UCLA's marquee sports program—its men's basketball team—are winners of 11 national championships. But, once the coaching domain of the greatest man to ever wear a whistle, John Wooden, isn't doing so hot right now.
Their center is very overweight, very much out of shape, can barely log in 15 minutes on the floor and often gets into foul trouble when he is playing.
Their star power forward—who was the cover boy on Sports Illustrated's College Basketball Preview issue—was kicked off the team last week because, as his mother said, he's a "14-year old boy in a 20-year old's body," and often acted like such with his bad attitude and behavior (via The Washington Post)
Not to mention the fact that these Bruins have lost to teams like Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee State on their way to a 3-5 record so far this season.
Granted, they played well in beating Penn, but that doesn't change the fact that there are problems with this team that was picked by many to win the Pac-12 Conference.
Inconsistent guard play and sub-par free-throw shooting are among the issues, but I can't help thinking about the one thing that at least some people seem to be ignoring.
Let me explain.
When I was a kid, I once read a quote from former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda upon being hired by that team at the end of the 1976 season, pertaining to his philosophy of running a baseball club and working with athletes. He said:
"Managing is like holding a dove in your hand; squeeze it too hard and you'll kill it, not hard enough and it flies away" (via Los Angeles Dodgers Online).
Now I absolutely must emphasize that I think Bruin head coach Ben Howland is a very good coach: His three consecutive Final Fours in 2006, 2007 and 2008 more than prove that.
And only someone stupid would question his ability.
However, when Lasorda talked about squeezing the dove too hard and killing it, Howland definitely came to mind. His authoritarian, "my way or the highway" ways, in my view, indicate he is squeezing that dove way too hard, and has been for pretty much his entire tenure at UCLA.
It was that "my way or the highway" culture that has driven away quite a few players.
Chase Stanback is now at UNLV, J'mison "Bobo" Morgan is now at Baylor and notably Drew Gordon, who's currently at New Mexico. Gordon mentioned in the Los Angeles Times how he felt that Howland wouldn't listen to him, which was a main factor in his transferring.
And we can't forget guys like Jrue Holiday and Kevin Love—solid players, if not stars—in the NBA after playing in Westwood only one year. I suspect that besides the riches that the NBA has brought them, Holiday and Love weren't too wild about playing for a guy with a dictatorial style like Howland.
While I don't think that Howland should shoulder all of the blame for the mess that his UCLA Bruins are in, there is one message that he should hear that I feel very strongly: Sometimes you just have to let your players play.
Basketball players nowadays like to run and go on fast breaks, and the Bruin coach's half-court offense is too restricting, too straitjacketing and simply not fun to too many young guys who are looking for a college.
That's why Howland needs to lighten up and loosen his style, at least to some degree.
The reason? Because his team's win-loss record can't continue at the rate it is now.
And if it does, when Pauley Pavilion, which is under renovation, reopens in the fall of 2012, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero may decide that a new coach—someone whose style is less harsh—may be needed to go with a new Pauley.
It's like what John Wooden said, and something that Howland should take to heart:
Failure is not fatal, but failure to change may be.
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