Bruins Coach Ben Howland argues a call in the second half of the game against… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)
UCLA Coach Ben Howland stepped down from the podium after his postgame news conference Thursday. There to greet him after a gritty victory over Washington was Mark Harlan, senior associate athletic director.
Harlan put his arm around Howland and patted him on the back.
An endorsement? For the moment.
The Bruins hunkered down against Washington and got a key Pac-12 victory, but not everyone was happy. Fans still carped at Howland in cyberspace, while ESPN analyst, and former UCLA player, Bill Walton went at him over the air.
The Bruins (17-6 overall, 7-3 in conference play) face Washington State (11-12, 2-8) on Saturday. UCLA is tied with Oregon for second in the Pac-12, one game behind Arizona. But Howland's future probably will remain a hot-button issue, no matter how much Athletic Director Dan Guerrero would like the topic to be shelved.
"In all fairness, for everyone concerned, we got a lot of season left to play, and a lot to play for," Guerrero said. "This isn't really a topic that should be discussed in the media. There is nothing to report. The players will play hard, the coaches will coach hard and we'll see where we end up."
But as the regular season heads down the stretch, two things are apparent: UCLA is in the thick of the Pac-12 race and people are going to complain about Howland, including Walton, who ripped him throughout Thursday's broadcast.
"As broadcaster and analyst, that's his job," Howland said. "For me, Bill is one of the greatest players in the history of college basketball. He holds such a special place in basketball lore."
As to Walton's on-air critiques, Howland said, "I think we've talked about this in the past. He has been critical in other games he has done — Missouri, Arizona."
The Bruins won all three games.
Still, Howland took to defending Walton.
"Bill was 60-0 his first two years [at UCLA]," Howland said. "His reference point is pretty special. I understand that."
Walton's opinion is not likely to be a tipping point. Guerrero is the one who will decide, and he is monitoring.
Howland landed the nation's No. 2 recruiting class to christen the renovated Pauley Pavilion. But the Bruins' progress has been uneven.
UCLA has victories over No. 21 Missouri, ranked seventh at the time, and No. 7 Arizona at Tucson. There have been home losses, unacceptable to fans, to Cal Poly and USC.
Guerrero said that in a quarter-century as an athletic director, he has been in "many situations where there has been speculation about a coach." The acceleration of social media, he said, "makes these issues much more prominent."
Still, there are reasons to ask the question. The Bruins have missed the NCAA tournament two of the last three seasons.
"There were high expectations, and Ben knows that, the coaches know that and the players know that," Guerrero said. "They have the same expectations. As the season has progressed, there have been ups and downs, but those expectations haven't wavered. We'll see how this plays out."
Howland, meanwhile, accepts the criticism of fans and Walton, saying, "It comes with the job."
On Thursday, so did a pat on the back from Harlan.