Commentary

Ben Howland's decision

UCLA firing won't stop coaches from chasing short-term gain

Updated: March 26, 2013, 9:46 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

It would be tough to find a more instructive case study of amateur and professional sports than the forces that brought Shabazz Muhammad together with Ben Howland at UCLA. From the available evidence, the episode merged many of the worst aspects of the culture: perspective-free youth sports, an out-of-control parent, a desperate coach, the lure of money, the AAU system and the unholy alliance between the NCAA and the NBA.

It's a flawed system, to be sure, but the worst part is less obvious: Given the prevailing system -- with the money involved and the shadiness that infiltrates every corner -- an argument could be made to justify almost every action undertaken by the principals in this saga. (Remember that word: almost.) And that includes UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who made the ultimate decision to fire Howland Sunday.

[+] EnlargeMuhammad-Howland
Elsa/Getty ImagesBen Howland and Shabazz Muhammad will be on different sidelines next season.

This is a strange time for college basketball. There are great stories out there -- La Salle, Florida Gulf Coast -- but in some ways those stories serve to obscure an internal struggle at many major programs. It's a tenuous time to be in charge of a program that is expected to be good but can't quite get a handle on how far it should go to be championship-level good. Howland -- no innocent bystander -- found out the hard way.

It's a battle that's repeated all over the country. The misguided NCAA/NBA collaboration on an age limit -- the one-and-done -- has created a messy conflict in the minds of college coaches: Do you target the top of the recruiting lists -- Muhammad, for instance -- to try to save your job? Or do you take the Michigan approach and look to the middle or back end of the top 100 lists and get players who are presumably more coachable and have something to prove at the college level?

Do you want mercenaries who may or may not have an interest in buying into the program, or do you want players who are committed to a program and less inclined to be looking ahead. In other words, do you want to be Kentucky, or Butler?

Howland's defenders -- and coach-defending is a special talent in today's media -- point to one thing: record. He went to three Final Fours in 10 years. He won 233 games. He won the conference four times in the past eight years, including this season.

This ignores just about everything else. His teams were wracked with internal issues in the Reeves Nelson era. He had 11 players transfer out of the program in five years, including two who left during this season. He reneged on commitments to locals, making it difficult for him to compete for players in one of the nation's best areas of high school players.

When his run of Final Fours ended in the 2007-08 season and the Bruins failed to make the tournament in two out of three seasons, he did what a lot of coaches do: He put a prominent AAU coach on his staff -- this one from a program in talent-rich Atlanta -- in an effort to boost recruiting.

Muhammad, through no fault of his own, symbolized Howland's last chance. He headlined the best recruiting class in the nation at a time when he should have been preparing for the NBA draft. It's hard to say how much of Muhammad's background Howland knew, but we sure know a lot more now than we did a year ago.

It is, in a word, bizarre. The Los Angeles Times reported that Muhammad's father, former USC basketball player Ron Holmes, had athletic grandeur in mind when he spotted Faye Muhammad (nee Paige), a basketball player at Long Beach State, at a summer-league basketball game in 1982. "See that No. 10?" Holmes said to a friend. "She's going to be my wife and we're going to make some All-Americans."

From there, the father orchestrated just about everything. He gave his three children names -- Asia, Shabazz and Rashad -- he believed would maximize their future marketing potential. (Asia is a professional tennis player, Rashad a high school senior hoping to play hoops in college.) When it came to basketball, Ron Holmes took a predatory system and flipped it. He found the best youth programs and trainers and coaches. He told The Times he and his son chose UCLA over other big-time programs because UCLA wasn't deep enough for Muhammad to worry about competition for the spotlight.

At some point, Holmes shaved a year off Shabazz's age, although it's not obvious how that happened. (How does that work, exactly? "Shabazz, you might think you're celebrating your 13th birthday, but I've decided you're 12 again. Just trust me on this one." Like I said: almost everything can be justified.) What is clear is this: Muhammad was a 20-year-old man playing his one-and-done freshman year at UCLA. Instead of him being a child prodigy, he was actually older than some juniors. His age advantage began at some point during his ascension in the ranks of the AAU circuit, but it's unclear when.

As anyone who's watched youth or high school sports knows, the most physically mature players are almost always the most advanced. That's why many college coaches assiduously check birthdates: The younger player gets the advantage for having more room for improvement.

Howland knew his job hinged on this year. He chose to take the quickest but most fleeting path. Can you blame him? Maybe, but you can defend him for playing the game by the rules as they currently stand.

Muhammad had a good season, but it wasn't transcendent. He played like a guy who knew there were bigger things ahead, a guy with no emotional attachment, a guy biding his time in a place he didn't want to be.

Howland, in a sense, attached his hopes to Muhammad. He knew the game, and he knew the consequences. He'll end up somewhere else and Muhammad will end up in the NBA and the whole sordid dance -- nothing short of victimless crime -- will continue all over the country.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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