Ben Howland talks at a news conference on Monday after being fired by UCLA… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
The saddest part of the Ben Howland saga at UCLA is not that a decent guy and good coach got fired. He's a big boy. He'll be fine.
Give it a couple of years and he'll have another team in Pauley Pavilion, rendering UCLA black-and-not-so-Bruins-blue.
No, the saddest part is that college athletics slipped further away from its mission. It was never supposed to be win at all costs. It was never supposed to be seasons that demanded ultimate victories, that made success in conference tournaments and the NCAA life and death.
Why do conference tournaments exist? What's the point? Can't you determine a champion in 18 games?
Of course you can, but then the schools and the conferences miss all the extra money generated by the tournament, and television and the media in general miss the extra lead-in hype for the NCAA tournament. March Madness and all this nonstop bracket baloney are marketing, not sport. They have nothing to do with education or personal growth, which once were actual considerations in the measurement of success in college sports.
Sure, the public loves March Madness and its brackets. How can it not? They are shoved down its throat for a month by all forms of media. Everybody makes a buck, except the college kids who do all the heavy lifting.
Forget Howland. How do you think his players feel these days? They won a Pac-12 regular-season title, a much more valid test of growth, skill and learning than a live-or-die weekend in Vegas. And what happened? They lost the final game in Vegas, then their NCAA opener, their coach was fired and now they all feel like losers.
Forget Shabazz Muhammad and his gold-digger father. What do you think, Travis and David Wear? What about you, Larry Drew? Are people on campus slapping you on the back and thanking you for a good season? How does that college experience feel now? Still nostalgic about being surrounded by those vine-covered buildings? Hell, no.
All the world seems to care about is that you didn't win the big one and got your coach fired. How's that for a college experience?
UCLA had a big chance here. Its athletic director, Dan Guerrero, had a big chance. Granted, this was not easy because the noise was deafening.
You've got to win the big one. Elite Eight or bust. Howland has to go. Too long since the last Final Four appearance. UCLA deserves better (huh?). Howland has to go. This is John Wooden's school. Too many transfers. Too many empty seats in Pauley. Too many players going pro early. Howland has to go.
Because there have been no indications of malfeasance by Howland, Guerrero and his athletic department minions needed to stand up, quiet the noise and just say no.
No, we won't be firing a coach with a 10-year record of achievement, unless we think that coach has not done a good job of teaching and growing the young men on his team. No, we won't bow to the noise and hysteria of anonymous Internet dweebs and unsubstantiated public opinion. We may have some empty seats in Pauley Pavilion next season, but we'd rather live with that than the perception that winning and money are all that matter to us.
No, we will not hide behind the pathetic and cliched "We are going in another direction" drivel.
Additionally, we would hope the retention of our coach, in the face of this noise, will stand as a call to all of college athletics to revisit its educational mission.
Oh, and one more thing. We are going to take the pressure off our coach by demanding he recruit only players who fit his standards of work ethic and will not come here looking to leave after a season. We hope to go back to building a team of juniors and seniors before we voice any expectations of tournament success. We can wait. That's part of the educational process.
Wouldn't that have been sweet? Wouldn't that have set UCLA on a pedestal? Wouldn't that have made Wooden proud, maybe more than any of his 10 NCAA titles, all achieved while making education and the college experience the focal point?
But no. UCLA slipped right down into the abyss with so much of the rest of college athletics, in which the sermon of education has become a nice time-killer before they pass the collection plate.
Howland held a news conference Monday and departed with class. No whining. No excuses. No burning of bridges.
He's the lucky one. Now he can go someplace that won't bring him down.