Perhaps it’s time for the UCLA men’s basketball program to take a deep look into the mirror.
The Bruins won 10 national championships under legendary head coach John Wooden in the span of 12 NCAA Tournaments from 1964 to 1975. Since then, only Jim Harrick’s 1995 team has cut the nets down on a Monday night.
The program has fired several coaches soon after success that other schools would covet. That has led to a string of questionable hires and poorly-executed coaching searches.
The 2019 coaching search could be the most embarrassing yet for UCLA, depending on how it ends.
With months to prepare for the search, UCLA’s top choice was apparently Kentucky’s John Calipari. According to The Athletic, the Bruins offered Calipari a six-year deal worth $48 million. That’s a hefty salary to be sure, but there’s one little problem with it – Calipari would’ve been taking a pay cut to accept those terms! He elected to sign a “lifetime contract” to stay at Kentucky instead.
One day after TCU lost to Texas in the NIT semifinals, it seemed as if UCLA was closing on Horned Frogs coach Jamie Dixon. Dixon reportedly called a team meeting for Thursday to break the news to his TCU players, but then negotiations hit a snag. TCU balked at reducing Dixon’s $8 million buyout, and UCLA is apparently unwilling to pay all of it.
Dixon would be a solid hire, wouldn’t ignite the fan base into a frenzy. He’s awoken the hoops program at his alma mater TCU, wining the NIT in his first season and taking the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA Tournament in 20 years.
Dixon claims a 395-164 career record, and he’s 12th among active coaches with a 71.5 winning percentage. However, he’s been to the Elite Eight just once and never advanced to the Final Four. He left Pittsburgh for TCU in part because the Pitt fan base grew tired of successful regular seasons that didn’t translate to deep runs in March.
With Dixon’s buyout halting UCLA’s desire to hire him, the school reportedly is considering Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, who played UNLV and made the school look foolish in 2015, when he got a big raise from the Bearcats. I think highly of Cronin, but that has more to do with his propensity for cashing under tickets that I’ve consistently invested in during the last half-dozen years.
Cronin has taken Cincinnati to nine straight NCAA Tournaments, but he’s only advanced to the Sweet 16 once (2012). He was born and raised on the West side of The Queen City and despite another early tournament exit, Cronin has plenty of job security. If UCLA isn’t careful, Cronin could use the Bruins to get another raise from his alma mater.
UCLA’s last championship, 24 years ago
In 1995, senior point guard Tyus Edney went coast-to-coast with 4.8 seconds remaining for a buzzer-beating bank shot to beat Missouri in the Round of 32.
Edney injured his ankle in the national semifinals. UCLA faced defending national champion Arkansas and Nolan Richardson’s “40 Minutes of Hell” with its backup sophomore point guard.
The Bruins broke Richardson’s vaunted press with a player from Atlanta Douglass High School by the name of Cameron Dollar.
Dollar had prepared for that moment his entire life. His father, Donald Dollar, won three state championships as head coach at Atlanta Douglass. His older brother Chad, now an assistant for Tom Crean at Georgia, played college ball at South Florida.
In the game’s final 36 minutes, Dollar never left the court and carved up the Razorbacks’ defense with eight assists and four steals to lead the Bruins to an 89-78 victory.
By Tuesday, 24 NCAA Tournaments will have passed without UCLA winning one. Hell, the Bruins have only made it to the finals once since 1995, and Florida destroyed them 73-57 in the 2006 championship game.
Less than two years passed after the ’95 title before the program fell into its current hiring cycle.
UCLA expects more than Sweet 16 trips long after dynasty ended
Nineteen months after winning the national title, UCLA fired Harrick because he lied to the school about a recruiting dinner and falsified an expense report.
The school has made a string of hires since then, seemingly without realizing how many years have passed since the program won a championship.
Pauley Pavilion’s prestige is gone. Many of the current player’s parents weren’t even alive for Wooden’s last championship.
Yet UCLA expects each new coach to win it all. One bad season in Westwood will get you fired.
Ben Howland went to seven NCAA Tournaments during his 10-year tenure (2003-13), winning 233 games at a 68.5 percent clip. He took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours, going 15-7 in 23 NCAA Tournament games.
When Howland won just one NCAA Tournament game in four seasons, UCLA handed him a pink slip.
