MINNEAPOLIS — In the teeming lobby of the downtown Hilton hotel, the coaching rumors fly like January snow here in the Twin Cities.
On Thursday, the word was everywhere: TCU’s Jamie Dixon to UCLA. The consensus: UCLA stumbled into hiring the right coach.
By Friday morning, the rumors had slowed: Dixon had gone from a lock to move to Westwood to a maybe, perhaps even a long shot. Turns out he has an $8 million buyout at his alma mater, and UCLA was balking at paying it.
After all, UCLA is UCLA, right?
An old story pretty much sums up UCLA’s skewed view of where it fits in the basketball pantheon. It dates to 1984-85, Walt Hazzard’s first season as coach at the school he helped win its first national championship in 1964.
The Bruins didn’t make the NCAA tournament that year, but they did win the NIT. Upon returning from New York, having beaten a Bob Knight-coached Indiana team in the final, Hazzard called Peter Dalis, then the athletic director, and said, “Where do we hang the banner?”
“The NIT banner.”
According to Hazzard, who died in 2011, there was a long pause on the other end of the phone.
“Walt,” Dalis said, “We don’t hang NIT banners in Pauley Pavilion.”
They hang NCAA national championship banners in Pauley Pavilion. There are 11 of them — 10 won by John Wooden’s teams between 1964 and 1975 and the outlier, the 1995 banner won by a Jim Harrick-coached team. That is UCLA’s most recent NCAA title. The Bruins did go to three straight Final Fours under Ben Howland between 2006 and 2008, but they haven’t sniffed the last weekend of the college season since.
This past season, Steve Alford was fired in December after the team’s fourth straight loss, a humiliating defeat at home to Liberty. Murry Bartow, son of Gene Bartow — the man who succeeded Wooden — took over, and UCLA finished 17-16, 9-9 in a weak Pac-12.
To lend a little perspective to how far the once-mighty have fallen, consider this: In Wooden’s final nine seasons at UCLA, the Bruins won eight national titles and went 259-12.
That, though, was a long time ago in a college basketball galaxy far, far away.
Yet UCLA’s view of itself doesn’t seem to have changed much since the days of Hazzard’s NIT title. Earl Watson, who played for UCLA from 1997 to 2001 and coached the Phoenix Suns after a lengthy NBA playing career, tweeted the following as the search dragged on: “Leadership doesn’t react, it responds. All of these inner combating UCLA tweets from Bruins are classless. If you knew Coach Wooden like I did, then you’d know he’d be disgusted and most of you would be quiet. Don’t forget who we are!”
Wooden hasn’t coached since 1975. He died in 2010. Yet UCLA people still invoke his name constantly as if he will walk through the door any minute trailed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton.
The Bruins have been living off past glories for years, working with a relatively small budget for a power conference school and thinking big-time coaches are going to come work for them at cut-rate salaries because it’s UCLA.
Those days are long gone, as UCLA has been finding out.
The first two names thrown out by UCLA people as possible replacements for Bartow were John Calipari and Tony Bennett. There was as much chance of either of them moving west as there was of Wooden showing up again.
Bennett loves his job at Virginia and is built for Charlottesville — not Los Angeles. Calipari might fit in Hollywood, but he’s a god in Kentucky, and he and his agent were able to use UCLA’s interest to get Kentucky to give him a lifetime contract.
UCLA is far from unusual when it comes to athletic directors and boosters getting too far out over their skis. Alumni and boosters almost everywhere are always convinced they can do better than the guy occupying the coach’s office at that moment.
It happens all over Division I. Saint Joseph’s recently fired Phil Martelli after 24 years as coach. The Hawks were disappointing this season but won 28 games as recently as three years ago and have all their key players returning next year. Athletic Director Jill Bodensteiner ended up hiring Billy Lange, who is one of basketball’s good guys but who also went 92-115 and never won a Patriot League tournament game in seven seasons as head coach at Navy.
At William & Mary, Tony Shaver turned one of the worst Division I programs in the country into a consistent contender in the Colonial Athletic Association. He diddn’t made the NCAA tournament, but with four appearances in the conference championship game, he came closer than anyone in program history. Still, Samantha Huge replaced him with George Mason assistant coach Dane Fischer, who has worked almost his entire coaching career for Patriots Coach Dave Paulsen.
Maybe Fischer will be the next Mike Krzyzewski or Tom Izzo or Tony Bennett. But William & Mary would be very lucky if he’s merely the next Tony Shaver.
Which brings us back to Dixon. Even though he took Pittsburgh to the NCAA tournament in 11 of 13 seasons, there was muttering about his failure to reach the Final Four or to consistently go deep in the tournament, which led to Dixon being willing to leave the ACC for the Big 12 when TCU came calling. He won the NIT in his first season and took the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA appearance in 20 seasons in his second season. This year, TCU was one of the first four teams left out of the NCAAs.
And Pitt? Kevin Stallings was hired and fired in two seasons, going 0-18 in the ACC in his second season. Jeff Capel succeeded Stallings and won three ACC games this season, a marked improvement but a long way from where the program was under Dixon.
Do you think Pitt would mind having Dixon back right now?
If UCLA can’t work out a deal with TCU to get Dixon, whom might it hire? Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin wants the job. So does Watson, who is completing his degree work so he can coach in college.
The good news? Whoever gets the job can probably improve on 17-16. Then again, 259-12 may be a bit of a stretch.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.