Ben Howland is probably safe for now.
The UCLA basketball team will miss the NCAA tournament this year, violating a cardinal sin among Bruin faithful for the second time in three years, and that in itself is a fireable offense, but Howland won't be fired.
Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard are the only other UCLA coaches since John Wooden to miss two NCAA tournaments in three years and neither of them lasted much longer after, but Howland isn't going to join that group.
Add in the fact that UCLA is a program under scrutiny because of a recent Sports Illustrated report that alleges Howland's coaching style and recruiting misses are responsible for a program in disarray--not to mention a team that has been absent from the national rankings in all but one week over the past three seasons--and you have a pretty compelling case that many UCLA fans wouldn't shed tears should athletic director Dan Guerrero hand Howland his walking papers.
But don't look for Howland in the unemployment line just yet.
Howland is under contract through 2015 and it would take upwards of $3 million to buy out his contract, so that alone is enough to keep him around. The well-heeled donors and high-powered boosters would have to pony up the cash and there just isn't much of an anti-Howland groundswell among the one percent.
Howland is also set to bring in a top-ranked recruiting class with Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams already signed and Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker considering UCLA. Should Howland go, Muhammad and Parker would definitely be lost and Anderson and Adams would almost certainly ask to be released from their letters of intent.
With UCLA set to unveil a revamped Pauley Pavilion next season, it doesn't make sense to do it with the same team that just finished fifth in the Pac-12 conference plus some recruits they scramble to get after the current class heads elsewhere. And it definitely doesn't make sense to let some coach who has never coached at UCLA re-open the hallowed ground of UCLA hoops.
Guerrero has said he won't evaluate Howland until the season is over and as of now, the Bruins are a bubble team for the NIT and Howland said the team would accept an invitation to play, so Guerrero won't be making any decisions until after that and he will have to consult with chancellor Gene Block before making any decisions.
Howland has is issues. He's surly and has chased some players away with his demanding coaching style, but he had his most success with players who had thick enough skin to withstand that style. Howland has made mistakes in judging the character of players over the past few recruiting classes but has gone back to looking for the hard-working, high-character guys who can handle a little tough love.
Anderson, among the nation's top recruits, played high school for Bob Hurley who uses a similar no-nonsense, hard-nosed coaching approach, so he knows what he's getting in to. Adams, Muhammad and Parker all get high marks for coachability and character, which is a good sign that they won't show up with the type of me-first, prima donna attitude that has spoiled UCLA basketball in recent seasons.
The case against Howland is mounting. UCLA is 56-43 over the past three seasons--well below the standard for a team considered to be on the Mount Rushmore of college basketball. The Bruins haven't won a conference regular season or tournament title since 2008 and since making it to three straight Final Fours in 2006-08, UCLA has won only two NCAA Tournament games.
Guerrero didn't exactly give Howland a vote of confidence last week when he refused to give a definitive answer on whether or not Howland would be back. He said he needed to talk through some issues with Howland and that the culture of the basketball program needed to change.
"There are a lot of pluses in our program and there are a lot of issues and before I make any comments about the long-term future, those things need to be sorted out," Guerrero said.
It's difficult to know what Guerrero's line of thinking is, but it's safe to say it will be affected by the power players among bootsers. That group seems pretty united in the pro-Howland camp, according to several sources. They simply aren't putting the squeeze on Guerrero to fire Howland the way they did with football Coach Rick Neuheisel, who cost only $250,000 to buy out.
And it's doubtful that Howland would go anywhere on his own. UCLA is his dream job. Certainly all the recent scrutiny has taken a toll on him, but Howland grew up in Southern California during the late 1960's and early '70s--the peak of the Wooden era. He knows the importance of UCLA basketball, is as embarrassed as anyone by the state of the program right now and is as committed as anyone to getting it back on track.
And despite his personality shortcomings that may rub some people the wrong way, Howland has character. Sports Illustrated had a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer sniff around the program for two months and found little other than a bit of disciplinary dysfunction, but not much in the way of a dirty program.
The same writer who uncovered academic fraud at Minnesota and the tattoo scandal at Ohio State, found only that UCLA players occasionally smoked pot and did ecstasy, star players received special treatment from Howland, Reeves Nelson had behavioral problems and Howland has a prickly personality.
Howland has acknowledged that he's made mistakes, that he isn't perfect and that he's working on changing some of his ways. He has also shown that he can have success with the right type of players.
This year's team may not have lived up to UCLA standards, but really it's a testament to Howland that the team had as much success as it did. The Bruins lost three all-conference players from last year's team, started three sophomores with little experience, had a key player in Joshua Smith rendered ineffective by a lack of conditioning and yet were competitive in just about every game after Thanksgiving.
He won't be able to withstand another season in which the Bruins don't make the NCAA tournament, but Howland has brought UCLA back from lower depths, taking over a team that went 10-19 the year before he arrived and building a Final Four team in his third season at the helm. He's one of only three coaches in NCAA history to post three consecutive 30-win seasons (Adolph Rupp, John Calipari) and is one of only three active coaches to take teams to three consecutive Final Four appearances (Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski).
Howland also runs a clean program and has reverence for all that is UCLA basketball.
So this season and the recent struggles of the program both on and off the court should plant him firmly on the hot seat when the next year of his contract kicks in after the Final Four ends.
Should UCLA flame out badly in the NIT and Howland lose Muhammad and Parker as recruits before then, the squeeze might get a bit tighter. There are valid arguments for keeping him as well as for giving him the boot and in those situations, money usually plays a determining role.
That means there are three million reasons why Howland is safe for now.