But that assertion, in my opinion, is bull.
It's a myth that no matter what success UCLA basketball has or what coach is at UCLA the fans will unjustly complain. It's a myth used either by someone as an excuse to mask the real problems, or by someone who generally is clueless about what's going on in the program or at UCLA in general.
And it's an inappropriate insult of UCLA fans.
First, let's concede that UCLA has higher expectations than, say, other programs such as Washington or San Diego State. That's a fact. Those higher expectations come from many factors – just not John Wooden's legacy. It comes from the fact that UCLA is a great place to recruit – it has great weather, a great education, and is in the middle of the entertainment capital of the world. It also sits on arguably the best recruiting base in the nation. So, UCLA's advantages over much of the rest of the college basketball world are recruiting base, weather, good education, media center, glitz of Hollywood, and the great tradition of John Wooden. Wooden's legacy is one among probably five or six elements of UCLA that give it advantages over other programs. UCLA has an advantage over Arizona in every aspect except in coaching (When Lute Olson leaves Arizona, it's going to be very interesting to see if the next coach can continue the standard of success that Olson has established – I personally think maybe for a while, but unless the new coach is excellent, Arizona will probably struggle to maintain Olson's success). So, just to reiterate here: UCLA fans expect a higher degree of success because of many natural factors -- just not John Wooden's legacy. Even if you take away John Wooden's legacy, erase it from the history books and it never existed, UCLA fans would still have higher expectations than that of Washington State. Why do you think UCLA has won the most overall national championships of any college in the nation? Kids want to play their sport at UCLA.
But, in anyone's opinion, realistically, are the general expectations of UCLA basketball fans unreasonable? Well, there will always be a contingent of fans that expect UCLA to go to the Final Four every year. But that, I think, is not the majority opinion of UCLA fans. I think most UCLA basketball fans, given the advantages UCLA has, expects UCLA to, as a minimum, play consistent basketball, to finish in the top echelon of the Pac-10 every year, win a Pac-10 championship every few years, get a fairly high seed in the NCAA tournament every year, go to at least the Sweet 16, and every few years or so make a run to the Final Four. I think UCLA fans expect that the coach at their basketball program has experience for the job, readily has been accepted in the college basketball community as "a good coach," and that the team looks well coached on the floor. I think some expect UCLA to have a big-named coach, but I think most would accept a coach that meets these other criteria.
Is this spoiled?
Are you serious?
Compared to the other programs around the country that would be considered long-time, traditionally elite programs like UCLA, the expectations of UCLA fans are incredibly low. At Kentucky, they want to run Tubby Smith – and he's won a national championship.
UCLA fans' expectation have been LOWERED over the last 20 years to the point that no one is spoiled to the degree that UCLA fans should be, or are accused of being. At this point, if a UCLA coach (including Steve Lavin) won the Pac-10, he'd be hailed a hero. Jim Harrick, a coach that didn't have a rep as "a good coach" and was criticized at UCLA, got the entire monkey off his back when he won the national championship. Very, very few people were criticizing Harrick or calling for his ouster after he won the national championship. And, realistically, if Harrick hadn't been fired for the expense sheet scandal, he probably would have gotten many years of reprieve from the calls to fire him because he won the national championship. He definitely would have gotten more years of reprieve from it than Tubby Smith has at Kentucky.
So, why is this lame excuse, this myth – that UCLA fans' expectations are the problem – out there and perpetuated? Because, first, the media doesn't know any better. And the media loves to inadvertently insult fans – painting them as nuts and extreme. I think Steve Lavin himself perpetuates the myth because he doesn't personally, from his perspective, have any other explanation for the criticism leveled against him. But the others that float the idea do so because it masks the real cause of the problem.
The real cause of the problem is that UCLA has done a horrible job of hiring basketball coaches over the last 20 years. UCLA hasn't hired a coach with a reputation as "a good coach" since Larry Brown in 1981. UCLA has hired as its head coach, since then, Larry Farmer, an inexperienced, unproven assistant; Walt Hazzard, a very inexperienced, unproven coach; Jim Harrick, a fifth choice whose coaching and recruiting acumen were questionable; and Steve Lavin, an inexperienced assistant just a year and a half removed from being a third assistant. I'm not even saying that UCLA had to hire a big-named coach, but in the last 20 years, UCLA hasn't even hired a coach with the earned reputation as "a good coach."
This is the cause of the turmoil that has plagued the UCLA basketball program for 20 years. It's not that UCLA fans are spoiled. And it's certainly not predominantly the fault of the coaches that were hired. The cause is that, for a program like UCLA, where it has natural advantages over the majority of college basketball programs, hiring an unproven, inexperienced coach will naturally cause controversy.
