- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Howland acknowledged that Walton is just doing his job and that, as a former UCLA player, Walton has extremely high expectations for the program.
“He’s been critical in all the games he’s done of ours this year,” Howland said. “I think he’s done three games -- last night’s, Missouri and Arizona. As a broadcaster and an analyst, that’s his job and it is perfectly within his right to be critical.”
Coincidentally, UCLA won all three of those games, and they are arguably the Bruins' three biggest wins of the season. Still, that didn’t prevent Walton from weighing in on the state of the program on Thursday. In one exchange, Walton, the color analyst for the game, began criticizing the lack of a crowd for the 6 p.m. game. Play-by-play announcer Dave Pasch pushed the conversation.
Pasch: You’ve criticized now the attendance five times. Give me a solution: How do you fix it?
Walton: Play better basketball.
Pasch: OK, well, that’s obvious. How do you play better basketball?
Walton: Better style.
Pasch: All right, so is that the coach? Is that the players?
Walton: That’s the coach.
Pasch: So you’re not a Ben Howland fan?
Pasch: Well, he went to three straight Final Fours, but he hasn’t made the tournament two of the last three years -- so has his time run out here in Westwood?
Walton: I’m not in charge. If I were, things would be different.
Walton was a three-time national college player of the year while at UCLA, won two national titles with the Bruins and played on the John Wooden-coached teams that went 60-0 from 1970-72. Howland said he understands why a player from that era would be so critical of the current team.
“His reference point is pretty special, and I understand that,” Howland said. “What they had here and what they did I think will be hard to see often again in the history of college basketball. Their expectations are so high, and I get it. That’s part of what makes UCLA so special.”
The Bruins (17-6, 7-3 Pac-12) are currently tied for second place in the Pac-12. This has been a roller-coaster season for UCLA, with losses to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and USC mixed in with victories over Missouri and Arizona. It’s not exactly a slam dunk that Howland, who began the season on the hot seat, will be back next year unless the team makes a good postseason run.
Howland said criticism comes with the territory when you coach such a high-profile team.
“Obviously, he feels how he feels about me and there is nothing I can do about that,” Howland said. “It’s part of the job. Anytime that you are in a high-profile position, especially in a big metropolitan area like L.A. or New York or Philadelphia or Chicago -- where there are so many people and so many different media outlets and different forms of media -- you’re going to have that. I understood that when I took this job and I continue to understand that. It’s part of the job.”
One of the men who will make the decision on whether or not to keep Howland, senior associate athletic director Mark Harlan, seemed to indicate that all was well Thursday night. He greeted Howland with a handshake, smiles and pats on the back following the buzzer-beating win over Washington.
“Mark is always there,” Howland said. “When we lose, he is there. When we lost against Oregon, he was there. Mark is great and the support from our administration during my tenure here has been phenomenal, and I’m so appreciative of that. They’re there and have been there during my entire tenure, win or lose.”