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How can you compare Ben Howland to John Wooden?

Things aren't the same for UCLA basketball. Times have changed, and you can bet Wooden would have changed with them.

March 06, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • UCLA coaching great John Wooden, right, and UCLA Coach Ben Howland attend a commemorative ceremony at the Los Angeles Coliseum Court of Honor on the USC campus in May 2008. It isn't fair to think Howland should be capable of replicating the success Wooden had.
UCLA coaching great John Wooden, right, and UCLA Coach Ben Howland attend… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

John Wooden is dead.

He hasn't coached in 37 years.

He might be the finest man many have ever known next to their own fathers. And the memories remain wonderful.

But like my own father, as much as I would like to go on and on about him to my children and grandchildren, they don't really care. Mention my grandparents, whom they never met, and well, forget it.

Wooden is gone. But those who like to reflect on the past probably would be stunned to learn that the past doesn't mean as much to this generation as it does to them.

How many UCLA student-athletes who walk through the J.D. Morgan Center every day could tell you who J.D. Morgan was?

This week, atop the recent Sports Illustrated rift, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes a story for under the headline: "UCLA fix: Return to the Wooden Way.''

Abdul-Jabbar is not kind to UCLA Coach Ben Howland. The theme of his commentary comes across loud and clear in the caption below a picture of himself and Wooden.

It reads: "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Wooden forged a bond that lasted until Wooden's death. That might not be happening often enough between Ben Howland and his players."

How could it?

There was no early NBA escape route in Wooden's day. And one of the great joys in his life was talking about players who would return years later to tell him how they finally understood what he had been trying to teach them.

For the most part, Wooden spent four years with his players with championships doing wonders to tighten the bond between coach and player. The last few decades of his life, Wooden was considered more saint than anything else.

Ben Howland is not John Wooden. If that's the issue, or the criteria by which he is to be judged, he was a goner from the moment he arrived.

Abdul-Jabbar writes in his commentary: "When I was on the New York Knicks' staff, I had the opportunity to interact with Trevor Ariza. Trevor felt he did not fit in Coach Howland's system very well, so he left for the NBA instead of trying to deal with his coach's way of doing things."

He doesn't mention it, but I wonder what Wooden might have said about that?

Abdul-Jabbar continues: "[Ariza] indicated that if he had to deal with a personality such as Howland's, he preferred to get paid for doing so. This trend appeared to continue as the program recruited more players who would rather leave than deal with Coach Howland's personality.

"It's been reported that some players who joined the program became involved in various types of substance abuse and showed no respect for the coaching staff.

"The ideals of the Wooden era could not survive in this type of climate, and in a short period of time, the program was not winning games or the hearts of Bruins."

The ideals of the Wooden era are just that — the ideals of the Wooden era. I remember Dr. O'Donnell making house calls when I was kid. Ideally, I wish every doctor did the same today.

The ideals of the Wooden era allowed Wooden to remain coaching at UCLA for 16 years before he won his first national title. Every UCLA coach should enjoy the same opportunity today.

Howland has no obligation to maintain the Wooden era.

And yet no one has talked more glowingly and paid Wooden more respect than Howland. It has been almost a Howland obsession.

But tell me today's kid, recruited to one day play in the NBA, gives a hoot about the Pyramid of Success. Tell me he should, as many emailers will, and there's no argument.

But then every kid should be a good kid, abiding by the rules, thrilled to practice and get good grades. And dream on.

Are we to believe now every athlete who played for Wooden embraced the Pyramid of Success?

Howland has made recruiting mistakes, and I suspect so did Wooden. Howland hasn't always responded as he should to problems, and I suspect Wooden stumbled on occasion.

"If I were in Coach Howland's position," writes Abdul-Jabbar, and how would that go? Would he do things just the way Wooden did, or his own way?

I can't stand UCLA basketball, but it has to do with Howland's stifling style on the sideline. Now it's funny to hear him being criticized for lacking control when I consider him a control freak.

But there is no doubt he is a good coach. And that seems lost in all this.

Sports Illustrated began its assessment of the job being done by Howland by writing about Wooden. Up against that standard, Howland is not going to come off very well.

Had SI discovered possible NCAA violations in the basketball program, I suspect the violations would have instead been given the prominent play.

But SI discovered only ugly behavior, uglier when mentioned in contrast to what Saint John stood for while at UCLA, and oh how he hated to be called that.

A few years back I mentioned the changing times, tattoos, the lure of the NBA and told Wooden, "You'd have to change if coaching again."

"If one of my players made a fancy dunk today, I'd put him on the bench," Wooden replied.

But then with a twinkle in his eyes he added, "I didn't say how long he'd be on the bench."

It's John Wooden being John Wooden, quick with the adjustments. Isn't that how great coaches should be judged?

Shouldn't UCLA's coach today get the same opportunity? Ben Howland being Ben Howland, adjustments where needed?

And that doesn't necessarily mean being Wooden-like.

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