And the other problem that stems from it is this: Many UCLA fans, having not known what it was like to have a proven coach and a consistently good program, don't even realize the problem. They start to believe that maybe UCLA fans are really too spoiled, and they start believing that UCLA should accept a standard of performance below the expectations that come from UCLA's natural advantages. UCLA fans, simply, don't have a reference in the last 20 years of a proven coach and a program that lives up to UCLA's potential to go by.
And many fans say, "Well, we have to give a coach time to get experienced and earn the reputation of being a good coach." If that's true, and that's what you want to accept, then you better accept the civil war and controversy over that coach. That theory is okay for, say, Weber State, but at UCLA, you're going to have problems with it. Because, for one, there's no guarantee that that unproven coach will actually grow into a proven, good coach (UCLA's history of hiring of unproven coaches certainly doesn't give you confidence). In fact, I think the odds are against it. That's what mid- and low-major programs are for – for coaches to cut their teeth, learn the ropes, and it naturally eliminates the coaches that can't cut it. Mid- and low-major programs have to take the risk of an unproven coach. UCLA doesn't. I think UCLA has earned itself the status of being able to hire a proven coach. But if you don't, you're risking the problems and controversy that the UCLA community has experienced under Lavin, Harrick, Hazzard and Farmer.
When you hire an under-qualified coach, some assert that he can grow into being the coach UCLA needs and deserves. That is a possibility, yes, but the odds are against it. Like with anything else, learning how to be a college coach is a matter of building blocks. It's like a kid in elementary school learning math. Each year, and at each grade, he learns something and builds a block. Then the next year, at the next level, he can add to that block. But without the blocks being built at each level, he wouldn't be able to get to the higher level of math. A coach that didn't get enough experience at the lower levels bypasses all of those lower levels of learning. It's not that it would be impossible for such a coach to become a good, knowledgeable, experienced coach at UCLA's level, but it's difficult having leapfrogged all of those levels. That difficulty is a huge part of what has caused the controversy over UCLA's coaches in the last 20 years.
I think it's also amazing that the problem has been blamed on UCLA fans rather than the coach hirings. The media blames the fans, UCLA blames the fans, the coach blames the fans. As a UCLA fan, you should be outraged at this. In college basketball, UCLA fans, for where their expectations should be, their expectations have been beaten down. I'm tired of listening to the media cite this as the problem. The east coast media loves to float the idea because they so desperately want to paint UCLA as a place where it's impossible to succeed as a coach because of the expectations. The east coast media, especially ESPN and Dick Vitale, have a considerable interest in keeping UCLA down. The local media, I can attest to from personal experience, have no clue about UCLA basketball, the program, or the fans. If you didn't know any better and didn't have a real grasp of UCLA basketball, the program and its fans from being close to it, the easy explanation for the continuing controversy over its coach is to blame the high expectations of the fans. The shadow of John Wooden. After all, wouldn't fans from New Mexico be happy with Sweet 16s while UCLA fans aren't? From an uneducated viewpoint, you can see why the media uses it as an explanation. From their naïve eye, they don't see any difference between UCLA and New Mexico beyond John Wooden's legacy. But we know that UCLA is not New Mexico, and it's not just because of John Wooden, but because of what anyone would expect from a program with UCLA's natural advantages.
The irony here is that, in the last 20 years, the most "proven" a UCLA coach has ever been was Harrick after he won the national championship. I think that year-and-a-half period after the national championship was the only time in 20 years UCLA had a coach that could even slightly be considered "proven." After Harrick lost to Princeton in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the year after he won the national championship, UCLA fans generally were not belligerent or unreasonable. They weren't calling for Harrick's head. So, in the last 20 years, UCLA actually has a short period of a somewhat "proven" coach. And what happens? UCLA fires him. I'm not advocating that Harrick should have been retained, but it is amazingly ironic that the only time in 20 years UCLA has a somewhat "proven" coach and the UCLA administration fires him. It's almost as if the UCLA administration hasn't been comfortable in the last 20 years unless it had an unproven, inexperienced – and cheap -- basketball coach.
And more irony: When it comes to how much complaining UCLA fans have done over the last 20 years about the UCLA head coaches, the UCLA fans have generally been proven right. Farmer and Hazzard proved to be bad coaches. Harrick was questionable. The UCLA administration has proven that UCLA fans were right about complaining over the coaches in the last 20 years since the administration fired Farmer, Hazzard and Harrick. So, if the complaints of UCLA basketball fans for the last 20 years were justified, how can they be considered unreasonable?
Here's a really telling question: When has UCLA had a proven coach and UCLA fans were calling to fire him? You'd probably have to go back to Gary Cunningham and Gene Bartow, in the late ‘70s. At that time, yes, Wooden's shadow was very strong, being just a few years removed from probably the most successful run by any coach in the history of sports. Fans' expectations were ridiculously high. But does anyone now, in 2002, really expect UCLA to re-produced John Wooden's success? The last time UCLA hired a proven coach was Larry Brown and UCLA fans generally loved him. I think it was not only a matter that fans recognized that Brown was a good coach but that the Wooden expectations had already diminished considerably, and that was 1979 when UCLA hired Brown, only five years removed from John Wooden's last season.
