UCLA hiring Ben Howland today as its new head basketball coach is possibly the biggest development in UCLA basketball in over 20 years.
UCLA has never in the last two decades hired a coach this proven and this reputable.
The UCLA community, as well as many of the sports writers and columnists, aren't completely comprehending the scope of this move by new athletic director Dan Guerrero.
"It certainly is a dawning of a new era," Fox Sports' Frank Burlison commented about the hiring of Howland. "Since Larry Brown, this is the most respected guy nationally that they've hired. UCLA really hasn't made a hire like this, ever."
Another prominent sports writer, who didn't want to be identified, said, ""Since the day Wooden retired, this is the most important event in UCLA basketball history."
Many potential critics have been commenting that Howland wasn't the big name that they think UCLA deserves. For anyone with any grasp of college basketball, Howland is a big name. Is he mentioned in the same breath with Rick Pitino or Roy Williams? No. But he is easily considered one of the best younger coaches in the business, if not the best, and one of the hottest, if not the hottest. After winning the honor of National Coach of the Year a season ago, Howland's name is certainly on the verge of becoming "big."
Some critics will say they think UCLA should have gotten Rick Pitino or Roy Williams, and that Guerrero didn't do his due dilligence before signing Howland. The reality is that UCLA pursued Pitino and Williams. They made overtures to both coaches through intermediaries. But neither were clearly available. Pitino is now settled in Louisville. He told many close to him that, if not for timing, he would have taken the UCLA job. Williams had not told UCLA he wasn't interested, but he hadn't made strong indications that he was. If he had, perhaps, lost to Arizona in that Sweet 16 game a week ago, and Williams would have been available to discuss the job, the coaching search might have had a different outcome. But realistically, sources very close to the situation were highly doubtful that Williams would have come to UCLA regardless. It's even more doubtful now that the North Carolina job, the one he's been slated to take for many years, is open. Two years ago, he turned down the UNC job, choosing to remain at Kansas, and he said the most difficult thing he's ever done was disappoint his friends at North Carolina. How much would he have disappointed his North Carolina people this time around if he had chosen UCLA over North Carolina?
Dan Guerrero did his due dilligence. He put in enough effort investigating the chances of getting a Pitino or a Williams, or even Stanford's Mike Montgomery, whose contract with Stanford made it difficult for him to make a move. But when it was realized that none of the "big names" were truly available, or were extreme longshots, Guerrero made the smart move and found a blossoming big name in Howland. And it's a difficult call to say that, in the long term, a Pitino or a Williams would be better at UCLA than Howland. Howland, a SoCal boy, has a much better chance of staying at UCLA than either Pitino or Williams. Howland's coaching stature is respected enough within the college basketball community compared to the "big names" that what you might lose in immediate name recognition wasn't worth potentially striking out with Pitino or Williams if UCLA pursued either further.
Howland then is the best available coach for the UCLA job -- period.
And if you want to talk about "buzz," only those not involved in the college basketball world – like newspaper columnists -- don't realize the significant buzz Howland will bring to UCLA. Burlison said, "The impact on recruiting will be immediate. It will be like nothing the UCLA community has seen. No UCLA coach in the past brings as much of a reputation to the job. Howland not only has west coast ties and connections, but now has been in the Big East for four years, recruiting players up and down the eastern seaboard, and has had success doing it. Plus, with Pitt on TV so much nationally, it has given him great exposure. It hasn't been just an east coast phenomenon in terms of exposure either. Everyone across the country, and everyone in college basketball, everyone who really matters, now knows who he is and that he's a good coach."
Many will bring up Rick Majerus or Larry Brown as coaches UCLA should have pursued, and both are outstanding coaches. But, for various reasons, they are nowhere close to Howland in terms of desirability for the UCLA job. It's not close. Many fans love Brown or Majerus, based on their reputations as coaches, and those reputations are deserved. But people who understand UCLA, and work in college basketball, will tell you that neither one of them was even close to the right guy for this job.
Who else? Mark Few? He's a good coach. As we've reported on this site many times, he would have done a good job at UCLA. But he's nowhere close to Howland when it comes to being qualified for the UCLA job. Few works in a very unique environment, in a mid-major conference, and he's been doing it for four years. He inherited a program that was coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Howland's building of two programs, Northern Arizona and then Pittsburgh, one of them in a major conference, easily trumps Few's resume. Not to mention that, in terms of personality and emotional makeup, Howland is far better suited to handling the pressures of the UCLA job.
Tom Crean looks like a very good coach. He's in his fourth year and he's eight years younger than Howland (and two years younger than Lavin). Why would anyone argue that he's better than Howland? On what basis? Because he's taken this year's Marquette team to the Final Four? The argument could easily be made that he's benefitting from the talent of the best player in the country, Dwayne Wade. When Crean sustains the turnaround at Marquette for a couple more years, or goes somewhere else and turns around another program, then he'll be approaching Howland's resume. Howland doesn't have any real stars at Pittsburgh. Burlison said, "In terms of NBA prospects, Pitt doesn't have the talent compared to other teams in the east. But Howland has won 57 games in two years and gone to two Sweet 16s, without a lot less talent than UCLA had going to those Sweet 16s."
Another potential option many might cite is Lon Kruger, who has done some impressive things as a coach. But not enough to make him a better candidate than Howland. Howland has worked in a UC school -- for eleven years. While many casual observers might not get it, that really means something. When you're looking at hiring a guy for UCLA, that's a factor. West Coast ties mean something. Not everything, but enough to give him the edge over someone like Kruger.
Burlison went on about why Howland is such a good "fit" for UCLA. "He's going to give UCLA a program in which hard work, fundamentals, preparation and team work will be every bit as important as the rankings of the players they recruit. The players in the program now are going to be in for somewhat of a culture shock, but ultimately they'll realize what the new order will bring them and will appreciate it."
And Burlison said that you shouldn't assume that Howland will play a slow-down, half-court game because he did it in Pittsburgh. "Many people might assume that. Remember, when he was at Northern Arizona, his teams led the nation in three-point shooting. Someone like Jason Kapono would have flourished under Howland. He played that type of style in Pittsburgh because it suited his personnel. He'll play the style of offense based on the personnel he has at UCLA."
One of the smartest, most savvy guys in basketball that this site is acquainted with -- a guy who routinely recommends coaches for jobs across the country -- said, "I'm shocked by some of the responses from naive sports writers. Don't they understand that UCLA just got the best possible guy for this job?"
It might take a couple of years, and maybe a few newspaper columnists will be dragged kicking and screaming into that realization, but the hiring of Ben Howland gives UCLA basketball the best chance at success it's had in over two decades.
It's been a long time for the UCLA community and Bruin basketball fans. But the wait will be worth it. In fact, many very knowledgeable people in college basketball believe that hiring Howland could bring a type of success that UCLA fans can't even begin to imagine since their reference point has been the last 20 years of under-achievement. One out-of-state college coach who has raided top California talent in recruiting for many years said, when he realized a good coach would be hired at UCLA, "It's really over, isn't it?"
Yes, it could be that the many years of under-achievement of UCLA basketball are over. And it quite possibly is the dawning of a new era...