Commentary

Time passes Ben Howland at UCLA

Though successful early, the now-fired coach didn't do enough to adapt to change

Updated: March 25, 2013, 12:09 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- At the foot of the 8-foot bronze statue of John Wooden that stands guard outside the renovated Pauley Pavilion, a plaque is inscribed with one of the legendary coaches' favorite sayings:

"Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable of becoming."

It is a wonderful thought. One that Ben Howland, the latest caretaker of Wooden's program to fall short of his impossible standard of excellence, can take solace in now and in the future. From the day he accepted the job in 2003, until today, when the job was taken back from him, Howland always summoned the kind of effort Wooden asked of himself and his players.

But it is also another reminder that the canon of Wooden, all those wonderful words he left us to live by, may not have become as sacred had he also not been the winningest, most successful college coach of all time.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsBen Howland led UCLA to three consecutive Final Four appearances during his 10 years at the school.

Wooden won, a lot, and over a lot of years, again and again, adapting to the times and players who came through his program and those he had to beat. He won with children of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He won in an era before freshmen were allowed to play on the varsity team, and then he won when freshmen dominated the game. He won with players of all races, from all sorts of places, and even red-headed hippies such as Bill Walton.

Winning, like Wooden, was the constant for UCLA even as the world around them changed.

In his first five seasons on the job, Howland won a lot, too. He led UCLA to three consecutive Final Four appearances. He produced great players, who went on to do great things in the NBA.

He won so much, he was rightly compared to Wooden. Both were hard-charging disciplinarians who earned the respect of their players first, then their love and admiration.

But the past five seasons, Howland stopped winning. Not entirely, but not nearly enough to keep his job at a place like UCLA.

The times changed around him and he simply couldn't change enough with them.

He has proven himself to be a winning coach and it wouldn't be surprising to see him succeed elsewhere, immediately.

But the college basketball world is different now. UCLA is different now. Or at least the university has signaled that it wants to be different with the $136 million renovation of Pauley Pavilion, and the difficult decision to fire Howland after he had so much success just a few years ago.

The college basketball landscape is dotted with quicksand now. No program, no coach can ever truly feel comfortable. The ground you stand on is never solid. The best players come and go quickly, barely finishing a year's worth of credits before heading to the NBA. Sometimes even the pretty good players leave too soon to make a mark, as several of Howland's players did the past few seasons.

Sustained success is something of a mirage. Even the Kentuckys of the world fall off a cliff, winning a national title one season, then losing in the first round of the NIT the season.

As a coach, for your sanity, you almost have to accept life on these terms. That you can do everything right, work the hardest, push the furthest, and still miss the train leaving the station.

Howland never could. His answer was to push harder and push further. To grip the bat tighter and tighter until, finally, the bat was taken out of his hands.

The best players in this era didn't want to play for a guy like that. They wanted to breeze in through for a year or two and be on their way. If they got a little better while they were in town, great. If not, so long as they didn't get hurt or hurt their NBA draft stock, it was OK.

A little while ago I was talking to a UCLA alum who is now in the NBA. It hurt him to see what had happened to the program.

"Back when I was in high school, if you were a great player from the West Coast, UCLA was your first choice," he said. "I don't get what happened."

What happened is that the game changed and UCLA took too long to change with it. Brands like UCLA don't count for as much anymore. It's about buzz now.

Which is probably the biggest reason Ben Howland is no longer UCLA's coach.

It has been years since there was a buzz around his program. Since UCLA was hot. Since Howland was.

Renovating Pauley Pavilion was supposed to kickstart that. So was recruiting the top class in the nation.

It just didn't happen. UCLA won the Pac-12 regular-season title. It probably would've won the conference tournament if Jordan Adams hadn't gotten hurt on the last play of the semifinal win over Arizona.

And then, who knows? Perhaps Howland could've got things rolling in the NCAA tournament.

Instead, the Bruins were bounced in the second round and the only buzz was about when athletic director Dan Guerrero would finally decide to part ways with Howland.

That day has come, and it's a sad one. Howland is one of UCLA's last links to John Wooden. He had a personal connection to him. An emotional tie that meant something to him. A spiritual bond he'll never relinquish.

Whomever UCLA hires next probably will never have met Wooden in person. He will still be the caretaker, though. The man entrusted to uphold the impossible standards Wooden set: Win, and keep winning.

Or, as they say this time of year, survive and advance.