It's hard to imagine firing a coach who went to the Final Four three times, but that's exactly what UCLA has reportedly done in firing Ben Howland. As difficult and unfair as that decision may seem, it's the right one for UCLA basketball.
I've always said that there are truly six elite programs in college basketball. These six programs have more history and tradition than other programs, and it's practically a requirement that they compete for a national title almost every year. Those programs are Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, and UCLA.
After going through some tough times, Indiana is now an elite program again. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky have been in the national discussion almost every season in the past five years. But after UCLA reached the 2008 Final Four, the program has fallen off a cliff. They've missed the NCAA Tournament twice. They've been to three NCAA Tournaments and haven't been seeded higher than sixth. And they haven't advanced past the Tournament's first weekend.
But wins and losses don't tell the full story. Last year a Sports Illustrated expose revealed that Howland had completely lost control of the program. Frankly I was surprised that he survived that article and all of the damming stories about him, but supposedly UCLA wanted to keep him because of the amazing recruiting class he was bringing in that included Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, and Tony Parker. That quartet did guide UCLA to a Pac-12 regular season title, but a decisive first round loss to Minnesota showed that these Bruins weren't anything special.
There's little evidence to suggest UCLA is going to improve next year with Muhammad off to the NBA, Parker set to transfer, and the program seemingly stuck in a rut of inconsistent play and unfulfilled potential. Howland had a terrific first five years in Westwood, but there's very few coaches who can stay at a program for over a decade and not wear out their stay. Howland is a great coach, but he's not a program lifer like a Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boheim, or someone of that caliber. UCLA fans don't expect a John Wooden to come to their program and rattle off 10 NCAA titles anymore. But after spending millions to renovate Pauley Pavilion, they do expect an elite coach who can keep their team in the Top-10 during most seasons. It's a ridiculously high bar, but it is achievable with the right coach.
So who should UCLA hire? Reportedly, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero wants to hire Shaka Smart from Virginia Commonwealth. I can't think of a better coach for UCLA. Smart is only 35 years old, and it's easy to envision him at UCLA for a long time. His "havoc" style of play will energize a Bruin fan base that never really loved Howland's system. Smart brings an engaging personality and some pizazz that one really needs to succeed in a crowded LA market. Even when Howland had good teams, they seemed to get lost behind the Lakers and everything else going on in this city. You can blame the one-and-done rule and the general decline in popularity of NCAA basketball, but I refuse to believe that bringing buzz to UCLA basketball is a hopeless cause.
It's not clear if Smart will accept the job though, since he has no West Coast ties, and has openly declared his love for Richmond, Virginia. If he declines, then UCLA is also reportedly interested in Butler's Brad Stevens. I guarantee that Stevens would decline the opportunity. He's someone who has spent virtually his entire life in the state of Indiana, and he just got Butler into the Big East. The only job he'd ever leave Butler for is Indiana.
There are rumors that Steve Alford of New Mexico could be a candidate. Despite the Lobos' surprising loss to Harvard, Alford has been extremely successful in recent years, and he's proven that he can recruit in Southern California. He'd be a good choice, albeit not a perfect one. Other reported candidates include Florida's Billy Donovan, Villanova's Jay Wright, and North Carolina State's Mark Gottfried. None of those guys seem like a great fit. Donovan is a great coach, but I can't imagine him leaving Florida. Wright's star has faded a bit as Villanova hasn't been spectacular the past three seasons. Gottfried may have been a UCLA assistant when they won the National Title in 1995, but there's nothing about his tenure as a head coach at Alabama or North Carolina State that suggests he's the elite coach Bruins fans are looking for.
UCLA fans hoping that Mark Few will magically leave Gonzaga are bound to be disappointed. And rumors that Pitt's Jamie Dixon would come over ended after he signed a 10-year contract extension today. I don't think UCLA wants another Pitt coach anyways. At this point UCLA's best hope is Smart.
So what will Ben Howland do next? He may want to take a year off and go into broadcasting. But USC needs a new basketball coach. I actually think Howland would be a great fit for the Trojans. It could reenergize him, while adding some fuel to the USC-UCLA basketball rivalry. His emphasis on fundamentals is probably what Trojan basketball needs, and he can coach in an environment where expectations aren't Final Four or bust. Here's hoping that Howland moves across town.