There were those who wanted Ben Howland to stay, and there were those who yipped like coyotes at the moon that he had to go. There was a last group occupying the middle who believed Coach Howland had what it took, but knew without doubt why he might be fired.
Howland had lost his touch—either in the short term or forever, we'll never know—with Southern California. If there was one thing above all others the head coach at UCLA could not do (after not winning) it would be that.
George Dohrmann at Sports Illustrated wrote a concise exposition of the basic conflict. An always unstated number of AAU coaches—the self-appointed Cardinal Richelieu's guiding the destinies of basketball's young princes—turned against Coach Howland. That meant the pipelines carrying the players to Westwood were shut off.
These coaches and advisors turned on Howland because he ran a system that did not showcase their players, and because in certain instances he had betrayed their trust. The story Dohrmann tells of the forsaking of Kendall Williams, an excellent young player who bled blue-and-gold before having his scholarship pulled at the last minute by Howland, is painful to read.
There were other Los Angeles kids who left. Spencer Dinwiddie, from Taft High School in Woodland Hills, and Allen Crabbe, from Los Angeles Price High, never really got a look from UCLA. Dinwiddie was Pac-12 All Conference last year and led the rival Colorado in scoring. Crabbe, who played at Berkeley (a bigger rival) was the Pac-12 Player of the Year.
The most startling quote in Dohrmann's piece comes from a coach who did not have the mettle to attach his name. It is an astonishing revelation nonetheless.
"A lot of coaches on the West Coast will be sad to see Ben go," said the unnamed coach. "He leveled the [recruiting playing field]."
Imagine that. It had gotten so bad for a coach at UCLA that other coaches in the league felt the Los Angeles area was wide open to being raided.
It was untenable, and the list of players Coach Howland recruited out of Los Angeles before the schism reveals why. Basketball people may recognize a few of the names: Lorenzo Mata, Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday. This is the core (outside of Holiday) of the UCLA teams that played in more Final Fours than it missed during their careers.
So Steve Alford will return UCLA to the soil, so to speak, harrowing again once fertile ground, planting seeds, growing relationships and reaping what always have been fertile harvests.
If Alford does succeed in carting the healthy Southland produce back to the Westwood market, then UCLA will become reconnected to its ancestral roots, and playing again with a product that is—at its worst—on par with the finest America has to offer.