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UCLA legend Bill Walton high on alma mater’s return to national prominence

ESPN personality Bill Walton interacts with UCLA Bruins center Moses Brown (1) before a college basketball game

(Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The UCLA Bruins are taking a winning record into the Maui Invitational, which pleases Bill Walton.

Granted, there are many big tests ahead for a program that bottomed out in the last few seasons, both on and off the court. And it’s going to be a long way back to national prominence.

Walton understands that. But he likes what he sees so far from Mick Cronin, the latest coach to be tasked with leading a program that will forever be judged against the unprecedented success of the legendary John Wooden.

“On the rise,” is what Walton sees of the Bruins now.

“It’s terrific with excellent new coach Mick Cronin, who could not have done a better job since he got the job,” Walton said in an interview with TieBreaker. “He is a fantastic person, he loves what he’s doing. He has embraced the privilege of coaching at the most successful basketball program and one of the most successful schools, ever, anywhere. His life is based on integrity, credibility, honor. He lives a life of standards, values, and the search for excellence and perfection. He has committed himself for the long term to UCLA, to the community, to Los Angeles, and he is involved in every aspect of campus life. He is accessible, he is flexible, he is an excellent listener and outstanding teacher and he’s trying his best to be his best and to do the best.”

Walton is never short on verbiage, especially about his alma mater. The big redhead (it’s mostly gray now) was part of Wooden’s remarkable feat of coaching the Bruins to 10 NCAA titles in 12 seasons, including seven straight. The Bruins are the bluest of college basketball’s blue bloods, with a record 11 national championship banners hanging in Pauley Pavilion.

Walton sits under those banners during his frequent trips to Westwood to call games for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network.

He knows that the last banner was raised into the rafters in 1995.

“Twenty-four years,” Walton said. “Not that I’m counting.”

That’s how they roll at UCLA. The ghosts are there for all to see, hanging from the ceiling and on the hardwood itself, which is named the Nell and John Wooden Court.

The expectations are immense.

Cronin knows what he’s gotten into. His six-year, $24.5 million contract comes with immense responsibilities.

“It’s UCLA, I understand the expectations,” Cronin said when he was hired in April. “You think fans want to win, try being the coach that doesn’t sleep. We want to win more.”

Tyger Campbell #10 talks with head coach Mick Cronin of the UCLA Bruins

(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Cronin is the 11th coach to follow Wooden. The 10th was Murry Bartow, who finished last season as interim coach after Steve Alford was fired at midseason. Murry is the son of the late Gene Bartow, who had the thankless task of following Wooden. Gene Bartow got the Bruins back to the Final Four in his first season, but they lost to undefeated eventual champion Indiana. Bartow left after two seasons to take the job of starting the athletic program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

“You get a chance to sit in the chair that John Wooden once sat in, and it’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Cronin told reporters before this season started. “Our tradition and our history, former Bruin players, are second to none.”

Bob Myers, the Golden State Warriors’ general manager, played for the Bruins and was on the search committee that selected Cronin.

“This is a job that takes some courage. The expectations here are at the highest level,” Myers said when Cronin was hired.

The Bruins have nowhere to go but up. They suffered through the international embarrassment of the shoplifting incident in China in November 2017, when three players were suspended. One of them, LiAngelo Ball — son of LaVar and brother of former Bruins player Lonzo — left the program. Then came last December, when the Bruins lost consecutive home games to Belmont and Liberty, leading athletic director Dan Guerrero to make the rare decision to make a midseason coaching change by firing Alford on New Year’s Eve.

Alford had led the Bruins to the Sweet 16 three times in four seasons, including in his first two seasons.

His predecessor, Ben Howland, was fired in March 2013 after a loss to Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Howland coached at Westwood for 10 seasons, the longest tenure of anyone there since Wooden retired. Howland led the Bruins into three straight Final Fours, from 2006-08, including the title game in 2006, a loss to Florida. Yet five seasons after that run, he was gone.

That’s the kind of pressure coaches are under when they walk the sideline at Pauley Pavilion.

Before anyone thinks Walton is a UCLA “homer,” he’s not. He also draws other Pac-12 assignments from ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, and is extremely high on the “Conference of Champions,” as he often mentions during broadcasts.

