Hard to match John Wooden’s NCAA Tourney success

Gone: Former UCLA men's basketball coach Ben Howland could not match the NCAA Tournament success of John Wooden. Photo Credit: Burt Harris
Gone: Former UCLA men’s basketball coach Ben Howland could not match the NCAA Tournament success of John Wooden. Photo Credit: Burt Harris

It’s hard to duplicate what a legend has done. It’s a very difficult task to try to simulate what an icon has accomplished. Quite frankly, it’s darn near impossible for any UCLA basketball coach to come remotely close to achieving the type of success that John Wooden spoiled Westwood and the rest of the college basketball world with.

In this day and age, building a dynasty in the collegiate ranks is not going to happen anymore. Those days are long over. Parity now reigns. Winning the NCAA Tournament has now become an equal opportunity reality for the little guys, small schools that used to be trampled over by colossal dynasties. The way of the world has changed since Wooden collected his last NCAA basketball title in 1975.

The biggest difference is that all the super talented athletes are now going elsewhere. The one-and-done rule has shifted the talent structure on the hardware. Getting a degree in NBA arenas is now the way to go instead of doing it in the classroom. Coaches come and go like a piece of bubble gum that is about burst at any moment.

Even the most stable of Division I men’s basketball programs featuring Hall of Fame coaches can’t match the historic run of Wooden’s UCLA teams.

Sure, Duke basketball coach Mike  Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s  Jim Boeheim are close, but combined these two coaches don’t even have enough NCAA titles under their belts to reach the Mount Atlas mark of 10 Division 1 championships that Wooden recorded with his vaunted UCLA squads that included the likes of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Walton and Marques Johnson on them.

Both Krzyzewaki and Boeheim are in the hunt for another title to add to their resume. Krzyzewski, who has four championships, is trying to make it five during his team’s current NCAA Tournament run. Thanks to the play-making of now NBA star Carmelo Anthony during his freshman season with the Orangemen, Boeheim has one championship ring.

Both men have over 900 wins in their careers as coaches. Wooden won 620 games (885 victories overall) and won 10 championships as men’s basketball coach at UCLA. During that run, Wooden’s UCLA teams reached the Final Four a dozen times. That’s some pretty impressive stuff. So imagine any coach joining the Bruins’ family and being indoctrinated with the lofty expectations that Wooden made it so difficult to measure up to.

That’s not only a steep hill to climb, that’s like putting on some survivor gear before going up to conquer Mount Kilimanjaro. Good luck. Thanks for coming.

Recent UCLA men’s basketball coach Ben Howland may know what that feels like. Taking over the UCLA men’s basketball program after a successful stint at Pittsburgh, Howland’s Bruins’ teams came out like gangbusters, reaching the Final Four in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Outside of Wooden, he is the only other UCLA men’s basketball coach to achieve that feat.

Before the conference upgraded to the Pac-12, Howland and UCLA captured three Pac-10 regular season titles. In 10 seasons as head coach of the Bruins, Howland took UCLA to the Big Dance seven times, while racking up an impressive 233-107 mark at the School of Wooden.  At the end of the day, that wasn’t good enough for the Westwood faithful.

It also was not good enough for Howland to keep his job. After UCLA got bounced out of this year’s NCAA Tournament in the second-round in a blowout loss to Minnesota, Howland was permanently removed from his position, the victim of his own earlier success, let alone the pyramid of achievement set by Wooden.

“I want to thank Ben for all that he has done for UCLA in his ten seasons in Westwood,” said UCLA Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero. “He embraced our tradition and culture and produced some terrific teams and coached a number of wonderful young men. We wish Ben and his family all the best as they move onto a new chapter in their lives.”

Success can sometimes hurt an individual on their journey to greatness. Ben Howland is a great coach. There’s no doubt he’ll touch landing at another Division I school and mold that basketball program’s image into a winning one. At any other place in America, Howland would still be coaching. But UCLA isn’t just any other coaching gig. It is the Mount Rushmore of men’s college basketball.

When it comes to being head coach of the men’s basketball program at UCLA, that can be both a blessing and it can be a curse. On one hand, coaching the men’s basketball team at UCLA is perhaps the premier place to be because of the rich tradition of talent, academia and success of winning championships.

On the other hand, it is a momentous challenge of trying to win a title, something the Bruins haven’t won since 1995. College athletics isn’t what it used to be when Wooden coached. Unless Jabbar, Walton and Johnson re-incarnate themselves, running the table the way those championship UCLA squads did will likely not happen again.

This is a much different era of basketball. In order for UCLA to win another men’s basketball title, the school is going to have to find a special kind of coach, a thought they once had of Howland.

“I have been blessed with the opportunity to coach at UCLA for 10 years and I will always be grateful to Dan Guerrero and Chancellors Block, Abrams and Carnesale for the opportunity to coach and teach our players and work alongside tremendous coaches,” Howland said. “The UCLA community and fans have been unbelievable to my family and I, and it’s been an honor and privilege to represent this great institution. I look forward to what comes next.”



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