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UCLA is Being Overly Cautious in Its Coaching Search

It’s the definition of an overcorrection to the Steve Alford hiring.

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UCLA Introduces Chip Kelly Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

I’m not going to use this article to discuss whether Jamie Dixon or Mick Cronin are worthy choices to lead the UCLA Bruins basketball program because my thoughts on that are readily available. But, instead, I want to focus on a smaller tidbit that appeared in Ben Bolch’s article, because it says so much about how this UCLA coaching search is being set up to disappoint.

Several other prospective UCLA candidates were eliminated through the school’s vetting process for various reasons, including past NCAA violations and personal indiscretions. Thad Matta, the former Ohio State coach, was removed from consideration because of concerns over lingering health issues.

In a vacuum, this is to be expected. UCLA is going to always be UCLA, and they’ll want to be careful in who they hire for “reasons.” Of course, this coaching search does not operate in a vacuum and, in reality, UCLA is eliminating solid coaches from the search and artificially limiting their candidate pool.

First of all, this comment that UCLA is eliminating coaches for past NCAA violations and personal indiscretions seemingly runs counter to UCLA’s attempt to hire John Calipari. While Calipari has never personally been tagged by the NCAA in regards to any issues, it’s hard to look at the fact that he’s had two Final Four trips vacated at prior stops and not think that UCLA was willing to look the other way just because it’s John Calipari. UCLA was willing to throw $8 million a year at Calipari despite that, but it won’t give a coach like Gregg Marshall or Eric Musselman the time of day?

And that begs the question of what level of success would a coach need to have in order for UCLA to look past their indiscretions? Or what level of indiscretions is UCLA willing to look past? Consider Rick Pitino, a person who I am vehemently against UCLA hiring, but who has had success at multiple schools. There were rumors early in the process that UCLA was interested in potentially hiring Pitino (most likely leaked by Pitino himself, but still). Those rumors seem to have died, but the question remains whether UCLA, if told Pitino would take a pay cut from Calipari’s deal (let’s say $4-5 million a year) to take over the program, would overlook his past?

Again, this whole story is inconsistent with one of the names listed as a back-up plan: Randy Bennett. One has to simply search “Randy Bennett NCAA violation” to see St. Mary’s was hit with probation back in 2013. Bennett was suspended five games in the following season for “failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.” Despite that, Bennett is apparently a back-up plan. It seems like a pretty big thing to be willing to overlook!

Of course, the easy answer here is that UCLA is wildly over-correcting from public backlash to Steve Alford’s hiring, specifically the part where it was revealed the athletic department may or may not have put much thought into addressing the Pierre Pierce incident. It was an event that showed the UCLA athletic department was, at best, negligent in its vetting process and, at worst, actively dismissive of any backlash that might occur. The backlash that did occur must still haunt the athletic department because I’ve seen reports of coaches not being considered for the job despite no obvious inhibiting factors. By the way, if you’re keeping track of home, the hiring of Steve Alford is also why any arguments to “trust in the UCLA vetting process” have no leg to stand on because the last time this job opened up, they managed to hire Steve Alford despite his past. You can’t put trust in a process that has already failed in its most previous outing.

You also have to assume the athletic department is on high alert, thanks to the college admissions scandal. While Southern Cal is busy soaking up all the bad PR from that scandal, UCLA did not go unblemished and the last thing the athletic department seems willing to do is call attention to itself in a negative light. It’s understandable, really.

I just believe this is the wrong way to go about the coaching search.

At the end of the day, this is college basketball and if you think that any good coach is running a squeaky-clean program, then I have a bridge to sell you. Every coach is going to have blemishes, even the ones at the top from your John Caliparis (pretty obvious) to your Tony Bennetts (more personality and style) to even your Coach Ks (clearly cheating like hell. FILL ME WITH YOUR HATE, DUKE FANS!). And if UCLA wants to be able to compete at the elite level it clearly feels it belongs at, it’s going to need to embrace this idea. Just take a look at the four coaches currently in the Final Four:

Tom Izzo - UCLA has no chance at Izzo, for the record, but he has a fiery personality that was literally the topic of sports conversation in the first round. Scott Van Pelt had to dedicate two segments across two days to it!

Tony Bennett - The clear #1 option in the eyes of many UCLA fans. His personality would clash with LA and he would want to run the program his way without interference.

Bruce Pearl - He was hit with a 3-year show cause penalty for having a recruit at a BBQ and then lying about it. Despite that, he has had the most successful run of any coach at two separate SEC schools.

Chris Beard - He’s Bob Knight disciple who has, nonetheless, taken Texas Tech to its first Final Four in school history and is beating teams handily despite having a talent disadvantage.

Of those four, it is crazy that neither Bruce Pearl or Chris Beard is being given serious consideration for the UCLA job. Beard is the definition of a great coach who would get the most out of his players and, while he is a member of Bob Knight’s coaching tree, his focus on fundamental basketball is more of a throwback to John Wooden. If paired with a solid recruiter, he could have the UCLA program back up and running quickly in no time. Meanwhile, Bruce Pearl would absolutely kill it in Los Angeles. He would fit from a personality standpoint and the man can flat-out coach. Like Beard and Texas Tech, Pearl has Auburn in its first Final Four in school history. And both Beard and Pearl have got to be, at the very least, attainable from a monetary standpoint, especially if you’re willing to throw out $8 million contracts to Calipari and are listing Jamie Dixon as a potential finalist despite his buyout at TCU.

(Small caveat: Yes, I realize Pearl could be tied up in the FBI investigation into college basketball, as he already has had an assistant arrested as part of the investigation. I would guess Auburn feels confident enough that he’ll be safe to keep him around despite that, but your mileage may vary).

National pundits have already begun to once-again take shots at the UCLA men’s basketball brand because of the ineptitude being put on display from offering Calipari a contract that paid him less than he currently made to pointing out that smaller programs like Alabama and Nebraska went out and made purposeful, strong hires in a fraction of the time it has taken UCLA to even whittle their list down to a handful of uninspiring names. Pete Thamel’s column includes this barn-burner of a quote that might hit close to home for some, but is pretty right on the money:

Unless a high-end coach falls out of the sky, UCLA appears on the cusp of executing the archetype of a bungled search. After three months and with celebrated bold-faced names to help, the Bruins have aimed high, struck out and gotten used for raises in classic and predictable fashion.

This is, of course, the point where I mention that UCLA has bungled countless coaching searches under Dan Guerrero. The two successful coaching searches which landed UCLA Ben Howland and Chip Kelly had more to do with both coaches indicating that they wanted the job, rather than Guerrero and the AD identifying a great candidate. This was a chance for Guerrero and company to show they had learned from their mistakes, but all they’ve managed to do so far is get John Calipari a lifetime contract.

Joe wrote on Monday that it appeared UCLA had begun to panic with its coaching search, and I tend to agree with that assessment, but I’d take it a step further. UCLA is panicking in part because they have created a situation where they have arbitrarily shrunk their candidate pool to the point that, if Option A fails, any other option will look poor by comparison. It’s a recipe for disappointment, and UCLA fans have had more than enough of that over the past two decades of Dan Guerrero’s “leadership.”