Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the college basketball programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures along the way.
This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series launches with the UCLA Bruins, the program that still holds the record for national championships (11), but has now spent nearly a half-century grappling with the legacy left by the late, great John R. Wooden.
Icon: John Wooden
Seasons coached: 1949-75
Key accomplishments: 10 national championships, 12 Final Fours, 620-147 record (.808 winning percentage)
“There are those individuals who believe the Wooden era can be replicated. It’s not likely in our lifetimes.” — UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero in 2003.
“The only one who should have felt that kind of pressure was my immediate successor … The only thing I can say is that sometimes people put undue pressures on themselves. Maybe he agonized over things you don’t need to agonize over.” — John Wooden, to The Washington Post, upon Larry Farmer’s 1984 resignation.
Ranking the Wooden chasers
10. Murry Bartow (interim, 2019), 10-10 (.500) — Bartow, the son of former UCLA head coach Gene Bartow, was elevated from assistant to interim head coach after Steve Alford’s firing in December 2018.
9. Walt Hazzard (1985-88), 77-47 (.621) — Hazzard was a former UCLA playing great under John Wooden whose experience as a head coach had come at Division II Chapman College. He won the NIT title in Year 1 at UCLA but reached the NCAA tournament just once in four seasons, and was fired after a 16-14 finish in 1987-88.
8. Larry Farmer (1982-84), 61-23 (.726) — The 30-year-old Farmer had played under Wooden and was an assistant under three different UCLA coaches, but inherited a program saddled with NCAA violations left over from his predecessor, Larry Brown. After Farmer’s third season, in which the Bruins’ record dipped to 17-11, he resigned amid friction with AD Peter Dalis — who reportedly mandated that he hire two assistant coaches, one of whom was eventual successor Walt Hazzard.
7. Gary Cunningham (1978-79), 50-8 (.862) — After previously serving as a player and assistant coach under Wooden, Cunningham succeeded Gene Bartow and was tasked with a job he never seemed to want. After a pair of NCAA tournaments, the 39-year-old Cunningham left to become the AD at Western Oregon — and never coached again. “I just didn’t want to do it,” Cunningham told the Orange County Register in 1993. “I had to do what was right for me. And I simply enjoyed administration more.”
6. Steve Alford (2014-19), 124-63 (.663) — Alford led the Bruins to the Sweet 16 in three of his first four seasons in Westwood, but could not get UCLA to the Final Four in spite of future NBA talent including Zach LaVine, Kyle Anderson, Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf. The role and playing time of Alford’s point guard son, Bryce, was a hot-button issue among the team’s fan base.
5. Larry Brown (1980-81), 42-17 (.712), 1 Final Four — UCLA went “outside the family” in appointing Brown, formerly the head coach of the Denver Nuggets. Brown led the Bruins on a surprising Final Four run in Year 1 — the appearance was later vacated due to NCAA violations that landed the program on probation — but left for the New Jersey Nets after a tumultuous second season that included reported death threats to Brown. “It’s best for him and his family,” star player Darren Daye told UPI of Brown’s departure to the NBA. “Who wouldn’t want to make $170,000 a year?”
4. Steve Lavin (1997-03), 145-78 (.650) — Two years removed from earning $16,000 as an assistant at UCLA, the 32-year-old Lavin was named interim head coach following Jim Harrick’s ouster in November 1996 and would stay on for seven seasons. In hindsight, the Lavin era was relatively stable — UCLA reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament five times in seven years and had the nation’s top recruiting class twice over that stretch — but he never reached the Final Four, was not fully embraced by an oft-critical fan base and was ultimately fired after a disastrous 10-19 season in 2002-03.
3. Gene Bartow (1976-77), 51-10 (.836), 1 Final Four — Bartow, formerly the head coach at Illinois and Memphis, was saddled with the unenviable task of replacing Wooden. Bartow reached one Final Four in his two seasons before the stress of the UCLA job led to him accepting a position starting UAB’s basketball program. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place,” star UCLA player Marques Johnson told the Los Angeles Times upon Bartow’s death in 2012. “He never came to grips with it.”
2. Jim Harrick (1989-96), 191-63 (.752), 1 National Championship, 1 Final Four — Harrick, who had been an assistant under Cunningham, returned to Westwood as head coach after nine successful years at Pepperdine. He would become the only UCLA coach of the post-Wooden era to date to win a national title (1995), but left acrimoniously after admitting to lying on an expense report for a dinner that impermissibly included recruits Earl Watson and Jason and Jarron Collins. Again, AD Peter Dalis’ name was cited in the ouster of a coach. ”Dalis has been after me for years,” Harrick told The New York Times.
1. Ben Howland (2004-13), 233-107 (.685), 3 Final Fours — Howland stands as the most consistent of Wooden’s successors, reaching the Final Four in three straight years (2006-08) before a four-year drought without reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament led to his firing in 2013. Criticism about UCLA’s style of play, flagging ticket sales at a renovated Pauley Pavilion and a damning Sports Illustrated article that portrayed Howland’s program as directionless were other notable characteristics of the hot-and-cold Howland era.
