- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — There may be some — even those unencumbered by biases, loyalties and NCAA tournament bracket pools — who believe all is right with the world now that UCLA is playing for another national title.

They might believe order has been restored, if only for a moment, that things are as they should be and that — like them or not — the Bruins have returned to their rightful place atop the hoops world.

“When you look at the history of baseball, you look at the Yankees,” former UCLA coach Steve Lavin said. “When you look at the history of college football, you look at Notre Dame. The history of college basketball is still UCLA.”

Lavin, the Bruins coach for seven seasons and an assistant for five before that, is part of that history. He remains biased and loyal despite getting fired and replaced by Ben Howland after the Bruins went 10-19 in 2003. But he is not alone. Many who are more objective than Lavin, now an analyst with ESPN, still consider UCLA to be the gold standard of college programs.

“I know what UCLA basketball represents,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators play the Bruins for the national title tonight at the RCA Dome.

The individual most responsible for establishing the UCLA identity, John Wooden, last coached the Bruins in 1975, winning his 10th national title in 12 years. The game has changed in countless ways since then, and such dynasties are impossible to duplicate. No one has come remotely close.

Since UCLA’s reign, only Duke has repeated as national champions in 1991 and 1992. But the UCLA name is more than wins and losses or even NCAA titles. It conveys an aura and a certain magic, even though it has been 11 years since the Bruins last won a championship, which was 20 years after the previous one.

“Coach Wooden and UCLA are still second to none in the history of basketball,” Lavin said. “[People] may not have seen, first hand, the run of 88 straight wins or 10 championships in 12 years, but they understand what those four letters mean the way people understand what the pinstripes mean to the Yankees.”

At age 95, Wooden remains alert and visible — a true living legend. UCLA’s athletic building bears his name, as does the Pauley Pavilion court (along with Wooden’s late wife, Nell). He attends almost every home game, an ordinary-looking, senior citizen who retains a mythic, near-mystical presence and serves as a constant reminder, along with all those championship banners, of the way the Bruins were.

Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who grew up in Cameroon, first learned about the basketball tradition while being recruited by Howland. Central to the learning process was Wooden because he is central to all things UCLA basketball.

“The tradition wouldn’t be the same without Coach Wooden,” Mbah a Moute said. “I say hello to him at the games. He is a great guy. He is so active and very smart. I think it’s great that he is active and is 95 years old.”

Howland, who grew up in Southern California, said he was a “UCLA junkie” by the age of 8. He knows all about the teams, the players, the coaches, even those going back to the prehistoric, pre-Wooden days. Asked how long it took to get accustomed to Wooden sitting behind the team bench, Howland said, “I embrace it. He’s the greatest coach in the history of college basketball.”

And Howland said, “This is the honest to God’s truth. He is a better person than he is a coach.”

Wooden, however, unwittingly set standards impossible for mere mortals to attain. Those standards, fueled by a collective impatience, drove coaches to misery and, eventually, to other jobs. Howland was the eighth UCLA coach to succeed Wooden in 28 years. All the others, including Gene Bartow, Larry Brown and Jim Harrick, who won the only non-Wooden title in 1995, failed for one reason or another to measure up to the demands and expectations.

“You’re aware coming into the job knowing that if you deliver, you get to be part of the legacy,” said Lavin, whose teams had a 145-78 record and advanced to the Sweet 16 five times but just one regional final. “And if you slip, someone else gets a crack at it.”

Wooden’s immediate successors, Bartow and Gary Cunningham, each lasted two seasons. They had a combined record of 102-17. Of the coaches who followed Wooden, the worst record belonged to Walt Hazzard, whose teams went 77-47 (.621) in four years.

As an assistant and coach, Lavin was part of 11 straight NCAA tournament appearances and 20-win seasons, four Pac-10 titles, two regional finals and one national championship.

“There was a lot of success for those 11 years,” he said, “but if you miss a beat, you’re out.”

Howland, who was successful at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh before coming to UCLA, said he is “proud to be the one carrying the torch at this time.”

He knows as well as anyone what is expected, yet he remains completely untroubled by that. So does his team.

“I think our tradition really helps set the bar,” sophomore guard Jordan Farmar said. “Knowing that nothing but winning a national championship is accepted really helps us.”

Howland said: “I’m not afraid of the expectations. I embrace the expectations. I want our players to embrace that. That’s part of the reason we are where we are right now. They’re not afraid. If you’re afraid to fail, you will.”

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