Howland Analysis: Part 2

In the second part of our post-firing analysis, we look at how Ben Howland's interpersonal skills and personnel decisions made him a poor General Manager...

Howland Analysis: Part 1 -- We look at the fundamental shift Ben Howland took in his approach to the game...
As we've said numerous times, the demise of a good coach like Ben Howland at UCLA isn't attributable to just one reason, but there are many contributing factors. It's not black-and-white, cut-and-dry either, but nuanced and complicated.

Howland, from what we know, is an honorable guy, who has always tried to do the honorable thing in the last 10 years as UCLA's head coach. This was evident in the class and dignity he displayed at his press conference Monday.

But he was a victim to some of the difficult sides of his personality in managing the UCLA program.

In Part 1, we talked about the fundamental shift in Howland's approach to the game and coaching that was perhaps the major factor in the last five mediocre seasons. We can safely say that, if his teams had performed better in the last five years, most of the UCLA community would have looked past some of the other management and interpersonal issues that plagued Howland's program. But you combine under-performing on the court with management issues off-the-court and that's a pretty clear recipe for a coach's demise.

Howland is a good coach. He's an excellent defensive coach, perhaps one of the best in the country. If Howland could be left to coaching fundamentals and that was his job he'd be excellent at it.

But a head coaching job demands so much more. And the UCLA job, which is one among a handful of the most storied programs in the country, can be even more demanding outside of the court.

You can break down Howland's failure off the court to essentially a couple of things – personnel and his interpersonal ability. Essentially Howland wasn't a good General Manager.

It starts with recruiting. He wasn't a good recruiter overall in the time at UCLA, if you take his recruiting body of work as a whole. He wasn't a god evaluator of recruits, or of his own players.

And then he just didn't manage people very well.

We've gone over the recruiting mis-steps on BRO over the last five years repeatedly. It was due mostly to a mis-calculation on the type of player he should be recruiting for his program, and a mis-calculation in his potential to get certain recruits. Howland, as we've said, departed from his successful formula of recruiting athletes who could defend in an effort to improve his program's offensive capability. He didn't do it intentionally, that's just the way it turned out. Related to that, the number of top-tier recruits he missed on no elite program could survive. He didn't bring in a high school point guard over the span of five years. Out of desperation he had to resort to JC players and transfers. Pretty much he was slapping it together in the last few years, and prolonged his stay at UCLA by getting extremely lucky with the 2012 class with Shabazz Muhammad, the #2-ranked recruit in the country, who just happened to be from the west coast with some very influential forces that wanted him in Los Angeles. While others might argue with you about it, Muhammad was the pied piper of the 2012 class. Without him, UCLA doesn't get Kyle Anderson or Tony Parker (even though Muhammad committed to UCLA after them). Other than the 2012 class (and even in that class he couldn't bring in a true point guard), Howland recruited very poorly over the course of his last five seasons.

This was fundamentally due to poor evaluations in recruiting. First, Howland had shifted away from prioritizing athletes who could defend. The mandatory trait for a UCLA recruit became shooting. That sent him down the rabbit hole of mis-evaluations initially. Howland, too, because he wanted a higher level of recruit (one who was ideally a good athlete who could really shoot and score), starting looking for more finished products out on the recruiting trail. The problem is, if you're a finished product or close to being one as a high school player you are among the top 20 players in the country and you have some issues, including baggage, entourages and agendas – and many times your hand out. Howland, even with three Final Fours under his belt, couldn't for the most part navigate that world successfully enough on the level of John Calipari at Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, or Roy Williams of North Carolina. What Howland needed to do – as all good college coaches need to be able to do – is evaluate well. Instead of targeting more finished-type products, if Howland had been able to evaluate better – and project better – he would have been able to bring in players who were better for the UCLA program than those close-to-finished one-and-done products. He missed on players like Spencer Dinwiddie, whose lifelong goal was to go to UCLA; Howland didn't offer him because he was on the skinny side and wasn't a good shooter, so he opted for Colorado, and is now one of the conference's best players. Even though in today's college basketball era recruiting has become so much about the art of the recruitment – schmoozing, dealing with hangers-on, and making the elite high-major recruit want to come to your program – the coach that still realizes that recruiting is about good evaluation and projection is the one, at any level, who will be consistently successful in recruiting. Howland, to be blunt, isn't a good evaluator. He's too performance-based. He wasn't good at projecting; he wanted to see more of a finished product – in AAU ball, of all places. There is a long laundry list of recruits that Howland overlooked and just plain snubbed because he couldn't evaluate and project – players that were, at the very least, good athletes who could defend. We're confident that, in the last five years, if Howland had merely recruited the west coast well, evaluated and projected west coast products effectively, he would have had a roster-full of personnel that would probably still be alive in the NCAA Tournament right now, would probably have gone further than only two second rounds in the other previous four years, and Howland would safely be ensconced in his office in Westwood as we speak.

