By BETH HARRIS
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — In what turned out to be a last-chance season for Ben Howland at UCLA, he wasn’t able to stabilize the storied basketball program that had been roiled by problems on and off the court.
Another early round exit from the NCAA tournament hastened his firing after 10 seasons as Bruins coach.
Howland took the program to three Final Four appearances from 2006-08 and won four Pac-12 championships, including this season.
But the Bruins were bounced out of the NCAAs with an 83-63 loss to Minnesota in the second round last Friday, and athletic director Dan Guerrero summoned Howland to his office on Sunday to deliver the news that he was out.
“As I looked at the entire program and where I felt we were, especially headed into next year, I felt like now was the appropriate time to make the change and get a fresh start,” Guerrero said in an evening teleconference.
Howland had a 233-107 record as the longest-tenured coach in Westwood since John Wooden retired in 1975 after leading the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span.
Howland, who turns 56 in May, was the eighth coach at UCLA since Wooden, with the school’s only national title since then coming in 1995 under Jim Harrick. He came to UCLA in April 2003 and rebuilt a program that had fallen on hard times under Steve Lavin.
Howland won 97 games during that three-year Final Four run, more than any other coach in school history. He embraced and reveled in UCLA’s history and tradition, and kept Wooden close to the program until the legendary coach died in 2010.
“I have been blessed with the opportunity to coach at UCLA for 10 years,” Howland said in a statement through the university. “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.”
Howland was under contract until 2017 with a buyout of $2.3 million.
Guerrero said any payout is subject to reduction if Howland gets another job.
The Bruins rallied to win the Pac-12 regular-season title earlier this month and then lost to Oregon in the tournament title game playing without freshman Jordan Adams, who broke his foot in the semifinals. His absence hurt the Bruins in their loss to Minnesota.
“We had such a depleted roster,” Guerrero said, citing that as one of the reasons he fired Howland.
There was a distinct lack of buzz around the program this season despite the Bruins’ return to a newly renovated Pauley Pavilion, with only a handful of games selling out.
“I would certainly not lay all of that on Ben’s shoulders by any stretch of the imagination, but we need to generate as much fan support as possible and get people in the seats,” Guerrero said.
Known for his emphasis on defense, most of Howland’s teams played a grind-it-out style that was criticized until he changed to an up-tempo pace this season.
“We pushed the ball a lot more and scored at a much higher rate, and I know that our fans liked that,” Guerrero said, noting that he would consider prospective replacement candidates “who can play a fun brand of basketball, but also a quality brand of basketball. We don’t want to bring in a coach that is going to average 50 points a game.”
Guerrero declined to name any potential candidates for the job, saying that a wide net would be cast. He planned to talk to Howland’s assistants on Monday.
“We’re going to try to bring someone here that will excite the fan base,” he said.
There were high expectations going into this season.
But it began under the cloud of NCAA investigations involving star recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson.
Muhammad missed the first three games and had to repay $1,600 in impermissible benefits after the NCAA and UCLA found that he had accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina.
Anderson was cleared to play after being investigated for potential recruiting violations.
There were other problems that roiled the program, too.
Center Joshua Smith quit for personal reasons and guard Tyler Lamb left over a lack of playing time in the same week in November that the Bruins were upset by Cal Poly and dropped out of the Top 25.
A year ago, UCLA’s season ended in turmoil after the Bruins went 19-14 and missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Howland kicked standout Reeves Nelson off the team and an unflattering Sports Illustrated article suggested that the coach had lost control of the team.
The Bruins played the entire season on the road while Pauley Pavilion underwent a major renovation.
“It was understandable that we might have a difficult year,” Guerrero said. “I wanted to give him the opportunity to continue with the program and see if we can get it on stable footing.”
Howland then bought himself more time with his best recruiting class since the program made those three straight Final Four appearances.
Muhammad, Anderson and Adams had standout seasons as freshmen, although Muhammad is expected to leave early for the NBA draft and futures of Anderson and Adams are uncertain in the wake of Howland’s dismissal.
Howland arrived from a Pittsburgh program he had taken to national prominence in his four years at the helm. His other head coaching job was at Northern Arizona rom 1994-99.
Howland’s exit leaves both Pac-12 schools in Los Angeles with men’s basketball coaching vacancies. Southern California fired Kevin O’Neill in January.