They both look just so happy to be there.
There was a time when Ben Howland could do no wrong. With three straight Final Four appearances under his belt, and successful pros like Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook to point to as a recruiting tool, life for the coach out of the University of Pittsburgh seemed to be going pretty well for a while. Until he was fired last night after losing by 20 to Tubby’s Minnesota team.
In a way, it’s only fitting that Howland lost to Smith, who left Kentucky amid some mild controversy after having some huge success with the Cats earlier in his career. They both had eye-popping starts at two of the best college basketball jobs… ever. But the lustre wore away after a while, and Howland seems to be Tubby revisited; albeit perhaps minus the classy character that everyone agrees Tubby has.
But ultimately, Howland combined two of the worst traits of Kentucky’s last two pre-Cal (P.C.?) coaches: he had Tubby’s tapering tournament success, paired with Billy’s practice problems and lack of team control. Though Howland had those three Final Fours, which are nothing to sniff at, his success in the five years since has been erratic, to say the least. This year looked to be the start of something of a turnaround, but the loss to a perplexing Golden Gopher squad sealed the deal: his teams just hadn’t performed. In 2009-10, he finished sub-.500. To UCLA, that’s unheard of. Imagine: in Kentucky, this is one of the worst years in recent memory. And we won 20 games. To win 14 games at UCLA is understandably frustrating.
But probably the more damaging factor, even above the lack of success on the floor, was Howland’s behavior off of it. You might remember an article from Sports Illustrated from about this time last year that decried Howland’s failure to run his program “the UCLA way.” You might remember the murmurings of player dissatisfaction, lack of discipline, et cetera, that surrounded the Shabazz recruitment; it was of particular interest to Kentucky fans looking for reasons to pick the Cats. It’s good to take SI’s articles with a grain of salt (seeing that they employ Pete Thamel), but to dismiss the article entirely seems a bit slapdash.
Why then, despite all this, are folks saying that Howland deserved to stay? If you listen to ESPN Radio, which I have a lot over the last couple of days with the tournament going on, you’ll hear people say they feel for Ben Howland. One even said that Howland will be better off without UCLA. Why? Kentucky fans know firsthand: if you behave badly and don’t produce at one of the best coaching positions in college basketball, you don’t deserve that job. Is Howland a good coach? Sure. Three Final Fours do speak volumes. But did he really need to be at UCLA? Probably not. If Kentucky fans weren’t happy with Gillispie or Tubby (unanimous for the former, debatable for the latter), how much more disgruntled should UCLA fans have been with Howland?
Maybe our perspective is a little different, but who do you feel for: Howland, or UCLA? I’m going with UCLA; Howland had his chance.