As we've said, despite the off-the-court issues, if you're successful on the court you're almost completely assured of keeping your job. Howland stopped being successful on the court mostly because of poor recruiting and poor evaluation.

It wasn't just about missing on some players either. It was about taking the wrong players. Howland's program was blown up by guys like Reeves Nelson, Drew Gordon and J'Mison Morgan, all recruits who had very well-known red flags as recruits. It wasn't just about mis-evaluating them as players, but it was a strange and probably arrogant mindset that, no matter the head case, Howland believed he'd be able to coach them successfully.

This type of recruiting is bound to destroy any program. Plain and simple.

Then, once Howland actually recruited successfully, he wasn't very good at evaluating his own players. There were a number of times that he just plainly couldn't see how to use his own players to optimize their talents. Russell Westbrook, who is now probably one of the top 10 players in the world, was vastly under-utilized at UCLA, mostly because he wasn't a finished product, and Howland struggled to play raw players who need experience and seasoning to develop. Dinwiddie is actually very lucky he didn't come to UCLA, because Howland more than likely wouldn't have even played him that much in his first two years. At Colorado, under Tad Boyle, Dinwiddie has been allowed to make mistakes, play through them and grow from that. That wasn't how it was at UCLA under Howland. Even Westbrook was on a very short leash and given quick hooks. Howland, too, mis-evaluated players like Mike Moser, forcing him into being a wing player when he was far better suited as an under-sized four man, as he's proven after transferring to UNLV. At UCLA Moser, too, had such a quick hook, playing out of position, that he looked almost scared to do anything on the court when he did get playing time.

So, there was poor evaluating, in recruiting and of his own players.

Then, there was the aspect of being a General Manager that demands managing people. Howland's interpersonal skills were never great. Howland is awkward with people, generally. He isn't natural at it. It's why it's easier for him to make it all-business when it comes to basketball and a particular season – to take the human element out of it. It's what has put off many of his players – that he doesn't seem to compensate for the human side of the game. In person, like in recruiting, he doesn't have great interpersonal skills. He just doesn't have a side of him that comes off warm and fuzzy, and many times it's awkward when he tries to do it.

There's also a side of Howland that is a bit OCD. He has a great attention to detail, and he demands it from those around him. Having his water bottle in the same exact place on the scorer's table for every game is an example. There's one story from an ex-player how on one road trip they were in a hotel, and the team and the coaches were eating at a buffet. A sign on the buffet table said, "Bread Rolls," but there were no rolls, just bread. Howland demanded from the service staff that they bring out rolls because the sign indicated they had them, and he stood at the buffet and waited until they did. While this trait can be good in many ways when you're a coach – it definitely demands perfection – it can also be debilitating to a player if it's excessive and without conscience.

As we've said many times, many players thought playing for Howland was a grind. While many college players sometimes don't completely enjoy their playing experience because the coach is too demanding, this was on the extreme side of the spectrum. There was never abuse, as some have assumed. Howland is misunderstood in that way. People see his gruffness, and his overall serious demeanor, and then when they hear players sometimes don't like to play for him, they assume it's because the coach must be abusive. From what I know, that's an inaccurate assumption. Also, to fill out the picture of Howland the man, he can be a kind-hearted person and truly care for his players and his ex-players. But when it's time for basketball, it's all-business, and it can be so intense and non-forgiving that players just don't want to be there. Some players have told me that how intense Howland is in teaching them basketball they thought he hated them. But then, outside of basketball and the season, he'd talk to them about their family, in a very genuine manner, and they'd be stunned.

It has to be said that it's probably not coincidental that the UCLA program under Howland started to spiral a bit when assistant Kerry Keating took the head coaching job at Santa Clara. Keating, in many ways, filled in many of Howland's weaknesses. Keating was a very good evaluator in recruiting. He did also have the interpersonal skills to keep players from jumping off the cliff. He was the glue within the program, in many ways. He also had a strong enough personality to stand up to Howland, particularly in recruiting. Sometimes he just merely operated behind Howland's back, which he had to do – like in continuing to recruit Westbrook through spring. Howland had a Keating-like presence on his Pittsburgh staff in Jamie Dixon, who also filled in his weaknesses. But post-Keating at UCLA, there hasn't been anyone to fulfill that role.

