Contrary Opinion: UCLA Story Salacious, But Nothing New HerePosted by AMurawa on February 29th, 2012
Yesterday about this time, when news broke that George Dohrmann would be publishing a “highly negative” piece about the UCLA basketball program, there were plenty of people who immediately expected the worst. I, for one, figured that today I’d be writing about potential NCAA violations and speculating on who may be the next basketball coach for the Bruins. While the Sports Illustrated piece is certainly not something that is going to be framed and hung on the wall in Ben Howland’s office, compared to those previous expectations, Bruin fans can take a deep breath and relax. Sure, there are loads and loads of very unflattering portraits of former and current players, and mostly of Howland, but still the most damning fact against Howland is a 14-18 record in 2010 and a 16-13 record right now; this Dohrmann piece just explains how the program got to that point. And while there are plenty of salacious details and anecdotes, none of them really change what we already knew about the UCLA program before yesterday.
At the bottom of this piece, the finger points squarely at problems with a couple of recruiting classes — the groups of 2008 and 2009. The 2008 class featured guys like Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon and J’Mison Morgan, while the 2009 class ominously included Reeves Nelson, but also Anthony Stover, among others. There are allegations of drug use among these players (and other players on recent UCLA teams), but the bottom line problem was Howland’s inability to sufficiently discipline these players for their numerous missteps. The poster child here is, of course, Nelson. There are stories seemingly by the barrelful about how bad of a teammate he was. After 2010 recruit Matt Carlino sustained a concussion early in his freshman year causing him to miss time, Nelson repeatedly railed on him for being soft, called him “concussion boy” and went out of his way to instigate contact with Carlino during practices, eventually helping to drive Carlino out of the program. Nelson also had repeated altercations in practice with another eventual UCLA transfer, Mike Moser. There are reports of Nelson abusing people all over the Bruin program, from student managers all the way up to assistant coaches. And all that is just scratching the surface of what is in the article, knowing full well that there are plenty of incidents that didn’t make the piece and never even reached Dohrmann’s ears. And, until this season, Howland did nothing about it.
Now, certainly, that’s a huge mistake by Howland, but the fact is things like this go on all over the place. You hear people say that John Wooden would never have allowed drug use in his program, but then you think about guys like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. People say a team must get along in order to succeed on the court, but then you hear stories about Christian Laettner tormenting Bobby Hurley during the pair’s wildly successful tenure at Duke. Howland supposedly never would have put up with this kind of nonsense when he was at Pittsburgh, but then you hear about Chevy Troutman and Carl Krauser raising hell back then. Really, the fact is, if you turn over enough rocks around any college basketball program in the land, you’ll get stories like this on a regular basis. After all, these are young male college students we’re dealing with here, people in the prime of their “doing-stupid-stuff” life. Throw in the fact that these guys are “big men on campus” from the moment they show up and you’re going to have plenty of bad behavior from time to time. I’d guess if you threw a dart at a list of the 345 Division I teams and then sent Dohrmann to dig up the dirt on that program, the results would make UCLA look positively angelic in comparison.
The real question for a coach is not so much the bad behavior, but how he deals with the bad behavior, and there is little argument that Howland did not discipline his players, especially Nelson, either quickly or severely enough. However, all indications are that this is a problem that was ongoing in the past and got progressively worse, but now Howland has put an end to it and turned the ship around. Dohrmann himself said this morning on The Jim Rome Show that all indications are that morale is improving in the UCLA program. Part of that is due to the removal of the Nelson cancer from the program, but Howland has also been more hands-on and has begun to lay down the law more, specifically with sophomore big man Joshua Smith, showing that the head man is capable of learning from his mistakes in the past and adjusting going forward.
Still, even before this piece, Howland was squarely on the hot seat for failing to make the NCAA Tournament twice in three years (assuming his team doesn’t win four games in four days in the upcoming Pac-12 Tournament), and there is little doubt that this does nothing to bolster his cause. But at the end of the day, for the people who have followed the UCLA program closely, there is absolutely nothing revelatory in this article. Reeves Nelson is a jerk, Drew Gordon was immature, Ben Howland isn’t a player’s coach; yeah, we knew that already. So, we’re back to where we were prior to this firestorm. Does Howland deserve another year in Westwood? There are plenty of Bruin fans who had already had enough prior to this article, but the decision ultimately lies with athletic director Dan Guerrero and chancellor Gene Block. Both have expressed their disappointment with the article in statements that say little or nothing, but the fact is, Guerrero is already under fire and cutting bait on Howland may be the last move he makes. With Howland already bringing in a couple key recruits next season (Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams) and with his sights still firmly set on a couple more (Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker), there is plenty of reason for hope in the Bruin program. It remains to be seen if, and to what extent, this piece negatively effects recruiting, but in the short-term with the UCLA program arguably trending up (albeit from some depths over the past three years that a program of this caliber should never reach), there is nothing in this article that should push the UCLA administration to beat a hasty retreat from their current head coach. He’s still one of the better coaches in the land, he just compounded one big mistake (bringing in recruits of questionable character) with another (not laying down the law when those questionable characters misbehaved).