Sports Illustrated’s bombshell of (slightly overblown) revelations about UCLA’s men’s basketball program and it’s coach, Ben Howland, is a bigger public relations nightmare than it is anything that will get the program into specific trouble. It tells sordid tales of players partying, disrespecting the coaches, and (in the case of resident psychopath Reeves Nelson) injuring teammates on purpose. This is definitely not the kind of press UCLA wants for its struggling team.
But what did we really learn from the article? That Reeves Nelson is a borderline personality? We already knew that. Sure, he was a very productive player for a year or so, but it was obvious even then that he was an a-hole and was destined to get kicked out of the program at some point. Which he finally was earlier in the season. At least that problem is solved.
It’s the same for pretty much all of the other “problem players” listed in the article. While Howland might have some trouble fighting off the partying ethos that surrounds the program, most or all of those guys are gone now. I can’t say UCLA has been playing better since Nelson’s departure, but at least getting rid of him is a start.
We did not learn that Ben Howland has taken a laissez faire approach to disciplining his players. We learned that he actually just had that approach with his talented players. That is no different than what Jimmy Johnson or a thousand other successful coaches have always done with their stars. But Howland assuming those stars would discipline themselves once all the veterans were out of the program was pathetically naive, but forgivable all the same.
The difference for Ben Howland is that Jimmy Johnson won championships (wait, he coached the Dolphins too???). The Bruins have been bad by their standards (and mediocre by most others) for the past three years.
We also learned that Howland essentially abandoned his principles for highly talented recruits. Virtually none of the guys who took him to the Final Four three straight times were top recruits, but they bought into the system and played their butts off.
The new generation of guys who did a great job destroying that success never bought in because their egos were too big. If Howland is allowed to return as to lead the program next year, hopefully he’s learned his lesson about sacrificing character for talent and will go back to getting guys who will be “all in.”
What matters now is if the UCLA athletic department reacts badly to the article. Athletic director Dan Guerrero (the guy who hired Howland…but also Rick Neuheisel) has issued a tepid response to whether Howland will be retained or not. Guerrero will probably let the season end while waiting to see if the rabbit hole goes any deeper.
Ben Howland and UCLA need to win if they want to keep the party going (pun absolutely intended). I’d be shocked if the school got rid of its coach after this year. But one more bad season , and Howland will definitely be gone and Guerrero will overreact and hire a crazy disciplinarian to replace him.
This story could have been a lot worse. While there has been damage done, all the problems are fixable.
Naturally, it rests with Howland as to whether he will handle problem players more effectively and recruit better character guys back in to the program.