The most stunning part of the story is that it wasn’t stunning.
Sports Illustrated’s expose on the UCLA basketball program, which hit the web Wednesday, will be no surprise to anyone who has watched the Bruins slowly decay in the four years since their last Final Four appearance.
Ben Howland is cold! Reeves Nelson was a knucklehead! The team has been dragged down by bad players and bad guys! Stop the presses!
UCLA should actually be sighing in relief that one of SI’s best reporters could spend two months digging into a marquee team located in a glitzy city and come up with zero NCAA violations, zero academic fraud, zero wrongdoing other than the usual idiot college partying.
The core of this story is an old story — Ben Howland has recruited some bad characters and failed to control them.
The truth of the UCLA program is the same as it was 48 hours ago: if Howland doesn’t win next season in flashy new Pauley Pavilion with a hot new group of recruits, he’s gone.
This story doesn’t run him out any sooner. It shouldn’t run him out any sooner. Three consecutive Final Fours should buy him at least five years to do it again, and just because the world now knows the depths of his fall shouldn’t alter his timeline for redemption.
Although, you sort of wonder. That rush of cold air at Howland’s back Wednesday morning was the sudden departure of Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, who seemingly fled to safer turf and appeared unwilling to take Howland with him.
If you’re a basketball coach in the middle of a crisis, it’s never a good sign when your school schedules two media conference calls, and your bosses are sitting on one while you’re left to dangle on the other.
Howland faced the media alone Wednesday while Guerrero and his new best buddy, Chancellor Gene Block were on the other call. Hey, Guerrero is no dummy.
This accountability configuration was far more damning to Howland’s job security than the story. And what Guerrero said didn’t help.
Asked about Howland’s future, even though there are probably only a handful of games left in the season, Guerrero had no answer.
“We’ll go through the rest of the season. … we’ll see what happens relative to postseason play … then we’ll sit down and talk about the situation like we always do,” Guerrero said, adding, “Certainly, the article raises some issues. But believe me, we were aware of many issues as well. We’ll put our arms around those issues at the end of the season.”
It’s not issues, plural. It’s issue, singular.
Can Ben Howland win games with the sort of high-ranking, high-maintenance recruits necessary to win and entertain in a UCLA environment that demands both? He doesn’t always love coaching those kinds of players, and they sometimes don’t love playing for him, but can he win with them?
Howland’s history shows that he has won mostly with lunch pail guys who willingly submit to his discipline because they are desperate to succeed and think they have no other choice. Howland went to those Final Fours not with a bunch of Kevin Loves, but mostly on the backs of Lorenzo Mata-Real, Alfred Aboya and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Howland’s history shows that when he reaches to the highest stars for a quicker fix, he ends up either dropping them or being crushed underneath them. Guys like Drew Gordon, J’mison Morgan and Reeves Nelson never fit. Guys like Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt scooted out from Howland’s tight grip as soon as possible, even in the face of ridiculous odds. The two rookies have played in four NBA games combined.
As the hype around Howland’s recruits has grown, the environment around the program has decayed, a damning fact that was confirmed by Guerrero when asked if there is a need for a culture change.
“Yeah, there is, there is no question about that,” Guerrero said. “If you look at the successes of our team during the early part of Ben’s tenure, it was built on a solid foundation commensurate with Ben’s coaching philosophy … the past several years, we have broken away from that … Ben has admitted he made mistakes …. we’ve had to live with that.”
Howland should get one more chance to make that culture change, and he’ll have the ammunition in star recruits Kyle Anderson from New Jersey and Jordan Adams from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. But it’s not going to be easy.
As much as he would love to find, recruit and mold eight big guys in stained work shirts with their name on the breast pocket, he needs to win now, thus providing the irony to this growing drama.
Yeah, gritty Ben Howland’s future rests on the glittery shoulders of the same type of player who has placed that future in jeopardy.