N/A. Mick Cronin (first season) — The longtime Cincinnati coach, Cronin was hired by UCLA on April 9 after a prolonged search that saw the university strike out on reported targets including Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes.
Roundtable: Where has UCLA gone wrong?
The list of John Wooden successors is really not a horrible list — there are lots of well-respected names above, and coaches who have won at other places. In your estimation, what’s the biggest factor in UCLA’s lack of sustained success in the post-Wooden era?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: Perception and luck, in that order. UCLA has had what any program not named Duke, Kentucky, Kansas or North Carolina would call success over the past 45 years. The Bruins even won a national title without Wooden, but when your most successful coaches don’t leave on their own terms, the program is tagged, understandably, as somehow underperforming. Jim Harrick won it all in 1995 but was let go within 19 months. Howland went to three consecutive Final Fours yet still worked his way to a firing that didn’t surprise people at the time. Also, how different is this conversation if, say, Howland’s 2006 team wins one more game (a national title) or if Steve Alford’s 2017 team with Lonzo Ball wins a couple more (Final Four)? It’s all about consistent success in the tournament.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think UCLA is a victim of an era that defines every team according to its performance in the NCAA tournament. After Wooden retired, Bartow amassed a 52-9 record in two seasons. But he’s remembered for his loss to Bob Knight’s undefeated Indiana team in the 1976 Final Four and a 1977 loss in the Sweet 16 to Idaho State, despite having All-American Marques Johnson on his roster. There were eight consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more after Wooden left his post but only two trips to the Final Four before the 1995 national title run. Folks don’t value regular-season consistency as much as they emphasize the results in the crapshoot known as the NCAA tournament. And UCLA is the poster child for that reality.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: I think it’s the expectations. As the question states, there have been a number of coaches with a good amount of success in Westwood — but those guys have still been run out of town. UCLA fans want success, but they also want to recruit with the best programs in the country, they want to play an attractive style and they want to have the swagger of a blueblood. After all, it’s the most successful program in college basketball history. The best example of this reality is Howland. He led the Bruins to three straight Final Fours, but couldn’t sustain it and started losing the fans when his slow style was no longer winning at a high rate. Steve Alford had success, but he essentially needed Lonzo Ball and that 2017 team that played some of the best basketball in the country to keep his job. This is not a job that solely demands winning. I’m also not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Fill in the blanks: ____________ could have been the answer at UCLA if only ____________.
Borzello: Jim Harrick had it rolling for a bit, but I think I’ll go with Steve Lavin had he gotten over the Final Four hump. In a vacuum, Lavin ticked a lot of boxes for the UCLA job. He had personality and charisma, reached the Sweet 16 on five occasions, was recruiting as well as anyone in the country and played an up-tempo style. He was missing the high-level success, however. Despite the impressive NCAA tournament performances, Lavin never finished better than third in the then-Pac-10 after his debut campaign in 1996-97. He never won 25 games in a season. He won just one Pac-10 title. And he never went to a Final Four. Had Lavin won more trophies, perhaps the fan base would have embraced him a bit more.
Gasaway: Ben Howland could have been the answer at UCLA if only he hadn’t drifted into an odd “Billy Gillispie at Kentucky” kind of moment by 2012-13. Maybe the coach’s playing style wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea in theory, but fans will love any style as long as it works. Still, the main “style” the Bruins were exhibiting by the end of Howland’s tenure was malaise if not outright unhappiness. Yes, even that last team that won the Pac-12, which I guess kind of proves my point: Howland could have been the answer if he had maintained 50th percentile-level off-court normalcy and harmony in Westwood.
Medcalf: Steve Alford could have been the answer at UCLA if only he were a better leader. In all, 13 players who competed for Alford at UCLA went on to play in the NBA. From 2016-2018, he had three top-five recruiting classes. During those same years, double-digit seeds Syracuse and Loyola-Chicago made Final Four runs, while Alford never took his team past the Sweet 16 and never won the Pac-12. With more success, Alford would have had an opportunity to keep the talent pipeline hot for the Bruins. But he never found a way to mold the elite athletes on his roster into imposing units. I don’t think the expectations were as high for Alford as they had been for Lavin, Harrick and Howland, either. Alford missed out on a great opportunity at UCLA.
The perception (and UCLA fans will tell you it’s an inaccurate perception) is that UCLA and its fan base set the bar at “national championship,” which would be an ill-fitting standard for a program that has one national title in 44 years. What are the reasonable expectations for this program?
Medcalf: Yeah, nobody in LA thinks they’re going back to the glory years. But I also think the fan base’s expectations go beyond the results on the court, too. Some around the program, including key boosters, questioned Alford’s respect for the program and its history. Although UCLA fans know they’re a long way from being who they once were, they certainly want you to know and acknowledge their legacy. When boosters flew “Fire Alford!” banners over campus, the former head coach wasn’t rattled. There were some, however, who hoped to see a more passionate reaction from Alford. Perception matters a lot on that campus. And the perception was that Alford had never been the right fit for the program. You don’t have to be Wooden, but you’d better understand that fan base wants a great leader to guide its program.
