After 10 years filled with exuberance and frustration, the Ben Howland era is now over at UCLA. On the horizon now is the promise that former New Mexico coach and once Indiana Hoosiers star Steve Alford can bring to Westwood.
Although UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero tried to sell Alford as a new, refreshing brand for Bruins basketball, the new head coach and the former aren’t as starkly contrasted as they may seem.
Nevertheless, there are a few noteworthy differences between Howland and Alford that suggest that promise, or at least some form of change, will be on the horizon for UCLA’s storied basketball program.
Here are the differences between the old and the new UCLA head coach.
Coach Howland in 2002 with Pitt.
When Ben Howland came to Westwood, there was a buzz in the air about what the former Pittsburgh coach could do with UCLA.
Under Steve Lavin, the Bruins were coming off a season when they registered their first losing season, both overall and in conference play, since before John Wooden’s reign in the 1940s.
Howland, who had just led Pitt to two consecutive Big East regular-season titles and eventual Sweet 16s, was well-received as a beacon of hope for the program.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Steve Alford.
The former New Mexico coach may have led the Lobos to two straight Mountain West regular-season titles, but his team, which was highly touted as a No. 3 seed, recently crumbled in the NCAA tournament in the round of 64.
Moreover, because UCLA unsuccessfully pursued high-profile coaches Brad Stevens (Butler) and Shaka Smart (VCU), Alford is viewed by some as an inferior option.
Steve Alford has more Division I wins to his name than Ben Howland did upon assuming the head coaching job at UCLA.
In his 18 years as a D-I head coach, spanning back to his days at Southwest Missouri State and eight seasons with Iowa, Alford has registered a 307-206 record (59.8 win percentage), which trumps Howland’s 168-99 (62.9 win percentage) in nine seasons, quantitatively at least.
However, as was evidenced this past season at UCLA, college basketball programs are ultimately evaluated on how they perform in March Madness.
Coach Howland and the Bruins finished first in the Pac-12 this season with a 13-5 conference record and 25-9 overall record, but they faltered in the NCAA tournament, which played a role in Howland’s firing.
Alford once reached the Sweet 16 in a Cinderella run with Southwest Missouri State in his final season with the Bears but has otherwise failed to achieve consistent success in the big tourney.
In all of his four years at New Mexico when his team won the Mountain West title, Alford’s Lobos did not make it past the round of 32, most recently suffering an upset to No. 14 seed Harvard in the round of 64.
UCLA has had some terrific scorers under Coach Howland’s 10-season reign, but despite harvesting prolific scorers, his most recent teams lacked efficient ball movement.
Despite nationally ranking 28th in scoring and 11th in assists, thanks mainly to Bruins All-Pac-12 senior point guard Larry Drew II (7.3 assists per game), the team often lacked fluid ball movement.
Alford’s New Mexico teams, especially those of the past two seasons, have been effective passing teams. The confirmation resides in the Lobos’ assist percentage, which measures the ratio of field goals that were assisted by teammates.
In the past two seasons, Alford’s teams have registered an assist percentage over 65 percent, which ranked them in the top five in college basketball.
Even with Larry Drew II’s high assist total, UCLA registered a 58 percent assist percentage, a three-percent increase from the previous season.
Alford’s insistence on ball movement presents UCLA with an opportunity to become a fuller offensive team instead of relying on “superstar” players, as Howland did with top freshman Shabazz Muhammad this season.
Ben Howland was generally effective in wiring his players for his defense-central system, but it seemed as though he wasn’t an effective leader to his players on anything other than basketball.
Howland’s apparent inability to relate to his players, which seemed to increase over his 10 years at UCLA, was evidenced by his inability to keep players from transferring (e.g., Josh Smith, Drew Gordon) and prematurely entering the NBA (e.g., Tyler Honeycutt, Malcolm Lee).
He may have been a good basketball instructor, but Howland’s apparent detachment from his players was his ultimate downfall in Westwood.
Steve Alford is a different specimen.
A disciple of Bob Knight—an ironic choice to coach UCLA, given that legendary coach John Wooden didn’t appreciate Bob Knight’s coaching and once said he wouldn’t want anyone he loved to play for Knight—Alford understands how to keep his players properly disciplined.
If a fight between players were to occur in practice, as it allegedly did at UCLA under Howland’s tenure (per Sports Illustrated), Alford would not tolerate it and see to it that such a thing never occurred again.
In addition to his sterner demeanor, Alford also seems to be able to relate more to his players, which has a positive impact on team chemistry.
Moreover, he can relate more to his players because he has a son of the same age bracket, Bryce, who will be joining UCLA next season and may be able to serve as a buffer between Alford and the team.