It's easy to see where the concept of the unreasonable UCLA fan was born. And you can also see that, given UCLA's natural advantages today, how the myth might be perpetuated – how someone would mistakenly attribute the higher expectations of UCLA fans today to Wooden's legacy. But in reality, the unreasonable expectations in the wake of Wooden's success had just about petered out by Larry Brown. And my gosh, today they're really non-existent.
If there's one person I don't particularly blame for perpetuating the myth of the spoiled UCLA fan it's Lavin. You can't blame him at all for who he is now, and how he reacts to the criticism and blames the fans. I don't think any of us could even come close to knowing what it's been like to have been him the last six years, thrown into this situation, trying to overcome the mind-numbing amount of criticism, while trying to learn how to coach at this level, with very little guidance. It probably would have broken most of us, if we were in his shoes. You have to have some sympathy for Lavin who, at the age of 31, was given a job you couldn't turn down that would get him an overwhelming amount of pressure and criticism – merely because for no fault of his own he was under-qualified. He was hired at this unique position and then was also not given a clear, strong structure. There was no one there to stay on top of him and nurture him along.
No, you can't blame Lavin for not knowing the controversy that hiring an unproven coach at UCLA would most likely beget. But shouldn't there have been someone at UCLA who had the knowledge, experience and wisdom to realize that in hiring another inexperienced coach it would most likely cause a continuing debate, vehement criticism and firestorm? Didn't they have a 15-year, prior history of hiring coaches that would lead them to know this? Laker owner Jerry Buss, after trying some unproven coaches with the Lakers and failing, realized he had to go the proven route and get Phil Jackson. Why hasn't there been this kind of realization at UCLA in the last 20 years? Shouldn't there have been someone at UCLA in a position of authority who knew better?
Then, there is the most distasteful aspect of all of this: To do this for 20 years – to cause the problem that has afflicted UCLA basketball for two decades – and then blame the fans for it.
I'm not laying the blame for all of this on Athletic Director Pete Dalis because I honestly don't know if Dalis is to blame for the coach hirings of the last 20 years. It's nearly impossible to determine whether Dalis was mostly responsible for the hirings. I'm blaming whoever is to blame.
When it comes to Lavin and the future, given all of these circumstances, it's probably an uphill battle, but he has a chance to become the coach that UCLA needs and deserves. I think for most of Lavin's tenure as basketball coach, most of the UCLA community has been rooting for him to overcome the odds and become the coach UCLA deserves. I think most were rooting for him because most fans, either consciously or sub-consciously, realize that the circumstances weren't fair to him, and wanted to see him triumph over them.
Understand the point here, though, is not about Lavin and whether he should be UCLA's coach of the future. It's about UCLA's 20-year string of hiring unproven, under-qualified coaches to coach at UCLA, and the huge risk they have been taking by doing it. And the inaccurate and lame myth that the uproar and controversy over the last 20 years is the fans' fault, not the UCLA administration for taking this risk and failing.
And while we're setting the record straight…
Make no mistake, UCLA fans, the UCLA basketball program, in this day and age when kids want to go to a place like UCLA, with its tradition, glitter, media attention, connections, good weather and pretty women, is vastly underachieving. I spoke with a person recently that everyone reading this would know, who is a very well-known name in all of college sports, and he said this to me: "Given what UCLA has to sell, UCLA should own the world in college basketball. It should be going to Final Fours and winning national championships. It's been the most under-achieving program in all of college sports for two decades."
And again, this is no condemnation of Steve Lavin. If Lavin can fulfill this potential, great. But we shouldn't mistake where UCLA should be in the hierarchy of college basketball.
So, really, there are some things that the unjustly persecuted UCLA basketball fan should know, and take some solace in: You're right. Your instincts are dead on. It's a hard concept to accept since, as I said above, you don't really have a solid reference of how good UCLA's program could be in the last 20 years. So even though your views on the UCLA basketball program are in a vacuum, it's really phenomenal that UCLA fans generally are right about the UCLA basketball program. I know much of this information because I've inadvertently done some unique research in the last several years because of this job. But UCLA fans haven't benefited from my experience and they still, instinctually, are right about UCLA basketball. I think UCLA fans know more about the UCLA basketball situation than the local media, national media, and even the powers-that-be at UCLA. So, you're right, UCLA basketball fans. Even without a reference, you should accept without a doubt as fact and not myth: UCLA basketball has underachieved for two decades and UCLA's potential and rightful place in the college basketball world should be among the top few programs in the country. You've been portrayed as a whining, unreasonable group of fans, but in reality, stick with your instincts because you're right. And you've been right for 20 years.