Back in 2003, Ben Howland left his job as the head coach of Pittsburgh to become the head coach at UCLA. Following Howland’s exit, Pittsburgh hired Jamie Dixon as its new head coach, after Dixon had spent the previous nine years as an assistant to Howland, first at Northern Arizona and then at Pitt.
A full decade later, Howland is now out of a job, fired following the Bruin’s first round exit in the NCAA Tournament, while Dixon has received a ten-year extension that will keep him at Pitt for another ten years. Both Howland and Dixon are quality coaches, but both the firing of Howland and the extension of Dixon are questionable moves by their respective schools, and decisions those schools may live to regret.
It is UCLA, and there are always high expectations because of what John Wooden accomplished there many, many years ago, but firing Howland at this point in time is absurd. The Bruins have had a few rough seasons as of late, but they are coming off a season in which they won the Pac 12 regular season championship. If not for a late-season injury to second-leading scorer Jordan Adams, the Bruins may have also won the Pac 12 tournament championship, received a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament, and not lost in the first round of the tournament.
Howland can hardly be blamed for the injury, and if Adams had been in the lineup at the end of the season, the Bruins might still be playing, which would have impacted the school’s decision to fire him. Despite some disappointing seasons over the last few years, this season indicates that the Bruins are moving in the right direction and that Howland is gathering the talent necessary to win the Pac 12 on a regular basis and become relevant on the national stage yet again. Howland has led the Bruins to three Final Four appearances during his ten years at UCLA, and if he can get the program to that level, considering the state of things when he got there in 2003, he’s certainly capable of building on what was accomplished this season and bringing UCLA back to the Final Four in the near future.
Furthermore, UCLA is a bit delusional when it comes to the state of college basketball and how they fit into it. Schools like Butler and VCU have proven that you no longer have to be a traditional powerhouse to get to the Final Four or compete at a high level year after year. Also, young coaches like Brad Stevens and Shake Smart are no longer enticed by brand-name schools like UCLA, because they have already proven that they can win where they are, they are content to be coaching where they are, and don’t feel the need to make changes. Not only is UCLA unlikely to land an elite-level young coach to replace Howland, but also they would be wise to take after this new generation of coaches and not make unnecessary changes. The firing of Howland is not only unwarranted, but it may not lead to the upgrade at head coach that UCLA is expecting.
As for Dixon, his ten-year extension is far too long of a commitment to make. Instead of being rash with a firing, Pittsburgh is showing too much certainty in Dixon. That’s not to say that Dixon should be fired. In the last ten years, the Panthers have won more games than any other Big East team, and with Pittsburgh’s move to the ACC next season, the program does need stability at the head coaching position, which Dixon provides. However, ten years is a long extension to give, and despite Pittsburgh’s consistency under Dixon, they have been perpetual underachievers in the postseason. The Panthers have never made the Final Four, and have just three appearances in the Sweet 16 in ten years, which isn’t a lot considering they have been knocked out by a lower seeded team in the NCAA Tournament six times under Dixon. Remember, the Panthers are just a year removed from finishing 13th in the Big East and missing the NCAA Tournament, although they did win the CBI Championship, for what that’s worth. With yet another early exit in the NCAA Tournament following a year that the Panthers missed the tournament altogether, a ten-year extension may not be the appropriate reaction by Pittsburgh, as Dixon still needs to prove that he can win big in the postseason.
It’s been interesting to watch the career paths of Howland and Dixon unfold since the former left Pittsburgh for UCLA and the latter replace him. Howland has been up and down over the past ten years, but he has been to three Final Fours and appeared to have things moving in the right direction; meanwhile, Dixon has been consistent, but the past two seasons have been his worst seasons as a head coach, in addition to his profound struggles in the postseason.
With all of that, somehow it’s Howland who is looking for a new home and Dixon who is set where he is for another ten years. Howland should be on the hot seat, but surely he didn’t deserve to be fired, while Dixon shouldn’t be anywhere near the hot seat, but he also shouldn’t be receiving a ten-year commitment. Both UCLA and Pittsburgh were too drastic in how they addressed their head-coaching situations following the season; surely, both could have found some middle ground and made a better decision in addressing the status of their head coach.