They hang like road-side warning signs. Flapping above Nell & John Wooden Court, they warn all who would join the men’s basketball program of the unyielding standards by which members are judged. Fans who never saw a championship use them as shields to justify empty seats and golf-like game atmospheres, and everyone associated with the program uses them to explain why UCLA is different and better than everyone else when it comes to hoops.
No, UCLA’s eleven national championship banners aren’t the problem.
But they sure do symbolize it.
It all seemed so easy when John Wooden stalked the sidelines with smiles, a rolled up program and the nation’s best players in his back pocket. Fluid, consistent and seamless, Wooden’s teams defined success for an entire era of college basketball and left everyone wondering how he made it look so easy. And the wins and national championship banners?
Well, they stacked up like mail on vacation.
But a funny thing happened when Wooden stopped cutting down nets. College basketball changed. In the 38 years since Wooden hung up his kicks, college basketball went from shining beacon of amateurism to big business and NBA training ground.
Players bolting from top programs became commonplace, and four-year athletes at so-called mid-majors drove once irrelevant programs to new heights. Parity ensued, led to more change, and it became a lot harder to stack up titles.
The change impacted programs differently, and some struggled. The University of San Francisco Dons never regained the form they parlayed into two national titles, and other schools who used to compete literally vanished into thin air (where have you gone Idaho State?). And while UCLA’s struggles were never that dramatic, it faced unique challenges which it still hasn’t solved.
UCLA’s primary problem is its inability to accept and recognize its shifting stature on the landscape. Once the undisputed ruler of college basketball, UCLA has slid to a top-flight, but slightly lesser program, and the slide is equal parts ignored and anathema to UCLA supporters.
Managing Wooden’s legacy and the incumbent expectations has become a full-time job for UCLA decision-makers. Make no mistake, UCLA has had some success since Wooden’s departure, including a stirring performance in 1995 that netted the Bruins their eleventh title. But as the UCLA jersey’s intimidating quality diminishes over time, UCLA finds itself in the midst of an identity crisis.
Continue with Wooden as the centerpiece of the men’s basketball program, or move past the legendary coach to something fresh and new?
On the one hand, Wooden is a tremendous source of pride at UCLA. What he accomplished on and off the court stands as a remarkable achievement, and his sayings and principles guide millions of people in their daily lives. Wooden is the greatest coach of all time, and it’s not even close.
On the other hand, Wooden’s formidable legacy lingers over Westwood like a San Francisco fog. It precludes relevant growth and change in a 21st century college athletic program that, like anything, must adapt or die.
Around UCLA, fans and t-shirts ask, “What Would Wooden Do?” as if it were a relevant question in building a modern day basketball power, and the historical success has forced generations of UCLA basketball coaches and players to downplay most achievement to avoid the ultimate UCLA sin—celebrating less than a national championship.
Silly phrases like, “We don’t hang Final Four banners,” seem pithy and poignant after tough Final Four losses, but given UCLA’s inability to maintain its own standards, it’s surprising that no one is asking whether this forced stoicism might be the reason players, fans and coaches don’t seem to be “having fun.”
Fans and bloggers cited the lack of joy in the program as good reason to fire Howland, and his hard style surely grated during the lean years. But has anyone considered the toll three Final Four losses can have on a program when player after player is forced to take sedatives to avoid seeming too excited about an accomplishment that garners parades in most other cities?
I doubt it.
Don’t get me wrong, UCLA has every right to demand the highest of standards. But whether UCLA’s Wooden-centric model is the right path to achieve them—well, that’s an open question.
While they might not recognize it, UCLA fans and administrators feel Wooden’s influence on a daily basis as it silently controls official UCLA acts like a Jedi warrior over weaker-minded beings. Exerting constant pressure, Wooden’s legacy acts like a drug. It feels so good to use, but it’s addictive power and side effects take a silent toll.
Yes, John Wooden was the greatest coach in the history of basketball. But his legacy might just be the noose around the neck of modern-day UCLA basketball.
When UCLA began the national search for Ben Howland’s successor, fans and alumni clamored for the hot young coach with the style and substance to restore UCLA to something resembling the national elite. Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart were among the early favorites, and like any UCLA targets, they were compared to John Wooden to see how they stacked up on and off the court.
Smart played a fast-pace brand of basketball that Wooden would adore, while the boyish Stevens hailed from a small Indiana town like the coach who hung all the banners. Check and check.
But now UCLA has announced that dark-horse Steve Alford is the guy, and we'll find out soon whether he has the fortitude, arrogance and ego to blast past Wooden’s tradition and unequivocally make UCLA his own. Because whatever you may think about UCLA, it’s clear that it won’t succeed with anyone trying to emulate Wooden. And while genuflecting to the legendary coach certainly earned Ben Howland kudos from the boosters, that kind of thinking will also spell continued disaster.
UCLA didn't need a coach who would spend the first five minutes of his interview praising Wooden, they needed one who wouldn't have even mentioned him. And so with Steve Alford now squarely in the limelight, UCLA better hope he'll consider praising a dunk, hanging a Final Four banner in Pauley Pavilion, or telling UCLA fans that Wooden’s coaching style wouldn’t necessarily work in modern day college basketball.
It might sound sacrilegious to ask Alford to be a Wooden challenger, but that kind of evolution is precisely what UCLA needs to meets its own goals. For 38 years since Wooden’s departure, UCLA sought a coach that kept eluding it despite what everyone around the program believed were obvious advantages.
With that in mind, now is the time for UCLA and Steve Alford to reexamine the school's entire basketball foundation and push for meaningful growth and change.
Alford can't be afraid to transcend Wooden, and he's got to have the guts to say that to UCLA’s face.
Alford must respect Wooden without treating him like a god, and he has to flash the strength and confidence to battle UCLA lore to make the program his own. Where appropriate, he should step back from Wooden’s legacy with a grace that even Wooden would appreciate.
Alford needs to be humble enough to recognize that UCLA is no longer the picture of perfection, and strong and passionate enough to deliver that message to UCLA and its fans with an endnote about how he plans to make the program better for the future.
Whether Alford is that guy, I don’t know. But if UCLA wants to be successful, he will have to be.
Bob Firpo is an attorney and freelance sports and outdoors writer. He lives in Boise, Idaho. Follow him @knockingitout