We've probably gotten closer to Howland than any other UCLA coach, and have learned so much about the man and the coach.
For those of you that want to pigeon-hole Howland into either being any type of villain or hero then you won't be satisfied with any insights we have. We can say this generally, though: Ben Howland is a good man and a good basketball coach that took a few mis-steps in his quest to win at an even higher level. It could happen to any of us. It involved some arrogance, definitely some hubris, and some weaknesses in his role as a general manager, recruiter and talent evaluator and, perhaps, most critical, a lack of effective interpersonal skills, lack of self-awareness and some bit of OCD.
It's astounding, though, to contemplate that UCLA actually had to fire Howland (and that's exactly what happened – UCLA had to fire him). If you look back on it, would anyone have thought back in April 2008, after Howland had led UCLA to three Final Fours that, just five years later, UCLA would justifiably be firing him?
How Howland's program ran off the rails since April of 2008 is very complicated, detailed and nuanced, and we're probably not going to be able to give you the entire picture in one piece (perhaps a book is the right thing to do?). But we'll try to draw you an accurate, balanced picture. As we said, there were a number of things that contributed to Howland's demise at UCLA. There were off-the-court issues, too, with his program, and not just those that were touched on in the Sports Illustrated article. He clearly pissed off some people at UCLA, too, who, when things got dicey for him, didn't come to his support. Players often found the experience of playing for him miserable. This is why, a few years into Howland's tenure at UCLA, after he had been to the first Final Four, and after we had gotten to know him and how he ran his program, we speculated that Howland's challenge wouldn't be to achieve success, but sustaining success. We almost cursed his program for saying that, because it was amazingly prophetic.
We'll get into more detail about some of the failings in the interpersonal area. But all in all, it did come down to winning. I believe if Howland had continued to win at a high level, the UCLA basketball community would have continued to overlook the personality issues. But he didn't continue to win at the same level. It seems that many national college basketball writers are just too lazy to even look at Howland's record, but in the five seasons since going to those three Final Fours, Howland has made the NCAA Tournament only three times, and was bounced all three times in the second round. It's difficult to keep your job at UCLA, much less a place like, say, Illinois, with a record like that.
So, what the heck happened to the winning ways of Howland's program? You have to concede that there were some personnel issues – problem children like Reeves Nelson, Drew Gordon and J'Mison Morgan – that contributed to the on-the-court fall. But, ultimately,Howland is responsible for them, since he's the coach that brought the problem children to UCLA. And we have first-hand knowledge that he did so after being warned enough about the potential pitfalls such problem players might bring to the program. Howland, in fact, wanted to recruit Renardo Sidney, who flamed out in college basketball at Mississippi State and would have made Reeves Nelson look like a choir boy, until UCLA ultimately told Howland that Sidney was untouchable.
So, there were mis-steps in recruiting, in this case, taking problem players.
But we still believe Howland could have overcome that even, if he had not fundamentally shifted his approach to coaching. After the Final Fours, he made a clear, conscious effort to, in his mind, upgrade his talent so he could finally win a championship and just not lose in a Final Four. He thought, and this is where the hubris comes in, that after the Final Fours he could recruit at a higher level, and not have to settle for recruits that had holes in their games, like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison or even Russell Westbrook. Yes, those were all considered recruits Howland "settled for" at the time. Great athletes that all had certain issues. Mbah a Moute, we all know, couldn't shoot. Collison was too small and thin. Westbrook didn't have a position – not a point guard and not a shooting guard. Howland had to be convinced to take these three, and others, actually. So, post-FF, Howland set his sights on the top-25 type of prospect, the ones that were high-level athletes but also high-level scorers. He proceeded to spend a great deal of time recruiting these types, and struck out with just about all of them. That would leave him scrambling in recruiting. Howland struck out with so many national point guard prospects that UCLA hasn't had a high school point guard come into the program in five years. That would leave him scrambling and settling – for a JC point guard like Lazeric Jones, or a slow combo guard like Matt Carlino, in the spring.
This diminished the talent on his roster considerably. And what it did, more specifically, is diminish the athleticism on his roster. And that got him away from being able to play the type of basketball that had defined him at UCLA and got him to those three Final Fours – a game that emphasized defense, rebounding and playing hard.
It was actually a stunning turn of events. Howland's UCLA teams stopped playing that suffocating type of defense. And guys like Josh Shipp or Nikola Dragovic – guys who literally didn't play a lick of defense and didn't even put in an effort to do so – Howland left on the court. It was inexplicable. Howland had always talked that, if you don't play defense, you wouldn't play. But he was contradicting himself in how he allocated minutes to non-defending players. Tyler Honeycutt picked up the poster-boy responsibilities of this from Shipp and Dragovic.
We came to believe that Howland thought he needed more scorers, that a lack of scoring punch is what led to his failure at the Final Fours. And that he needed to recruit more scorers, and that (and here's where the arrogance came in) he could teach anyone, even Dragovic or Honeycutt, to play good enough defense.
We started to learn that this change in coaching happened, first, because of a failed attempt to upgrade talent after the Final Fours, but also, to an extent, because Howland resented the reputation he had gained – that of a grind-it-out-coach that only beat you through defense. Howland hadn't always been that way, but had adopted that approach at Pitt, where he needed to, to match the type of talent he had at Pitt. But before that, at Northern Arizona, as Howland was always quick to remind anyone, his Lumberjacks team led the nation in three-point shooting. Howland resented the label that he wasn't a good offensive coach. One summer, he was invited to a seminar that featured many college coaches as speakers, and was attended by coaches from smaller colleges and high schools. Howland was asked to speak on defensive fundamentals, but didn't – went off program and proceeded to talk about offense. So, in many ways, Howland wasn't departing from his most accepted philosophy of defense first, but in his mind was actually returning to his roots of being an offensive coach. And he was going to do it with an elite high-major level of recruit, that he'd be able to recruit after the Final Fours. The problem is, and here's a lack of self-awareness, Howland is probably among a very small list of the best defensive coaches in college basketball, but he's an average offensive coach. And he then struck out with those elite high-major recruits.
What was amazing, and still absolutely mind-boggling, is that Howland had truly found an approach that was successful enough to take him to three Final Fours, and he essentially abandoned it. It would be like Oregon abandoning their blur offense because they haven't won a national championship with it yet. Howland had given himself an identity in college basketball, which is hard to come by. He had a calling card. The one big attraction of playing for Howland among recruits was that he would develop the defensive aspect of their game they were probably lacking and needed to be an NBA player. During the spring of 2008, when the NBA Draft workouts were televised, so many commentators were talking about how UCLA players were so much more prepared for the NBA. Howland had his identity, his niche, and it would have probably continued to work and flourish despite so many other factors that recruits perceived as reasons not to come to UCLA.
Howland, inexplicably, though, threw it away.
"Part Two: Personnel and Inter-Personal," is coming soon…