Before Howland arrived, Steve Lavin coached the Bruins for seven seasons. He took UCLA to six NCAA Tournaments, five Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight in his first six years. He had a bad season in Year 7 (10-19) and the Bruins fired him immediately.
I’ve always said that – regardless of the school’s name on the front of the jersey — advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament represents a successful season in college basketball. It’s a one-and-done format. Anything can happen in the span of a 40-minute basketball game.
Is Virginia’s Tony Bennett a better coach today that he was at this time last year, when his team became the first No. 1 seed to ever get ousted by a No. 16 seed? Of course not, but his team is now the +140 chalk to win Monday. night in Minneapolis.
Why does AD Dan Guerrero still have a job?
Lavin took UCLA to the Sweet 16 one year before the school fired him. When the school dismissed Howland, it struck out badly in its quest to find a new coach. UCLA made strong pushes to hire the coaches at mid-major schools like Butler (Brad Stevens) and Virginia Commonwealth (Shaka Smart), only to miss on them and other top-tier candidates.
Nobody wanted the job at one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
It was so bad that UCLA had to settle for Steve Alford, a legendary player at Indiana who led the Hoosiers to the 1987 national title, but a coach with a 5-7 career record in the NCAA Tournament. Alford had just coached New Mexico to a 29-win season in 2013, only to lose to 14-seed Harvard. Iowa and won 25 games under Alford in 2006, and 14-seed Northwestern State beat them in the tournament.
We often hear the word fit when it comes to hiring new coaches. Well, if a dude that played at Indiana and spent his entire life in the Midwest is a cultural fit for Southern California, then UCLA AD Dan Guerrero knows something the rest of us are missing.
Then again, no he doesn’t. During his introductory presser, the second question Alford faced was about his support for Iowa basketball player Pierre Pierce, who was accused of sexual assault and later took a plea to a lesser charge. Alford gave an unacceptable answer and his tenure got off to an inauspicious start.
Nine days later, Alford released a prepared statement apologizing for his actions in the Pierce case. Likewise, Guerrero issued a statement but didn’t make himself available for questions.
Guerrero somehow remains UCLA’s athletic director, so the current coaching search is his baby.
Remember, he fired Alford on New Year’s Eve.
Why does an AD dismiss a coach so early in the season, especially when he’s taken the program to four tournaments and three Sweet 16 appearances in his first five years? To get an advantage over other schools by using January and February to vet candidates and swiftly hire a top target.
Programs lacking traditional success are making outstanding hires
But here we are on April 5 and UCLA still doesn’t have a coach. Alabama hired Nate Oats more than a week ago and he’s already making noise on the recruiting trail. The Crimson Tide’s hoops program has one NCAA Tournament win in the last 13 seasons, has never made the Final Four and has been to the Elite Eight only once in school history.
Texas A&M has never won a Sweet 16 game, but the Aggies successfully hired their only target in Buzz Williams and announced his arrival in College Station at an electric press conference Thursday. Nebraska, the only school from a Power 6 conference that has never won an NCAA Tournament game, inked Fred Hoiberg to a seven-year, $25 million deal.
We should also note that Nebraska took its time in deciding to part with Tim Miles, who took his team to the second round of the NIT and wasn’t let go until days later. Still, the Cornhuskers didn’t have any issues hiring Hoiberg, who won 23, 23, 28 and 25 games and went to four consecutive NCAA Tournaments at Iowa State before the NBA’s Chicago Bulls hired him.
Even schools like Tulane and Troy – yes, Troy, the low-major school in Southern Alabama – already made outstanding hires.
The Green Wave replaced Mike Dunleavy Sr. with Ron Hunter, who took Georgia State to three NCAA Tournaments in the last five seasons. The Trojans hired Scott Cross, who won 24, 27 and 21 games in the final three seasons of his tenure at UT-Arlington before his controversial dismissal last year. (The Mavericks went 17-16 in their first year without Cross.)
Again, remember that UCLA worked on this search for months, only to put together an ill-conceived offer to Calipari that had no chance of succeeding.
Now the NCAA Tournament is about to finish, and we’re still waiting on UCLA to make a hire.
If another embarrassing coaching search hasn’t proven a point to UCLA that the rest of us figured out long ago, then that’s on the school and the people running the show. UCLA basketball is what it is these days, a program with one national championship in the last 44 years. And one that still hasn’t hired a new coach more than three months after getting rid of its last desperation hire.