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Ben Howland's status stirs debate

LOS ANGELES -- Want to start an Internet fight?

Say something about Ben Howland.

The mere mention of his name these days is sure to spark some kind of heated debate over whether he should remain coach of the UCLA Bruins when this season ends.

Both sides of the argument are equally passionate, and UCLA's fan base has become as polarized as any in the country as the NCAA tournament gets under way.

The dissension has permeated just about every discussion surrounding UCLA basketball, and it doesn't end with the fans. It runs deep into the athletic department, too.

No one with direct knowledge of department thinking on Howland's future was willing to speak about it on the record, but several sources have acknowledged that the topic -- just as it is across message boards and fan sites and at sports bars -- has been the subject of intense internal debate all season.

Some want to send Howland on his way for letting UCLA lose its spot among the elite national programs. They point to the Bruins being on the wrong end of too many embarrassing losses over the past few seasons as well as a pattern of roster mismanagement that has developed in recent seasons.

Others defend the coach for his past success and have hope that after a few down seasons, he has the program again pointed in the right direction. They point to his Pac-12 title this season and landing the nation's No. 1 recruiting class as signs that Howland is rekindling the magic that took him to three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 to '08.

Athletic director Dan Guerrero and associate athletic director Mark Harlan have become regulars at postgame ceremonies following big UCLA games to offer support, while at the same time they are two of the key figures in the debate about whether to cut ties with Howland.

Howland has referred all questions regarding his fate to Guerrero, including questions regarding what he says he thinks he needs to do in the tournament to save his job.

"I'm just focused on coaching my team and help them be the very best they can be this season," Howland said this week.

A UCLA spokesman said Guerrero was unavailable for comment because of a full schedule in preparation for the team's trip to Austin, Texas, where sixth-seeded UCLA opens the tournament Friday against 11th-seeded Minnesota.

It has been five years since the last of UCLA's Final Four runs, and in those five years, the Bruins have missed the NCAA tournament twice and won only two tournament games. Aside from a few cameo appearances, UCLA has largely been absent from the national rankings and the national conversation since 2009.

That's not good enough at UCLA, and the well-heeled donors have become antsy. Their beloved program, once the crown jewel of college basketball, has fallen to such a place that they can no longer brag to friends and co-workers who support other programs. Ultimately, the dissatisfaction of program supporters might go a long way toward deciding Howland's fate. If they were to withhold donations from an athletic department looking to pay off a recent $136 million renovation to Pauley Pavilion and hoping to soon upgrade UCLA's football facilities, that likely would command the attention of the administration.

Howland is under contract through 2017, thanks to a one-year extension signed before the 2009-10 season and another signed before the 2010-11 season. To fire him would take a buyout of $3.2 million if the firing takes place before April 3. After that, UCLA would have to add $2 million more to the pot.

A deep run in the NCAA tournament over the next couple of weeks would trigger that extra $2 million (the Final Four begins April 6) and could soften the stance of the anti-Howland hardliners. However, the chances of a deep UCLA tournament run suffered a setback with the recent injury to Jordan Adams, the team's second-leading scorer.

Is letting Howland go the right thing to do? It depends on whom you ask.

UCLA's program has undeniably slipped. A rash of recruiting mistakes and misjudgments drove the program to new lows in recent years. A 14-18 record in 2009-10 was rock bottom, as it was only the third losing season at UCLA since 1949.

The 2010-11 season was better, as the Bruins made the NCAA tournament but bowed out in the round of 32. Last season, after a Sports Illustrated story reported widespread dysfunction in the program and alleged that Howland had lost control of his team over the previous three or four seasons, the Bruins missed the tournament again.

Some called for Howland to be let go at the end of last season, but Guerrero felt Howland had done enough for the school to deserve another shot and Howland vowed to change his ways.

By most accounts Howland has done exactly that. He purged some of the bad apples and grew less tolerant of disruptive behavior. Center Joshua Smith, for example, had been allowed to take a lackadaisical approach to his preparation, but this season Howland did not give Smith special treatment, putting him on the bench early in the season and telling him he'd have to earn playing time by working hard and getting fit. Smith later transferred to Georgetown.

Howland also brought in a top-notch recruiting class that has a ton of talent and has so far shown strong character. Standout shooting guard Shabazz Muhammad can sometimes pull a prima donna act, but he is far from the disruptive force that former Bruin Reeves Nelson had once been allowed to become.

Howland changed his playing style, too. Instead of locking the team down into the slow, half-court, defense-minded approach that had brought him much of his past success, he let this season's team run to the tune of a conference-leading 74.7 points per game.

These were all signs that Howland could refashion the program, but there also were reminders of past failures. Losses to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, USC and Washington State were reminiscent of losses to Cal State Fullerton, Portland, Long Beach State, Montana, Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State over the past three seasons.

Howland's increasing inability to recruit top local high school players also has become an issue. The most recent recruiting class consisted entirely of out-of-state players. In recent years, Howland has been unable to land top local players such as Grant Jerrett (Arizona), Xavier Johnson (Colorado), Allen Crabbe (California), Solomon Hill (Arizona) and Derrick Williams (Arizona). And along the way, the Bruins failed to register any significant, national-caliber, out-of-conference victories that resonated in the college basketball world. UCLA under Howland has become a college basketball afterthought in the past four years.

Of course that had happened to UCLA before Howland arrived in Westwood in 2003, as well. UCLA has won only one national title in the 37 years since John Wooden's final season on the bench in 1975. Outside of the team's 1995 run to the national title, the Bruins have not kept pace with other elite progams such as Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas in the post-Wooden era.

In fact, you could argue that Howland has done as much as or more than any other coach to put UCLA back on the map. The Bruins have made six Final Four appearances in the post-Wooden era, and half of them have come during Howland's first nine seasons. He is as good an X's and O's coach as any in the country, is among the best coaches around when it comes to breaking down an opponent and game planning, and knows the game well and can teach players who are willing to learn. Howland has always held UCLA in the highest regard, and shown an unbridled passion for the school and an unwavering reverence for the history and tradition of UCLA basketball.

However, his inability to sustain a level that lives up to that history and tradition might well mean his tenure at UCLA will soon come to a close.

Whether that's fair or not is the subject of great debate.

The Internet has been fighting over it for most of this season.