UCLA fires Howland after first-round loss

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LOS ANGELES — Ben Howland, who led UCLA to three Final Four appearances, was fired Sunday, the school announced, ending the longest tenure for a Bruins coach since John Wooden retired in 1975.

Howland spent 10 seasons in Westwood and is coming off one of his best coaching performances, with the Bruins winning the Pac-12 Conference regular-season championship.

Yet his star had fallen considerably since taking UCLA to consecutive Final Fours from 2006-08.

He was informed Sunday that he was fired.

UCLA needed to go deep into the NCAA tournament to save Howland’s job. The Bruins were bounced by Minnesota, 83-63, in their first game Friday in Austin, Texas.

Howland’s contract, which runs through 2017, has a $3.2-million buyout — $2.3-million for his 2013-14 pay and $900,000 for his remaining base pay.

In a statement released by UCLA, Howland said, “I have been blessed with the opportunity to coach at UCLA for 10 years and I will always be grateful to Dan Guerrero and Chancellors Block, Abrams and Carnesale for the opportunity to coach and teach our players and work alongside tremendous coaches. The UCLA community and fans have been unbelievable to my family and I, and it’s been an honor and privilege to represent this great institution. I look forward to what comes next.”

UCLA officials are interested in Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart and Butler’s Brad Stevens, according to a person familiar with the athletic department who was not authorized to speak.

Neither are likely to be pried away easily, if at all.

Failing that, UCLA officials might seek a former NBA coach, the person familiar with the athletic department said.

Howland’s popularity dropped as the Bruins’ success under him waned. UCLA reached the NCAA tournament only twice in the last four seasons.

There was criticism about his tight-fisted control, both in games and with the team and staff.

There were concerns about the number of players who transferred, though only a few found success elsewhere: Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV), Chace Stanback (UNLV) and Matt Carlino (BYU).

The tipping point came a year ago after a Sports Illustrated story painted a program that was out of control. Howland and Guerrero met at the end of the 2011-12 season and there were promises of change.

Guard Tyler Lamb and center Joshua Smith, the former Kentwood High star. transferred in November, sapping the Bruins’ depth. Smith was also UCLA’s most formidable inside player.

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