George Dohrmann

The moment things started to unravel for Ben Howland at UCLA

Ben Howland led UCLA to three Final Fours in 10 seasons, but in recent years he failed to sign many top players in Southern California.

It is difficult to discern the exact moment when Ben Howland’s career turned, when he transformed from seemingly the ideal coach to lead the program that John Wooden made famous to a guy UCLA will pay a reported $3.5 million just to go away after 10 seasons in Westwood. But if you were to venture a guess, if you were to try to pinpoint the beginning of Howland’s end, a good place to start would be in late July 2009.

In 2003, he took over a program adrift after the Steve Lavin era, created tough, defensive-minded teams centered on players from Southern California, and ushered the Bruins to a remarkable three consecutive Final Fours from 2006 through 2008. He also won four conference titles, including one this past season, and yet UCLA still fired him. It was a strikingly swift and steep fall from grace.

There has been much conjecture about what happened, how a coach with Howland’s knowledge of the game and early successes could have plunged so far, so fast. Some have said he couldn’t relate to modern players and his system didn’t appeal to recruits and fans.

But there is also a simplified explanation: Howland changed. And that change really came into focus in the summer of 2009.

That July, Howland did what college coaches often do: He pulled a scholarship from a recruit he no longer wanted. The recruit was Kendall Williams, a long-armed, athletic guard from Los Osos High in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., who also had played in the same AAU program that once produced Darren Collison, a key contributor on all three of Howland’s Final Four teams. Like Collison, Williams was disciplined and smart, an ideal player for Howland’s conservative, defensive-first system. Like Collison, Williams grew up rooting for UCLA, and he verbally committed to the Bruins early in his sophomore year. He also told other schools recruiting him, including Stanford and Florida, to stop, that his devotion to UCLA would never waver.

Howland’s commitment to Williams proved to be far less solid. By Williams’ junior year, when the 6-foot-3 guard was no longer ranked among the top 100 recruits in the nation, the Bruins interest in him cooled. This was no secret; UCLA assistant coaches openly recruited other point guards and told some prospects’ parents that Williams would never play for the Bruins. Williams’ father, Robert, spoke to a UCLA assistant coach in the spring and early summer of 2009, and he asked if the Bruins were still committed to Kendall. Each time he was told that Howland still wanted Kendall at UCLA.

But then, in late July, Howland pulled Williams’ scholarship, doing so during a meeting with Robert and Kendall Williams. Robert Williams was so upset by Howland’s decision that when the coach tried to spin his decision as mutually beneficial, Robert stopped him. He demanded that Howland state out loud exactly what he was doing: He was going back on his word.

Howland had the right to change his mind about Williams, but how he did it peeved several of Southern California’s most prominent AAU coaches. They believed Howland purposely waited until the end of the summer recruiting calendar to drop Williams, thus assuring that he couldn’t be evaluated by other Pac-12 coaches before the November signing period. Williams had been loyal to UCLA, and Howland repaid that loyalty by preventing him from going to Stanford or Cal or another Pac-12 school. Instead, Williams signed that November with New Mexico.

Many of the area’s AAU coaches already disliked the conservative offensive system that Howland ran, feeling it didn’t showcase their players’ talents to NBA scouts. Howland’s long-time friendship with David and Dana Pump, the twins who ran the Double Pump AAU program, also irked some coaches, as they felt the Pumps used their relationship with Howland to poach players from other AAU teams. Howland’s mistreatment of Williams, however, was an even bigger issue. It led several AAU coaches to conclude that Howland couldn’t be trusted, and they began advising their best players not to consider UCLA.

This had a stunning effect: Howland and his staff struggled to recruit Southern California. Of the 10 players the Bruins have signed since the Class of 2010 (Williams’ class), only one (2011 signee Norman Powell) hails from Southern California, and he is from San Diego. Howland supporters have claimed that a lack of elite local talent forced him to look elsewhere and necessitated moves like the hiring of Korey McCray from the renowned Atlanta Celtics AAU program to be a Bruins assistant coach, which opened new recruiting grounds in the East. But there was no shortage of talented local players; many just wanted nothing to do with Howland and UCLA.

“I had a good relationship with Ben,” says Elvert Perry, coach of the Inland basketball program based in Riverside, Calif. “But I know lot of coaches who did not and for a lot of reasons.”

Howland’s three Final Four teams were built around local players, many of them not among the nation’s top rated recruits, including Collison, Josh Shipp, Arron Afflalo, Ryan Hollins, Russell Westbrook and others. They had low profiles and were mostly selfless, perfect for the kind of team Howland needed for his system to work. But by 2010 even those kinds of players were no longer enamored with UCLA.

Imagine Indiana forced to recruit out of state. Imagine Michigan and Michigan State shut out of Detroit or Texas unable to acquire players from Houston or Dallas. UCLA is located in one of the most fertile territories for players in the country, yet Howland was unable to take advantage. “A lot of coaches on the West Coast will be sad to see Ben go,” said one Pac-12 coach. “He leveled the [recruiting] playing field.”

Even with the Williams fiasco, there were still a few talented players who likely would have gone to UCLA had Howland and his staff shown enough interest. Allen Crabbe, another guard in the Class of 2010, wanted badly to play for the Bruins, a fact made clear to UCLA’s coaches when Crabbe was at Los Angeles’ Price High. But Howland never offered Crabbe a scholarship, and he ended up at Cal, where this season he was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

Spencer Dinwiddie, a Class of 2011 guard, attended Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft and he, like Crabbe, favored the Bruins despite the criticisms he heard about Howland. But UCLA only showed interest in Dinwiddie after he visited Colorado before his senior year and only after other guards turned the Bruins down. “I was their fallback option,” says Dinwiddie, Colorado’s leading scorer and an All-Pac-12 first-team selection this season.

The Ben Howland who took over the UCLA program in 2003 would never have dropped Williams, nor would he have been so fixated on landing highly ranked recruits that he would have passed on Williams and Crabbe and Dinwiddie, local players who had dreamed of playing for the Bruins and who resembled those that he’d won with in the past.

Why Howland shifted his focus is a mystery. Perhaps watching Memphis’ Derrick Rose carve up his team in the 2008 Final Four led Howland to believe he needed the elite of the elite to win a title. No one would mistake Williams, Crabbe and Dinwiddie for Rose. But Howland lacked the personality and people skills to manage high-maintenance players.

There were high expectations this season as Howland brought a four-man recruiting class to Westwood that was ranked No. 1 in the country. For all their hype, none of the players were from Southern California. Some seemed immune to defense, disinterested in rebounding, and too concerned with personal glory. In February, after senior Larry Drew hit a game-winning shot to lift UCLA over Washington, 59-57, star freshman Shabazz Muhammad didn’t immediately celebrate with his teammates. He was too miffed that Drew hadn’t passed him the ball.

In a few days or weeks, UCLA will have a new basketball coach. We don’t yet know what kind of offense he will run or what kind of recruits he will target or if he knows the game as well as Howland. No matter, words will surely be written declaring the new coach the right fit for the Bruins at this point in time.

Ben Howland knows this better than anyone. He was once that perfect fit, and now he is not.

He changed, and so UCLA had to make a change.

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