Ben Howland Fired: Why UCLA's Decision Was Rash and Unwarranted

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Ben Howland Fired: Why UCLA's Decision Was Rash and Unwarranted
Harry How/Getty Images

With the sting of a disappointing early exit from the NCAA Tournament fresh on their skin, UCLA has decided to part ways with head coach Ben Howland, ending his 10-season tenure in Westwood.

The firing comes days after the Bruins were ousted in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64 by Minnesota, a vastly disappointing finish to a season that was expected to end with a deep run in the tournament and subsequent resurrection of an underachieving program.

To many—including groaning fans, who have made excessive calls for Howland’s exile amid the many disappointments of UCLA’s up-and-down season—it seems a deserved and logical course of action.

Expectations weren’t met, make changes. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

Wrong.

The Bruins’ No. 2 recruiting class in the nation, which Howland assembled, gave way to a bellowing roar in Westwood that the program could expect its first national championship in 18 years.

That roar quickly developed into a collective moan when UCLA experienced its first set of hardships in the very beginning of the 2012-13 season.

An embarrassing loss to mid-major Cal Poly, UCLA’s first in newly-renovated Pauley Pavilion, coupled with the transfers of juniors Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb, and those collective moans found a very specific target.

Coach Ben Howland.

It seemed a logical train of thought. UCLA was underperforming, blame the coach. Not just blame the coach, fire the coach. And why wait until the end of the season? Fire him now, fans pressured.

Of course, it wasn’t that reactive, even though Bruins fans unflatteringly groaned like children who wanted to eat their dessert before dinner.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Coach Howland shakes hands with the late John Wooden.

UCLA, often considered the best basketball program in NCAA history thanks to John Wooden’s 10 national championships, had been underachieving for the past five seasons since last making the Final Four in 2008.

The program had been plagued by unmet expectations similar to those that it had experienced in the initial stages of the 2012-13 season. The combination of transfers and early departures to the NBA left the Bruins with nothing to show for. Two seasons after UCLA’s Final Four run, the team finished fifth in the Pac-10 with an 8-10 record.

So, those disgruntled, and often aggressive, groans didn’t come from outer space. They had been increasing decibel by decibel with every mishap that had come along the way.

Therefore, when those groans, which were occasionally shouted by forthright fans in Pauley Pavilion, began to target Howland when UCLA was yet again under performing in the beginning of the season, they weren’t completely unwarranted.

If the trends of the past were an indication of what was to come, it was understandable why the Bruin faithful began targeting Howland.

Never mind that UCLA’s three starting freshman had only played their first stretch of college games. Never mind that the team’s, and nation’s, top recruit Shabazz Muhammad had been sidelined due to an NCAA investigation and was also recovering from injury and out of shape.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

It had been a while since Westwood had something sweet to savor, and it was getting grumpy.

Nevertheless, despite prolonging gratification, Coach Howland and UCLA won the Pac-12 regular season title, twice defeating top-ranked Arizona in the process.

Of course, because the Bruins were throwing five players—including redshirt senior transfer point guard Larry Drew II—who had never played together on the court for the first time, it wasn’t pretty at times.

Regardless of the manner in which it was executed, the Bruins managed to win their first regular-season conference title since 2008. However, there was no time to celebrate the feat. UCLA had a deep postseason run to look forward to.

Although the moans had subsided and been replaced by cheers, Coach Howland was still walking the tight rope heading into the postseason.  

In order for him to preserve his tenure at UCLA, the team would have to win its first national championship since 1995 or at least have something sweet, like a run to the Sweet 16 and beyond, to savor in the offseason.

The Bruins garnered the momentum to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament a reality.

After overcoming a 15-point deficit to beat Arizona State in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, UCLA beat Arizona for the third time on the season in thrilling fashion and was trending towards a conference tournament championship.

All that success to that point proved to be a mere sugar coating, though.

On the last play of UCLA’s victory over Arizona, the Bruins’ best all-around player, freshman guard Jordan Adams, broke a bone in his foot and would be out the rest of the season.

The Bruins were doomed.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
UCLA suffered a huge blow when Jordan Adams was injured in the Pac-12 Tournament Semifinals.

They lost the Pac-12 Tournament Championship to Oregon and were consequently given an unflattering No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and were pitted against a strong, underachieving Minnesota team from the nation’s best conference this season, the Big Ten.

Although Adams’ replacement, sophomore Norman Powell, was a reasonable substitute, he didn’t bring the energy that Adams had brought to the floor every game.

UCLA never stood a chance in that game; they were wiped out by 20, and thus the season ended with a murmur.

Predictably so, calls for Coach Howland’s job began to boom once again, this time with a deafening roar.

Never mind that UCLA’s best all-around player had been sidelined for the end of the season. Never mind that the Bruins would have prevailed in the postseason had Adams been healthy. Bruins fans had tasted something sweet and wanted more of it—now.

Two days after the Bruins took a beating in their first game in the NCAA Tournament, the collective groans of fans melded into action—significant action.

Coach Howland was fired.

After 10 seasons at UCLA, including three back-to-back Final Four runs, the Bruins’ athletic department has parted ways with the coach who had the best record (233-105) since John Wooden.

Coach Howland's departing press conference.

The decision was well foreshadowed, but it is nevertheless abrupt.

Yes, UCLA deserves to have high standards as one the nation’s premier basketball programs, but does that give it the leverage to fire a coach after winning the conference for not succeeding in the postseason due to something that was entirely out of his control?

If Jordan Adams doesn’t break his fifth metatarsal, UCLA wouldn’t have cut ties with Coach Howland because the Bruins would have put on a better display in the postseason.

Some might suggest that it’s more than just that, but there’s no doubt that UCLA would have kept Coach Howland at the helm if it would have made it to the Sweet 16. Some might suggest that his firing was a long time coming, but it was a rash decision that was made out of embarrassment and pressure from fans.

Before Coach Howland had thrived in the 2006 to 2008 seasons, it took some time for him to get the program on its feet after Steve Lavin’s disappointing last season gave the Bruins their first losing season in conference play since before John Wooden’s tenure.

As he assembled the pieces in place, Coach Howland created anticipation of the greatness to come. He led UCLA back to the NCAA Tournament in his second season with a young group of players that included freshmen Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Josh Shipp and Lorenzo Mata.

That year the Bruins went out in the Round of 64. Is this starting to sound a bit more familiar?

The next season, Coach Howland led the Bruins to the NCAA Championship for the first time in 11 years.

Do you think Coach Howland deserved to be fired after this season?

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While there is no telling how this team will perform next season, it takes more than a few months to transform good high school players into college basketball players. Given another year, Howland may have been able to make an all-important deep run in the NCAA Tournament with Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and perhaps Tony Parker, if he can get his act together.

If greatness is what UCLA is after, if having a coach that can create a legacy like John Wooden, then why terminate the most-winning coach since Wooden’s reign?

Why oust the man who brought the program back on its feet without giving him an ample opportunity for redemption?

When asked what his favorite memory of coaching at UCLA was, Coach Howland mentioned his team’s miraculous comeback against Gonzaga in its 2006 run to the NCAA Finals. However, he added that, although his memories are sweet, it’s losses that prevail in his mind, not wins.

“As a coach you always remember the losses way better than you do the wins,” he said in his departing press conference.

He clearly wasn’t the only one to feel that way.

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