The environment in the program, because of all of this, was never a positive one. Even when UCLA was winning and going to Final Fours there was some dissension. Other things contributed to that, too, like a perception from some players that Howland played favorites. There were definitely some players who seemingly had shorter hooks for no apparent reason.

And then there were the Wear brothers. Travis Wear and David Wear are two very good kids, who work hard and are exemplary student-athletes. After Howland had had to deal with Drew Gordon, J'Mison Morgan and Reeves Nelson, the Wears were a complete breath of fresh air. It's not difficult to understand how any coach could favor them, especially comparatively to the problem children. There was, however, definitely some resentment on the team because of how clearly Howland favored the Wears and gave them perhaps more playing time than they deserve.

There was an issue with accountability. Although Howland could be tough on his players, there was a lack of accountability in the program. That's another assumption about him that, in our opinion, is incorrect. Just because he's tough to play for and gruff doesn't make him a tough disciplinarian who demands accountability. Howland, all in all, has run a fairly lax program, especially in monitoring and mentoring his players away from the court. It's tough to comprehend, especially when Howland's rep is as a tough guy, but he's also fairly lenient in dealing with players away from basketball. Many players in his program have gotten into trouble with pot and partying, because they simply could. If there is one aspect of the UCLA basketball program that is probably it's most challenging (it's definitely not the assumed high expectation of the fan base), it would be the environment of L.A., with the potential for players to run a-ground with bad influences (exposure to agents being one of them). In this aspect, UCLA might not be the best place for Howland, a coach who expects his players to be responsible, mostly, on their own, and doesn't want to take too much time working with them on an interpersonal basis and keeping them out of trouble. Here's a hypothetical: If a player isn't recognized by Howland as one who can immediately contribute, Howland can be pretty unforgiving with him. That player, then, being just a kid who is used to being fawned over as a star, can easily find other things in Los Angeles to distract him. Of course, any player in any program across the country can do this, but many very dangerous distractions just aren't as immediately available at other schools as they are at UCLA. It's something the UCLA coach needs to be fully aware of, and compensate for, more than at other programs. It's all inter-woven, too, how a more players'-type coach might actually be able to institute more accountability, because the players want to please a father-like figure more, rather than a player reacting in an opposite, extreme manner to rebel against a coach he can't relate to. But no matter how the UCLA coach does it, the program needs a higher degree of monitoring and accountability than other programs.

You can see how, then, Howland couldn't keep a stocked roster in the program. He recruited problem children, who were bound to flame out without much mentoring. Playing for Howland was a grind, so a few players, like Jrue Holiday, Tyler Honeycutt and Malcolm Lee, left to go pro before they should have. Other players who weren't evaluated or managed well, like Moser, Chace Stanback, Brendan Lane, Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb, transferred out. While, yes, many players who did transfer out contributed to the problem, but as we laid out above there was an environment in the program with many forces that didn't help in managing and mentoring players and retaining them in the program. Never having enough players on the roster, particularly this season, directly contributed to Howland being fired.

The future, too, wasn't bright. Howland had burned a few bridges in west coast recruiting circles, and the word was out about what it was like playing for him at UCLA. Greg Hicks gets into it in this article.

So, there simply wasn't any place for the UCLA program to go under Howland. It was pretty much dead in the water and, despite what the uninformed national media expound, UCLA was completely valid in recognizing it needed to fire Howland and start in a new direction with a new coach.

A few comments Howland made in his farewell press conference were very noteworthy, and very telling about the man. He acknowledged that he had learned some things, and needed to keep learning to become a better coach. We had actually seen it this season, when he changed his offensive approach and instituted more of a running style. We had actually seen it in Howland's approach to managing his program, perhaps with a little more humility and humanity. It might not have been effective enough, and could still be a bit awkward, but Howland at least clearly recognized his short-comings toward the end and knew he needed to do something about them.

It was just too late. The environment and situation at UCLA was irreparable. It's a bit tragic, too, because, really, what we'll look back on from the Howland era at UCLA was that he had the formula for success in his hands, and let it slip away.


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