UCLA used to be the most intimidating letters in college basketball. Under legendary coach John Wooden, the Bruins captured 10 national championships in 12 tournaments, won 88 consecutive games, the longest winning streak in NCAA history, and had four undefeated seasons.
But since Wooden retired in 1975 after 27 seasons as the Bruins' coach, those four letters haven't meant as much in college basketball. UCLA has won only one national championship in the 31 seasons since Wooden retired, and the 1995 NCAA tournament title was tarnished when coach Jim Harrick was fired less than two years later for falsifying an expense report.
Saturday night's game between No. 2 seed UCLA and No. 4 seed Louisiana State at RCA Dome marks the first time since 1995 that the Bruins have played in the national semifinals of the NCAA tournament. No wonder LSU players such as Glen "Big Baby" Davis don't seem intimidated about playing the team with college basketball's most storied tradition.
"The last time I checked their roster, Bill Walton wasn't playing," Davis said Friday. "Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] wasn't playing. Reggie Miller wasn't playing. We can't let that scare us. This is a different time. I respect their tradition and what their program has accomplished, but UCLA is just a couple of letters on the front of their jerseys, really."
Bruins Coach Ben Howland, who left the successful program he built at Pittsburgh to return to his native California, has accomplished more in three seasons at UCLA than six of his seven predecessors did. The Bruins' three coaches after Wooden — Gene Bartow, Gary Cunningham and Larry Brown — each lasted two seasons working in the legendary coach's shadow. Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard, two former UCLA players, coached three and four seasons, respectively, at their alma mater before leaving.
"When you don't have the stability and continuity, it's difficult to sustain any kind of success," said former UCLA coach Steve Lavin, who took the Bruins as far as the region finals in six NCAA tournament appearances in seven seasons. "I think Ben Howland has the best opportunity of any coach since John Wooden retired to make a lifetime run of 15 or 20 years."
Lavin said Howland has a better chance to succeed because of the hiring of UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, a former Bruins baseball player who grew up in Wilmington, Calif., about 20 miles south of Los Angeles. Guerrero was the athletic director at UC Irvine for 10 years and at Cal State Dominguez Hills before he replaced UCLA's Peter Dalis, who retired in July 2002.
"The biggest factor is the administration infrastructure there is extremely supportive and on the same page with Howland's vision for the program," Lavin said. "The run that John Wooden had will never be matched again in college sports. The sky is the limit to how high they can go and they'll win consistently."
Howland, who last season led the Bruins to their first NCAA tournament since 2002, grew up in Santa Barbara, Calif. He played college basketball at Santa Barbara City College and Weber State in Utah. He was an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara for 12 seasons before becoming coach at Northern Arizona and then Pittsburgh. So Howland clearly understood the burden and pressure that came with coaching at UCLA.
"I really try to help our players understand how lucky they are to be part of the fraternity they're in — to be UCLA basketball players," Howland said. "That's a very special fraternity. What's special about that is nobody else has the tradition in college basketball that UCLA has."
During the fall, Howland hosted a barbeque at his home so his players could meet many of UCLA's former players. He said between 70 and 80 former Bruins attended, including former all-Americans Walton, Marques Johnson, Don MacLean and Mike Warren, among others. And, of course, Wooden, who turned 95 on Oct. 14, attended the reunion.
Howland said Wooden called him Sunday, after the Bruins upset No. 1 seed Memphis in the finals of the Oakland Region to advance to the Final Four.
"He was excited for his team and his program," Howland said. "That's what it is. This program will always belong to John R. Wooden. I'm just a torchbearer and carrying the flag forward."
As the Bruins have done throughout the season, they will try to take that next step rather slowly. UCLA allows only 58.6 points per game, 10th-fewest in NCAA Division I, and held Memphis to 31.5 percent shooting, including 2 for 17 on three-point attempts, in a 50-45 victory last weekend. LSU's opponents have made only 39.8 percent of their shots and average 6.5 blocked shots per game, sixth-best in the country.
"They pride themselves on defense and we pride ourselves on defense," UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman said. "I guess the best defense wins."