SI Story Highlights UCLA’s Downfall Through Ben Howland’s Shameful Lack of ControlPosted by EJacoby on February 29th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
The historic UCLA basketball program is in a shocking lull right now, and Sports Illustrated magazine has an upcoming feature story on why it’s not just because of poor performance on the court. George Dohrmann’s piece has been released on SI.com for an early look, and it is a must-read for all the telling details and anecdotes about the Bruins’ culture from the past five seasons. We’ll give you our reaction to the investigative piece and why coach Ben Howland might not last another season in Westwood.
Mike Moser, UNLV’s star player and the nation’s sixth-leading rebounder; Chace Stanback, the Runnin’ Rebels’ second-leading scorer with the nation’s seventh best three-point shooting percentage; Drew Gordon, New Mexico’s dominant forward and double-double machine; and Matt Carlino, averaging 13.0 points and 4.7 assists for BYU. What do they all have in common? Each of these players was once a highly touted recruit for coach Ben Howland at UCLA before transferring from the program to become star players elsewhere in the West. The departure of these four players is one of the reasons why the Bruins currently sit in sixth place in a weak Pac-12, looking at missing the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years and just four years removed from a run of three consecutive Final Four appearances. The feature story in Sports Illustrated set for publication later this week details why these players left campus, what kinds of unfortunate treatment other former players received, and how UCLA has struggled so badly recently, referencing mainly the ignorance of head coach Howland towards detrimental player actions.
Dohrmann’s piece, which includes interviews with over a dozen former players and team managers, highlights a general culture of recent disarray surrounding the Bruins’ basketball program. Dohrmann’s interviewees offered “a detailed inside account of how seemingly minor problems, if left unaddressed, can quickly sabotage even a storied program led by one of the nation’s most respected coaches.” The piece details how Howland, though incredibly knowledgeable of the game, fostered poor relationships with his players both on and off the court. The coach ran practices with a double standard, often ridiculing lesser players for mistakes they made while letting similar errors slide when made by stronger players. The reason, as some in the article suggested, was that Howland was afraid of upsetting star players to the point that they might transfer or leave for the NBA as soon as possible. Off the court, players would go out of their way to avoid Howland, such as one player opting to take the stairs if he ever saw the coach waiting for an elevator.
Chemistry and camaraderie is always an underrated aspect of team success, and it’s something that goes unnoticed by everyone outside of the locker room. That’s why it’s so shocking to read this piece that includes more revealing anecdotes, such as the kind of violence that recently dismissed forward Reeves Nelson would inflict on teammates. Nelson, who was kicked off the team in December, had been torturing teammates he didn’t like for the better part of three years. The story notes that the forward set consecutive illegal screens one time on Moser during a practice, leading to a fistfight. He got into another fight with Gordon at an off-campus apartment that left Gordon with a black eye. He intentionally tried and succeeded to injure four other players in practice, including two walk-ons just for their efforts to take charges against the player during scrimmages. And most appalling of all, he ridiculed Carlino, especially about a concussion he suffered, so badly that the freshman guard was gone before halfway through his rookie season, transferring to BYU because of what most players understood as getting away from Reeves. When asked by a former player why Howland wasn’t disciplining Nelson for his actions, an interviewee claims the coach replied, “He’s producing.”
More telling anecdotes reveal just how unstable the UCLA team has been, especially off the court. On New Year’s Eve a few seasons back, several players attended a rave party until the wee hours of the morning before an 8:00 AM practice the next day, allegedly still under the influence of Ecstasy. Practices were constantly out of sync because players were drinking before arriving at the gym. The team was divided between those that partied responsibly and those that crossed the line on a weekly basis. And then there’s Nelson, who confirmed all of the stories in the article and said, “I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions.”
But is it Nelson, and other teammates, who are entirely at fault here? It should be the responsibility of the coach to promote an atmosphere conducive to winning. Holding a clipboard and drawing up plays is only half the battle; the other half comes from teaching young men how to become better players and people, just as the legendary John Wooden preached. For Howland, who was described as showing up just before practices began and leaving before players finished their shooting drills, it didn’t matter what was going on behind the scenes as long as his star players were producing during games and not talking back during meetings. Unfortunately, these ‘stars’ began to fade as most of the talented players in the program’s past four years have either bolted early for the NBA (Jrue Holiday, Tyler Honeycutt) or transferred to a better situation (see above). There are plenty more anecdotes from today’s piece that we haven’t mentioned, including Howland seeking out violations against former player Russell Westbrook and players disrespecting assistant coaches, that fill in the blanks about how the team has fallen into mediocrity.
Now, UCLA is a combined 53-42 in the past three seasons and looking for answers on the court. Student-athletes around the country attend parties and make mistakes such as the ones described in today’s piece, but few elite teams fall apart the way the Bruins have recently. Coach Anthony Grant at Alabama recently suspended his two best players for multiple games during a crucial run toward this postseason, and the team has come together to get crucial wins despite the adversity. Ben Howland would rather tiptoe around any adversity and instead try to make problems disappear by performing on game day. The results show that the approach is failing miserably, and it might be time for a change. Howland had a press conference on Tuesday in which he was asked about this upcoming story, and he was not only aware of it but also seemed quite worried about its publication. After reading what was released today, it’s safe to say that Howland should be concerned about his job as the UCLA Bruins’ head coach moving into next season.