Borzello: I think the days of UCLA being mentioned with Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky at the top of the sport are probably over for the foreseeable future. But there’s no reason the Bruins shouldn’t be in that next tier of programs, with the likes of Indiana, Louisville, Arizona, Michigan State, etc. They should still be striving for Final Four appearances, but Mick Cronin should be given time to get things rolling again. Once Cronin gets his legs under him, competing annually for Pac-12 titles and sitting in the top 25 every season are reasonable expectations.
Gasaway: What Borzello said. UCLA and Arizona are locked in a battle for Pac-12 supremacy, a contest that was already going strong when the programs both won national titles within two seasons of each other 20-plus years ago. Yes, Oregon has had its say in this conversation over the past decade or so. If the Ducks keep doing what they’ve been doing, they can be classed with the Bruins and Wildcats on a tier where you’ll also bump into the likes of Tom Izzo, Mark Few, Jim Boeheim and other such notables.
Much was made of the labored UCLA coaching search that ultimately yielded Mick Cronin. What does UCLA’s latest search say about the quality of the job?
Borzello: I think the search was far too drawn-out and publicly conducted, but I also think they went about the early stages in a fairly sensible fashion. Tony Bennett wasn’t going to leave Virginia for UCLA; he fits perfectly in his current spot. Same with John Calipari. But UCLA still has to make those phone calls. It was the pursuit of TCU’s Jamie Dixon and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes that was the embarrassing part. Not that Dixon and Barnes aren’t fine coaches, but the buyout issues with both coaches should have been figured out before rumors of offers and negotiations went public.
The job isn’t what it once was, though. There are questions about money, there are issues around charter vs. commercial flights, there are the recent struggles of the Pac-12 — and there’s the fact it’s going to be hard to pack the arena for weekday games that start at 6 p.m. local time. Had you said in January that Mick Cronin was going to be the next head coach of UCLA, it would have been met with an understanding nod. It’s the path the Bruins took to get there that brings the negative narrative.
Medcalf: I think Rick Barnes’ comments highlighted the problems with that job. Barnes said UCLA had a chance to land him had it been willing to pay his $5 million buyout. The Bruins didn’t want to do that, so Barnes stayed in Knoxville. But it was also a sign that UCLA isn’t going to do everything possible to attract a coach. Coaches like Chris Beard and Gregg Marshall are making salaries in the $4 million ballpark because their schools refused to let them go. Doesn’t seem like UCLA had that “at all costs” attitude entering this search. Coaches know that. And they can make the same money in markets with significantly lower costs of living. UCLA is still a good job. I don’t believe it’s a great job.
Gasaway: On paper, UCLA is still a premier job. It’s located in a sunny metropolis that also happens to be a basketball talent gold mine, the recruiting has been consistently elite across two different coaching regimes in the one-and-done era, and you can’t throw a stick at the current NBA without hitting a bunch of alums. The wild card in the quality of the job going forward, however, is the quality of the Pac-12. Statistically in 2018-19, the league was actually weaker than the conference Cronin just left. Is the weakness of the Pac-12 the product of a cyclical and temporary downturn, or does it reflect the emergence of something new and more systemic? If it turns out to be the latter, that will diminish the quality of the UCLA job.
Crystal ball time: What will the Mick Cronin era look like at UCLA? Are you expecting even a Harrick- or Howland-like level of success, or will it be more of the same?
Medcalf: Mick Cronin is a great coach. He’s been underrated for years, and the narrative related to the timing of the hiring process wasn’t fair to him and the achievements he’s amassed in his tenure. One of his great gifts is his ability to mold unheralded players into stars. Cronin will add a level of toughness to a program that’s lacked that quality in recent years. I think UCLA will be a team that competes for Pac-12 titles and reaches the second weekend of the NCAA tournament multiple times under Cronin if he can recruit the right guys.
Borzello: I don’t know if Cronin gets to a Final Four or wins a national championship during his time at UCLA. I do think he’ll bring a much-needed culture change to Westwood, but I also think Cronin might need to adapt in some ways. If he immediately wins big playing and recruiting the way his Cincinnati teams did, there will be no complaints. It yielded plenty of regular-season success with the Bearcats. But we’ve also seen the UCLA fan base become unforgiving if the success slows down and the recruiting classes aren’t near the top of the rankings and the team isn’t entertaining on the court. I guess I’ll say it’s something in between Howland’s Final Four run and what Steve Alford did.
Gasaway: If Cronin can maintain a Howland- and Alford-like level of recruiting (and that’s a mammoth “if”), I’m bullish. The main thing to be said about a coach with a 6-9 NCAA tournament record the past nine years is that he gets to the NCAA tournament every year. When a coach can do that, the deep tournament run that has eluded him thus far will happen eventually.
Next week in Chasing Ghosts: UMass