Unprompted, Walton goes on one of his patented rolls and doles out praise to several other Pac-12 schools.

USC “is getting a tremendous influx of talent” and Arizona “is back to where they were, a spectacular team this year,” said Walton, whose son, Luke, the former coach of the Lakers and current coach of the Sacramento Kings, played for the Wildcats. Colorado “has everybody back,” including all-conference first-team picks Tyler Bey and McKinley Wright IV. Utah has finished fourth or higher each of the last five seasons under coach Larry Krystkowiak. Cal is playing well under new coach Mark Fox. Oregon coach Dana Altman “is a Hall of Fame coach; the people in Springfield just don’t know it yet,” Walton said. Wayne Tinkle has Oregon State on the rise. Washington’s Mike Hopkins is the two-time conference coach of the year and players “are identifying Seattle, and the University of Washington, as a destination place. Things are happening there.”

So what does that mean for the Bruins?

“Now the challenge for UCLA is to get back into that game,” Walton said.

And how does that happen?

“Recruiting capabilities of the coach,” Walton said. “If you can’t recruit at UCLA, what does that say about your abilities? I have utmost confidence in Mick Cronin. He has done everything that I could ever ask for or hope for, the way he has embraced the privilege of being the coach at UCLA. I’m super proud and happy and very optimistic.”

“Now the challenge for UCLA, as for every program, is to get the players. The players are flocking to the Pac-12.”

UCLA is 4-1 heading into its game against BYU on Monday in Maui. The winner will face the winner of the Kansas-Chaminade game.

A second-half collapse on Thursday night against Hofstra led to the first loss under Cronin.

UCLA is relatively young and inexperienced. Walton is high on the core of Chris Smith, Jalen Hill, Cody Riley, and Prince Ali.

Shaquille O’Neal’s son, Shareef, is a redshirt freshman forward.

Walton points out that UCLA will soon be hiring a new athletic director after Dan Guerrero announced he is retiring in July.

“Look at the Pyramid of Success and the two external words, belief and patience,” Walton said about Wooden’s famous concept. “Do you believe and are you willing to put the lifetime in that this is going to take. John Wooden coached for 27 years at UCLA, and in his first 15 seasons, there were no championships and then J.D. Morgan became the athletic director and they won literally every one after that point. And I’m responsible for the one they didn’t win in 1974, and back then the rules prohibited me from playing in one.”

UCLA center Bill Walton with team mates before the start of the Final Four National Basketball Championship game

(Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

(Quick sidenote: Walton was a freshman in 1971 and couldn’t play on the varsity team, which won a fifth-straight NCAA championship. After Walton led UCLA to NCAA titles and perfect records as a sophomore and junior, the Bruins lost to North Carolina State in the 1974 NCAA national semifinals when he was a senior, ending the string of seven straight titles. Asked to expound on how he cost the Bruins in 1974, he said: “If I had played better, if I had been better, we would have won.”)

Walton said Morgan’s successful run at UCLA “shows the value of the athletic director, and UCLA is looking for a new one. Who they get will be instrumental. You have to have a chancellor and school president who understand the value of athletics and how it plays into academics. UCLA academics have always been at the top. Always. Every aspect of the school is fantastic. Now the basketball team is poised for a giant surge to the top and we’re excited as can be and very proud.”

Walton never has a cross word to say about anything, including UCLA’s recent struggles.

He’s looking forward.

“My emotions about UCLA are pride, loyalty, and gratitude. When I went there, the emotions were hope, opportunity, and purpose. But I have not been able to play basketball in 33 1/2 years. There’s nothing I can do about yesterday, and so I want what’s best for UCLA. I never regretted my decision to go there. I know they regretted offering me that scholarship. I was their easiest recruit but I became John Wooden’s worst nightmare and drove him to an early grave at age 99.”

Walton then offers a metaphor that applies to today as well as his long-ago Bruins past.

“As we start a new morning here, we have a fresh coach, a soon-to-be new athletic director. I was at the Y this morning, so I’m not sure what time the sun burned the clouds off, but it was pretty early and those first rays of sunshine came through the morning mist and the dew on the eucalyptus trees sparkled. It was an incredible, beautiful fall day. That’s it. Get to class in the morning and get to the gym in the afternoon and get to work.”