Debunking the Myths About UCLA

John Wooden

There has been a great deal of chatter over the past few days from national media sources about the UCLA job, and we've decided to debunk some of the more obvious myths...

It's like clockwork: every time there is a major development with UCLA basketball, whether there's a coaching change, a top recruiting class coming in, or a coach missing the postseason, the same old, tired clichés about UCLA come into play.

At no time has that been more evident than over the past few days, as national media members including Seth Davis, the usually excellent Jay Bilas (which should really be his official title), Doug Gottlieb, and the collective brain trust at CBS have spouted several plainly false myths about the UCLA job, citing everything from the high expectations of UCLA fans to UCLA not being a desirable job.

We could speculate as to the reasoning behind the need to denigrate the job, the fans, and the school, but it would really only be speculation. It should suffice to say that there is a real, fundamental misunderstanding of the UCLA job among several members of the national media, this misunderstanding has been especially pervasive since Steve Lavin's firing in 2003 and subsequent hiring at ESPN, and whether this misunderstanding is willful is up for debate. At best, it speaks to a disturbing amount of intellectual laziness.

In any case, there's a good amount of ignorance mixed in with a healthy hint of combative idiocy floating around, so we thought we'd tackle a few of the myths used over the past few days and debunk them in a central location.

1. UCLA, and its fans, have extremely high expectations, expecting to win national championships every year.

This is probably the most pervasive of the myths, and probably the most nefarious when it comes to damaging the UCLA brand in the eyes of potential coaches. The evidence used is that UCLA fired Steve Lavin and Ben Howland despite, for the former, five Sweet 16s and for the latter, three straight Final Fours. This myth is usually a couplet, sometimes combining with "UCLA only hangs National Championship banners" or "UCLA fans are disappointed with anything but championships."

Of course, it simply isn't true that UCLA or its fans have extraordinarily high expectations, at least relative to other elite jobs (Duke, North Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky). The Bruins have had just two coaches in the last 17 years, for an average tenure of a little over eight years. The average tenure of coaches in the entirety of college basketball is right around five years, which puts UCLA well above the norm in terms of the amount of time it gives coaches to be successful. In terms of the actual expectations, judging by the last two coaching tenures at UCLA, fans and the administration would be more than happy with competing for the conference championship every year and making a deep tournament run every few years.

Actually, that might even be overstating UCLA's expectations. Given the situations with the last two basketball coaches, the only fireable offense the evidence presents is completely cratering the program.

Lavin, who was an awful coach whose recruiting was tanking by the end of his tenure, still managed to forestall the inevitable over his last three years by pulling out miracle Sweet 16 runs in two of them. In only one of his seven years at UCLA did he win the Pac-10, and in three seasons he had double digit losses. His teams were on a clear downward trend, having won the conference his first year, and then finishing progressively lower each year until his 02-03 team finally bottomed out with a losing overall record (10-19), the worst for UCLA in 50 years. Only after completely cratering the program was he fired, even though it was plain to see that he wasn't a good coach after his fourth season and would have little shot at ever competing for a National Championship. He left a fairly untalented husk of a program for his successor, Ben Howland.

Howland, who is and was a very good coach, had a spectacular run rebuilding the program to an elite level through his first five years, and then, in equally spectacular fashion, over the next five years brought the program nearly down to the level it was when his tenure started. He won two NCAA Tournament games over his last five years, had another losing season, and experienced double digit transfers to the point where his final team had just eight scholarship players on it, including three transfers from North Carolina and four freshmen. Next season was arguably going to be his cratering moment, with recruiting dead in the water and a good chance at having only six or seven scholarship players on roster. He had earned a reputation in recruiting circles as a chore to play for, and his own players tried to leave as soon as possible, especially over the last five years. Even after an extremely damaging Sports Illustrated story came out toward the end of last season, detailing all of the issues in the program, Howland was retained. It was only after this season, where he lost two more players to transfer and was virtually guaranteed to have even more serious roster issues next year that he was fired.

The point is that both were given the opportunity to crater the program before they were ultimately fired. If UCLA were the basketball championship factory that so many seem to think it is, both would have been fired at the first sign of any downward trend. For Howland, that could have come as early as three years ago, after his second losing season, but more likely after last season. For Lavin, it could have come at any time in his last three years. That both were allowed to take the program to the cliff's edge speaks to extraordinarily low expectations for an elite program.

It's an absence of evidence argument, but in this case it's a fairly good one: if UCLA were the kind of school where the sole goal was winning National Championships, and coaches were constantly on the hot seat if they weren't competing at the highest levels of the elite, wouldn't the Bruins have won more than one in the last 38 years? And, if not, wouldn't they have had a whole heck of a lot more coaches than three over the last 25 years, when UCLA won just one title?

Answering those questions requires a bit of work, though, instead of simply spouting the same, tired clichés.

2. UCLA is not an elite job.

This is more of an obvious attempt to denigrate the job, and speaks to an enormous level of ignorance about the UCLA job. Among coaches, the UCLA job is coveted, and is commonly considered one of the top 5 jobs in the country.

UCLA is centered in one of the most fertile recruiting hotbeds in the United States. Lavin, before he destroyed his credibility in recruiting circles, was able to recruit exceptionally high level talent to UCLA despite being a charlatan. Howland, before the word got out that he was no fun to play for, was equally capable of getting high level talent from the LA area. In terms of recruiting, UCLA has access to more talent local to its area than probably any of the other elite high major schools.

It's recognized in coaching circles, too, that the west in general is down, and a strong UCLA program would be primed to take over in recruiting.

The tradition of UCLA still carries some cachet. Although it's been nearly two decades since the last title, and nearly four since the Wooden years, UCLA is still the premier program in the West. When it has, at minimum, an above average coach who hasn't poisoned the recruiting well, UCLA finds itself high on the lists of the majority of elite, high major players in the West.

Although it's still not one of the top five arenas in the country, the new Pauley is nice enough now to provide a benefit to recruiting efforts, rather than a hindrance. Additionally, the money spent on renovating Pauley shows a level of Athletic Department commitment to the program that should be enticing to coaches.

Also, the money is there to pay coaches an elite-level salary. UCLA is finally accepting booster funds to augment coaching salaries. Combined with the money from the Pac-12 Networks contract, UCLA can pay market rate for even the top coaches in the country.

There is also real evidence that UCLA can rise to an elite level. As recently as five years ago, Howland led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours and secured several top 5 recruiting classes, including the No. 1 class in the nation in 2008.

Finally, as we said above, expectations are relatively low, and the UCLA job is a relatively secure one. Each of the last three coaches have gotten at least seven years in Westwood, and with a moderate amount of consistent success (compete for conference championships most years, make a deep Tournament run every three years or so), the next coach can expect better.

3. No good coach would want to come to Westwood.

This one is based on the two myths above, but, again, is founded purely in speculative ignorance. Howland was coming off a National Coach of the Year Award at Pittsburgh when he elected to take the UCLA job for, likely, less than his market rate. Toward the end of Lavin's tenure at UCLA, Rick Pitino was very interested in taking the job, but backed off when the word got out midseason.

This year, we're already hearing that feelers between UCLA and Pitino, Billy Donovan, and Brad Stevens have been met with interest by those parties. As is obvious from multiple media reports being floated, several coaches are trying to get their names involved in the coaching search, since so many of them would covet the job.

With money to spend, potential for a coach's salary to be among the top five in the industry, a renovated facility, a fertile recruiting base, and relatively low expectations, the UCLA job is one of the most well-regarded in all of college basketball among coaches, and among the more informed talking heads.

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