Boom, coming right at you with the title there. After firing Ben Howland after his 10th season in Westwood, and after getting “No” from both Shaka Smart and Brad Stephens, UCLA settled on New Mexico head coach Steve Alford to right the Bruin ship (a mere 10 days after Alford signed a 10-year contract extension with NMU, I might ass, I mean add). There’s no doubt that Alford is a good coach, he’s led New Mexico to a few noteworthy seasons in his time after leaving Iowa to head west, but he has never made a big splash in the NCAA Tournament and lacks the “Wow” factor you might expect from someone being named coach of the school with the most all-time national championships. The question still remains; Is UCLA an ELITE program in college basketball anymore? I say no, and since you asked so kindly I’ll tell you why.
What makes an elite program, first off? First and foremost, winning does, that’s the easy one. A history of success, passionate fan base, you get the picture. In this day and age however, I have a hard time placing UCLA among the Kentucky’s, the Duke’s, the North Carolina’s, and the Kansas’ of the world. There’s no need to begin preaching of the Wooden days, everyone understands the greatness that occurred at UCLA in the 60’s and 70’s and that is what established UCLA as one of the “blue blood” programs in college basketball. However, since Wooden left Westwood with 10 national titles, the Bruins have managed only 1 (1995) in the near 40 years since. When the Bruins hired Ben Howland away from Pittsburgh in 2003, a return to elite status seemed imminent, and Howland made good on those feelings when he took UCLA to 3 consecutive Final Fours from 2006-2008, although a buzz saw of 2 years worth of Florida and a semifinal loss to John Calipari’s Memphis Tigers prevented the Bruins from cutting down any nets. The backbones of those clubs have all gone on to become All-Stars in the pros, like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Jrue Holiday. But now, 5 years later, after a brutal SI article on the state of the UCLA program last season, Reeves Nelson’s multitude of neck tats, and Josh Smith managing to eat his way out of town, Howland is gone, and the program will have to stand by as Shabazz, Kyle Anderson, and Tony Parker more then likely find homes elsewhere.
UCLA was already the shakiest of the ELITE programs, who as of right now I consider to be Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Kansas, with teams like Michigan State, Syracuse, Louisville, Ohio State, and Florida right on the cusp at the moment. Bottom line is, it doesn’t seem as if UCLA cares very much. What most separates UCLA from the elite group is fan support, how many times have you turned on a nationally-televised UCLA game only to find the newly-renovated Pauley Pavilion nearly half empty? UCLA played Texas in a neutral-site game earlier this season that couldn’t have been in front of more than 1,500 fans, and that’s in a season that saw the Bruins in-and-out of the Top 25, not exactly a tank of a season.
It remains to be seen how Alford will do in Los Angeles, but I doubt the name alone will cause too drastic a jump in ticket sales. UCLA is on a slippery slope, sure they’ll always have the memory of those glorious days of 10 titles in 12 seasons, but it seems the game has caught up to them, and then passed them on by. You could say an entire generation of people have grown up without physically seeing the elite UCLA teams our parents would talk about and since Wooden’s retirement in 1975, 8 teams have won more titles then the Bruins including all of the “elite” teams I mentioned earlier along with Florida, Louisville, Indiana, and Connecticut.
What do you think? Are the Bruins still an elite program in college basketball, or just an elite name?