Coach replacing John Wooden. Murry Bartow did not deserve the job of head coach at UCLA even as an interim. But Murry was the only coach since Wooden to have zero expectations put on him. He was the exact opposite of his Dad.

Best Moment: Helping Marques Johnson win the first John R. Wooden Award.

Worst Moment: He lost to Idaho State to break UCLA’s string of Final Fours stretching back 10 years.

P.S. Neither of the above are fair, but that sums up Bartow.

Steve Alford: D

You’re Sure It Isn’t Spelled ‘Alfor’?

In 2013, I was excited, no giddy, about the idea of Brad Stevens coming to coach at UCLA. I understood that fell through or was just a mirage. But how does UCLA go straight from Stevens to Steve Alford?!? Steve Alford came from nowhere and it seemed that the UCLA Athletic Department did not even do a basic Google search, given the Pierre Pierce incident in Alford’s past. Further, either they did not prep him for his first press conference when Alford talked about how great Bobby Knight was and ignored the Wooden legacy or he chose to ignore what he had been told. It was all completely bungled anyway you look at it. Alford was also basically a country guy not ready to deal with the bright lights of UCLA.

Now, some will be mad at me for giving Steve Alford a grade this high. I honestly believe Steve Alford could coach offense and improved the shooting strokes of players such as Kyle Anderson, Norman Powell, and Kevon Looney. Further, the Lonzo Ball season was beautiful modern basketball on offense. That said, what about the defense?! Bobby Knight famously told Alford to take some notes on what he needed to improve and started to spell “defense.” Maybe this is the first time Alford earned a “D” at UCLA.

My only point is Alford is a flawed basketball coach. Good enough for UCLA? No way.

Best Moment: Beating a very good Kentucky team at Kentucky with amazing offense in 2016.

Worst Moment: The loss to Liberty in December may have cost him his job, but the 2014 loss to Kentucky where UCLA trailed 24-0 and 41-7 is my choice for the worst moment.

What The Heck? They Aren’t Even Head Coaches

Steve Lavin: D-

“That’s How We Want it.” Want what?

Steve Lavin had one skill. He was as slick as his hair. He was always talking and, if you were 19 and naïve, it might make some sense. He also had no fear. While Harrick team’s were notorious for losing in the first round of the tournament, Lavin seemed to pull out impossible wins over top-ranked opponents and wins early in the tournament. On the other hand, Lavin would also lose to the likes of CSUN. Lavin was and is, at his worst, a snake oil salesman and, at his best, Tony Robbins.

What Lavin is not is a basketball coach. He was only a little over a season removed from being a graduate assistant and he took a very veteran team to the Elite Eight. Actually, that team coached itself, which is the key to Lavin. Recruit and motivate? Yes. Coaching?!? Nah.

While they are many stories, one story sums him up.

“The great thing was the timeouts. Charles (O’Bannon) would say, ‘What are we in?’ And two guys would say, ‘We’re in quicksand,’ and the other three would say, ‘We’re in man-to-man.’ I’d say, ‘Good. That’s how we want it.’”

Lavin’s rationale? If the Bruins couldn’t figure it out, the opposing players wouldn’t have a prayer of doing so, either.

Lavin was a horrible hire because he does not understand basketball. Charitably, he may be good as a recruiter because a used car salesman has nothing on him in the blarney department. However, many good rec league coaches of elementary school kids know more about basketball.

Best Moment: March 3, 2001 — UCLA upsets then #1 Stanford 94-93 in a wild finish that probably saves Lavin’s job and helps UCLA make the tournament despite a 19-11 record and a 10-8 conference record.

Worst Moment: In the 2002-03 season where he “led” UCLA to the team’s first losing record since before Coach Wooden.

Walt Hazzard: F

The Loyal Bruin Who Fell on the Sword

This one pains me to write. Walt Hazzard loved UCLA and bled blue and gold. Like Lavin, he had never been a head coach before but, unlike Lavin, he was a good person. He never asked for the UCLA job and left being co-head coach at Chapman to become an assistant to help “toughen up” then-head coach Farmer.

For those of you who think the Alford press conference announcing his hiring was a crap show, it pales in comparison to the Hazzard hiring press conference. The key point is that Hazzard did not know he was getting the job. He and Jack Hirsch had signed on to be assistants. Farmer was mad that he was not allowed to pick his assistants and quit. At the press conference, Hazzard was not sure if he was still being hired as an assistant, interim, or co-head coach with Jack Hirsch as he had been at Chapman.

Hazzard was a great player, but he was not a good coach. He was a loyal soldier who did as he was told, but he was not the right guy to be head coach. A great example was he went to offerJack Haley a scholarship and his first words to Jack were “You’re white?” He had never seen Haley play, had not even seen film or a picture, but was giving him a scholarship.

Best Moment: Beating a Steve Alford-led Indiana team to win the NIT title.

Worst Moment: Became the first UCLA coach fired.

Larry Farmer: F-

He Got the Job Because he Was Connected to Who?!

How bad a coach is Larry Farmer? He holds the record for most losses of any coach in the history of Weber State. I bring this up because the worst reaction I have ever received for wearing a UCLA shirt was when some Weber State fans unloaded on me for how bad he was back in the 1980s. They were ecstatic to get an ex-UCLA coach for Weber State. He, then, proceeded to destroy the program.

Farmer the basketball coach brings absolutely nothing to the table. The story goes that he felt the key to Wooden’s success was Wooden’s dress code.

He is the worst, not just because he was/is a bad coach, but because of why he got the job. As he tells it, his “best friend” was infamous UCLA booster Sam Gilbert. Gilbert pressed for Larry Brown to keep him over Jim Harrick as an assistant. While other coaches kept Gilbert at a distance, Farmer openly embraced him. While Gilbert was forced to disassociate for the scandal under Brown that caused UCLA to vacate its runner up spot, Farmer owed his job to Gilbert.

Ironically, the UCLA haters who cite Gilbert’s influence as a key to UCLA’s success miss that Gilbert’s strongest influence on the court led to UCLA’s worst coach ever.

Best Moment: Recruiting Reggie Miller.

Worst Moment: The 1983-84 Season was perceived as so bad even the players rejected the NIT bid.

Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below. The good news is that the last guy who I felt was a ho-hum hire won a national championship. Hopefully, history repeats itself.

Go Bruins!