UCLA loss in NCAA tournament puts Ben Howland's job at risk
AUSTIN, Tex. -- UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero emerged from his school's locker room late on Friday night, after what may have been coach Ben Howland's final postgame speech of his 10-year tenure. The No. 6 Bruins had just lost by 20 points to No. 11 Minnesota, making a brutal early exit from the NCAA tournament, and their AD would only answer one question from SI about Howland's future.
"We'll take stock in the next couple of days," Guerrero said, "and talk like we always do with all coaches."
A second question was started, about whether there had been a tourney goal Howland needed to meet, but a UCLA staffer stepped in and said, rather brusquely, "That's it. That's it."
The staffer and a colleague then escorted Guerrero out of the Frank Erwin Center. To say he departed without making a ringing endorsement would be to put it lightly, especially given that when Howland was asked about his future last Sunday, he told reporters, "I think you should contact Dan." Guerrero avoided comment until Friday. His last remarks prior to that were in February, when he said that "expectations remain high" for the the remainder of Howland's 10th season. To use the "take stock" line here was to cast serious, serious doubts that Howland would make it through next week.
He led the Bruins to a 25-10 record and the Pac-12 regular-season title, but this ignominious exit—a blowout at the hands of a flailing Big Ten team—had to have fallen well short of any UCLA-level expectations. A Sweet 16 might have saved Howland, but it was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times that the school already had Howland's $2.3 million buyout in place, and there were no guarantees that a couple of NCAA tourney wins would have kept the wolves at bay.
Howland finished his press conference after midnight, and afterward, he sat in small room off of UCLA's locker room with two reporters, from SI and USA TODAY. Asked if he had heard anything about his future, he simply said, "No."
"I'm not commenting on my job status with you guys tonight," Howland said. "I just want to talk about fact that I'm so proud of these kids."
He was willing to talk about anything but his job. How he was proud of the way senior point guard Larry Drew had turned around his career, after being maligned at North Carolina. How bad of a break it was to lose freshman Jordan Adams to a broken foot in the penultimate game of the Pac-12 tournament, and how unfortunate it had been to get shipped to Austin after winning the league, as opposed to being rewarded with a site closer to home. "I would have rather been Cal [a 12 seed], playing in San Jose in front of thousands of our own fans," he said.
It was a strange interview. Howland talked about how "there are a lot worse things out there" than what troubled UCLA this season, and brought up a nine-year-old whom the team had adopted; the kid was fighting a rare form of cancer and had had 20 operations. At one point, Howland lamented the difference in the way news and rumors are disseminated. "Your world has changed so much in the last five years," he said. "You have to blog tonight."
That we did. And honestly, we were fishing for some comment, some insight into what a coach who took UCLA to three straight Final Fours was thinking after what may very well have been his last game with the Bruins. All he would tell us about what he said to the team, was, "I'm really excited about the year we had. I'm really proud of the year we had."
And then Howland said, "Sorry."
Sorry? Because you think we want you to say more?
"That," he said, "is exactly why I said it."
And that was that. Howland said he only had one plan for after he returned to Los Angeles: "Recruit. Go out and recruit. ... I have things that are in the offing."
As does Guerrero, and those things could prevent Howland from doing any more recruiting. When UCLA's players took the court on Friday night, they were wearing warmup shirts that said "RISE TO THE OCCASION" on the front. All adidas schools received the shirts for the NCAA tournament, but you half-expected the Bruins' versions to say "... OR ELSE" on the back. Another desperate coach lurked on the other sideline: Minnesota's Tubby Smith, who needed tournament wins to save his own job. The Gophers, who had once been in the top 10 of the polls, closed the season in miserable fashion, losing to Nebraska, Purdue and Illinois in March. They had zero momentum coming into the dance. They were vulnerable.
But it took the Adams-less Bruins until after the first TV timeout even to get on the scoreboard. Their freshman star, Shabazz Muhammad, started off tight, on a day where an LA Times story revealed that he was actually 20 years old, and not 19, as his father had long proclaimed as a way of enhancing his son's status as a top pro prospect. (Minnesota's pep band would sing "Happy Birthday" to Muhammad later in the game.) The Bruins shot bricks early on, and could not find opportunities to run in transition.
When Muhammad stepped to the line and sunk his first of two free throws, to make the score 2-1, a UCLA pep-band drummer hit a snare twice, to announce the breaking of the seal. The crowd mock-cheered for the end of the drought. UCLA, kings of the NCAA tournament in the 1960s and 70s, and three-time Final Four trippers in the past decade, has not made a Sweet 16 since 2008. And here, in a first-round game where his players needed to rise to the occasion to give Howland a chance at surviving, they started flat and did not improve.
For five-plus minutes, the Bruins could not even score, and after 40 minutes they were 20 points behind a Big Ten afterthought. Those were things to take stock of, and form no other conclusion than that the end is nigh.