With Ben Howland Firing, Does That Mean—Gulp!—Football Is No. 1 at UCLA?

Lisa Horne@LisaHornePac-12 and Big 12 Lead WriterMarch 25, 2013

UCLA tight end Joseph Fauria
UCLA tight end Joseph FauriaHarry How/Getty Images

Three Final Four appearances in the NCAA tournament aren't good enough at UCLA—basketball head coach Ben Howland was dismissed Sunday, one day after the school denied multiple reports that Howland was terminated.

So UCLA gets an "A" for demanding excellence but gets a "C" in semantics. More importantly, it gets an "A" for listening to its fan base. And its wallets.

Over the past decade, Bruin fans have spearheaded grass roots campaigns to rid themselves of what they perceive as mediocre upper-level management in the high-profile sport programs of basketball and football. Unfortunately, UCLA had been slow to react to its fans' discontent and at times seemed out of touch, especially to the growing popularity of college football.

Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel both probably were on life support one year too long as Bruin football coaches. Dorrell coached at UCLA for five seasons while Neuheisel only coached four but two of Neuheisel's teams went 4-8. 

Because both Dorrell and Neuheisel were UCLA alumni, perhaps UCLA thought it owed it to them to give them the benefit of doubt in their final years as head coaches of UCLA football. It's a nice gesture, especially since too many coaches are not given enough time to turn around a program—I'm looking at you Southern Miss—but when it's obvious a coach isn't keeping up with the Joneses, aka USC, it's time to make decisions with logic, not compassion. 

Whether you agree or disagree with Howland's dismissal, the one clear point made by UCLA is this: We're not messing around anymore. 

Mediocrity will no longer be tolerated at UCLA. Nor will "pretty good" be accepted.

And that's a good thing for a school which really hasn't done a lot in football since it won its first and only national championship (UP) in football in 1954—the last conference championship it won was in 1998 under Bob Toledo. 

UCLA has been pegged as a basketball school since the onset of the BCS era but the vibe is now different.

While basketball still warms the cockles of Bruin fans' hearts, perhaps the fondness for the sport is more related to the fact that Bruin football just hasn't compared to Bruin basketball. Los Angeles is home to the biggest bandwagoners in sport—winners put butts in seats while losers put chirping crickets in seats.

UCLA was well on its way to becoming another Duke, Kansas or Indiana if it hadn't already arrived there. Basketball schools.

And while those football teams have had spikes of improvement over the last 10 years, expectations from their football fans are probably not sky high—they've been acclimated to mediocre football with some upsets thrown in to keep them happy until basketball season starts. Kansas had that nice run under Mark Mangino, Duke has improved under David Cutcliffe and Indiana is well, Indiana. 

UCLA, however, is a different story.

It's located in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for both basketball and football and is surrounded by the largest media presence in the country. The school is steeped in both academic and athletic excellence—no other school has won more national championships (team) than UCLA (108). This is the school that gave us Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe, Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor).

This is also the school that celebrated wildly in 2006 when its football team upset USC 13-9 and prevented the Trojans from going to a third consecutive BCS Championship. The Bruins would end up going 7-6 that season and losing to Florida State in the Emerald Bowl but that upset of USC was what defined the Bruins' season.

Schadenfreude used to be the catalyst for UCLA football fans' celebrations but that has now changed. Instead of monitoring what USC football is doing—and using that as a barometer to gauge its own happiness—UCLA has now turned its attention to itself.

And Jim Mora is a blood-thirsty lion. No, really.

Last week the football head coach's twitter account had an avatar of a lion with a bloody face—it has now been replaced but the photo made quite an impression. The school's athletic image used to be that of the "Gutty Little Bruins" which implies, of course, that the team is small but shows courage against bigger opponents.

It's a cute little moniker. For a little league team. 

The lion is king of the jungle—actually king of the African savannas, but jungle does sound more fierce—and is feared by all. The lion isn't gutty—it guts its prey. And that symbolic image, whether intended or not by Mora, should resonate with the rest of the Pac-12.

UCLA isn't satisfied with just winning the Pac-12 South two years in a row. UCLA isn't the Gutty Little Bruins anymore. UCLA is on the prowl for bigger prey and playing in the Rose Bowl on January 1, not just six Saturdays in the fall.

UCLA calls the Rose Bowl stadium its home turf but it hasn't played there on New Year's Day since 1999 (a loss to Wisconsin) nor has it successfully protected it since 1986 (a win over Iowa).  

With spring practice fast approaching, Bruin fans aren't just going through the motions of getting pumped up for college football—they're legitimately excited in part due to the school showing signs of strong support for the football program. 

Mora reportedly has a five-year, $12 million contract that was just extended for another year last January—that's $2.4 million per year. Neuheisel, for what it's worth, had a five-year, $1.2 million per year contract with additional incentive bonuses. In one year, UCLA doubled its salary for its football head coach. Granted, it's not in line with the top college football coaches' salaries but Mora's resume hasn't demanded that kind of bank. Yet. 

But UCLA is still showing signs of major support of its football program and the Howland dismissal may be an innocuous sign of that. Howland, despite three Final Four appearances and seven NCAA tournament trips, was let go by UCLA. 

The reasoning, according to UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, was not just Howland's record. More from the Pac-12 Network's Bryan Fisher:

There are a number of factors whether or not people come to games or not. I would not lay all of that on Ben’s shoulders by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously we need to generate as much fan support as we can to get people in the seats.

We want to bring somebody here that will excite the fan base.

Butts in seats. That's the key for a happy AD.

UCLA's football team plays in the nation's tenth largest stadium—it has a 91,500 seating capacity. That's over a half-million butts in seats if UCLA sells out the Rose Bowl in one season.

Pauley Pavilion holds 13,800 fans and if UCLA had sold out all of its home basketball games, that's a little under 250,000 butts in seats. While UCLA always appeared to be focused on basketball in the past, maybe it finally crunched the numbers and realized that the big money is in college football. 

Howland was making more money than Neuheisel, according to the numbers in this LA Times report, so if nothing else, we can surmise that basketball was a higher priority at UCLA. But Mora's contract is bigger than Howland's. 

Mora certainly knows the expectations are high at UCLA but now the athletic department's writing is on the wall—we're paying you more than Howland and despite his successes, we still fired him. We want butts in seats and we want excited fans.

Mora has the fans excited. We'll see about butts in seats later on this year. 

But football appears to be UCLA's No. 1 priority.

As it should be. 


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