UCLA Basketball Sports Illustrated Scandal: Why Change Must Come to Westwood

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UCLA Basketball Sports Illustrated Scandal: Why Change Must Come to Westwood
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As if this season wasn’t punishment enough, we now have George Dohrmann’s damning exposé of Bruins basketball to contend with. After reading it, it’s hard to imagine how the state of the program could get much worse.

In a special report for Sports Illustrated, Dohrmann confirms what many close observers have suspected for some time: Something is terribly wrong in Westwood. If we take anything away from his reporting, it should be that change must come swiftly to UCLA.

I won’t go into the specifics of the article here, so you might as well read it and come back. Like Dohrmann himself admits, the piece is a cautionary tale not just for UCLA, but also for college basketball programs across the nation. 

In general terms, the decline of UCLA basketball since they appeared in the 2008 Final Four is the result of two prevalent issues—namely, the approach Ben Howland has taken in coaching his teams and the reproachable behavior of several of his players.

Alone, these issues might have been manageable, but combined, they condemned UCLA to on-court mediocrity and off-court discord. 

Let’s tackle the players first. Dohrmann asserts that starting in 2008, when Howland recruited the nation’s top class, players began taking personal liberties that in past years they hadn’t. They partied hard, got into fights, blew off team-building exercises and in doing so built a culture around UCLA basketball that was the polar opposite of years past.

While the group of players that Howland relied on for his Final Four runs had been mature, unified and disciplined, this new group contained players who where immature, fragmented and undisciplined. In his article, Dohrmann names Drew Gordon, J’mison Morgan and Jerime Anderson as the worst offenders of that 2008 class. 

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

The examples those players provided set the tone for future UCLA freshmen like Reeves Nelson, a violent but talented player whose worst tendencies were amplified at UCLA. Some of the things he did, from intentionally injuring teammates in practice to disrespecting coaches, are inexcusable under any coach.

Nelson was in large part responsible for the transfer of Matt Carlino to BYU and perhaps others.

To place the blame solely on the players would be one way to explain UCLA’s recent failures. We could say that these troublemakers undermined Howland’s coaching efforts and served to irrevocably damage team chemistry. We could call out the players for being uncommitted on defense and inconsistent on offense and leave it at that.

But to do that, we would be missing what in my mind is the far larger problem: Howland’s approach to coaching this team. The biggest takeaway from Dohrmann’s reporting is that Howland isn’t the kind of coach we thought he was. While he is uniformly respected as purely a basketball coach (even by the sources who proceeded to criticize him), he is not a man-manager, and that may cost him dearly.

A significant reason for the prevalence of poor attitude and behavior by his players since 2008 was Howland’s complete lack of disciplinary response to offenders. He could have dealt with Nelson’s problems much earlier before they came to a head. He could have resisted openly berating his assistant coaches and staff so that his players would respect their authority rather than not.

Should Ben Howland Be Fired Before Next Season?

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Howland has clearly lost control of his team, but at UCLA, did he ever have it?

A surprising revelation by Dohrmann’s reporting is that Howland had very little to do with the chemistry and drive of his Final Four teams. He was reportedly detached and inaccessible to his players outside practices and games, with much of the leadership stemming from players like Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison.

His hands-off style meshed well with players who were mature beyond their years, but not so much with the highly-recruited stars he would later attain. 

That Howland was negligent in his disciplinary responsibilities is the main subject supporters and critics alike should latch on to from this piece.

While Howland has not knowingly committed any NCAA rules violations (though the anecdote about getting a Rolls-Royce to a West Hollywood club is troubling), his job will certainly be in question after this season. The way he has handled players cannot go unchanged if UCLA wants to rebound next year. 

Still, it’s worth asking how much blame we can assess to Howland. There's no doubt the head coach felt that if he disciplined players like fans claim he should have, they would have left early for the NBA and transferred.

That those exact circumstances have happened in lieu of a disciplinary policy designed to keep them in Westwood should make it clear to Howland that he needs to change his approach, and fast. 

What can be done in light of this report? Well, for one thing, Howland needs to lay off his assistants. Few, if any, remain from his staff that took UCLA to three consecutive Final Fours, and there’s a message there.

Howland also needs to control and discipline his players, even if it means hurting the team in the short term. We’ve seen what happens when detrimental behavior is left unchecked, and the positive effects of strong punishments (i.e. the eventual dismissal of Nelson) for the long term.

When I talk of change coming to the program, UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero is not exempt. Despite his avowed support of Howland ever since he hired him in 2003, he should have clamped down on the coach long before the situation became this bad. Calls for Howland’s resignation will no doubt be followed by calls for Guerrero’s, and it’s hard to argue against them.

Even with what we now know about Howland and the reasons for his team’s underperforming season, I personally feel that axing him and Guerrero this coming offseason is a step too far.

There are few coaches in college basketball that can claim to have his acumen for the game, and he is still a proven winner. What has decimated his teams is not what he’s coaching, but how he’s gone about doing it. None of his ideas are bad, but his implementation of them has been awful. 

With Dohrmann’s piece out in the open, there's little for Howland to hide behind. He must change and see marked NCAA tournament success, or be out of a job. Every player listed in the report as a troublemaker will be gone by next year (Anthony Stover is the lone exception).

If Howland can’t show improvement by next year, or if he continues to display the stubbornness and soft touch that has catapulted UCLA out of the national discussion, UCLA would do well to let him go. 

Change must come to Westwood. I’m glad John Wooden isn’t here to see how low his beloved team has sunk. As one of Dohrmann's sources put it:

"Guys drinking, guys doing drugs, guys not taking practice seriously, guys fighting," said one player. "You won't find that on the Pyramid of Success."

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