Struggles Of Howland, UCLA Reveal Larger Problem Within NCAA Hoops

I woke up to a text yesterday from my good buddy Rass (the authority on all things college basketball) that said, “This story about Ben Howland and UCLA is incredible. It’s on today’s SI.”

Next I opened up Facebook and saw the story posted all over the walls of my Los Angeles network, and my mind swelled with anticipation of a tale of corruption, sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, with a possible appearance by several garden gnomes.

I opened up the story (the 50+ audience is picturing a newspaper or magazine; 50 and below are picturing a Google Chrome window…love technology) and set aside half an hour to read the in-depth feature about a UCLA program that has slipped from its historically astronomical standards. The story claimed to have spoken with several sources from recent UCLA teams and cataloged a trend of inappropriate, evil-spirited, and sometimes illegal activity that has plagued the program from 2008 until the present.

A few highlights (or lowlights):

  • A few players going to a rave on New Year’s Eve and taking Ecstasy.
  • Several players smoking marijuana regularly, including before practices.
  • A bench player purposely not wearing his jersey under his warm-up shirt because he felt he was never going to play.
  • A series of exploits by now-dismissed forward Reeves Nelson, including intentionally injuring teammates during practice, undermining the coaching staff, and urinating on teammate Tyler Honeycutt‘s bed.

Having played college sports, my reaction was pretty much, “yeah…and?”

Anyone who has gone to college, let alone participated in college athletics, knows that this is fairly routine behavior at campuses across the nation (with the possible exception of BYU). I’m not saying it’s right and that the behavior doesn’t need to be disciplined, but the actions themselves didn’t draw much surprise out of me.

The story also suggests that Howland stood idly by as the infractions took place, only doling out punishment to players (and a manager) who were expendable. The sources told SI that star players, notably Nelson, were not disciplined because they were essential to the team’s success on the court:

After each of [Nelson’s] incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn’t punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, “He’s producing.”

This was the most telling theme of the story to me and the larger issue that I take away from it. A group of 18- to 22-year-olds is going to have its share of problems, but with the atmosphere of college basketball today it is becoming increasingly difficult to discipline talented players while keeping them in the program.

In the past—the golden age when players stayed four years and rarely transferred—coaches could get away with employing an iron fist when it came to discipline. The SI story invokes the lessons of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, the stern disciplinarian who used a “my way or the highway” approach to his team.

I’ll always remember a funny anecdote from a collection of Woodenisms aptly titled, Wooden. Wooden had a long-standing rule against facial hair on his UCLA teams. After a ten-day break from school one of Wooden’s star players, consummate hippie Bill Walton, came back with a beard. The exchange that followed went something like this (as written in the book):

Wooden: Bill, have you forgotten something?

Walton: Coach, if you mean the beard, I think I should be allowed to wear it. It’s my right.

Wooden: Do you believe in that strongly?

Walton: Yes I do, coach. Very much.

Wooden: Bill, I have a great respect for individuals who stand up for those things in which they believe. I really do. And the team is going to miss you.

Walton immediately went to the locker room and shaved before practice.

Wooden expanded on his reasoning:

There were no hard feelings. I wasn’t angry and he wasn’t mad. He understood the choice was between his own desires and the good of the team and Bill was a team player. I think if I had given in to him I would have lost control not only of Bill but of his teammates.

That was then.

These days players readily transfer or opt for the NBA draft at the slightest hint of displeasure. Sure, a coach is free to stick to his guns and dismiss players that don’t jump on board. The problem is that he’ll be left with no superstars and he’ll be fired within two years.

The SI article also looks at the players who transferred from UCLA (or were dismissed from the team) and how they are doing in their current programs:

Carlino became eligible for BYU midway through this season and immediately became a standout. Through Sunday, he was averaging 13.0 points and 4.7 assists. He joined the list of recent players who have thrived after leaving Westwood, most for schools in the Mountain West. At week’s end Moser was the leading scorer (14.2 points per game) for No. 17 UNLV, and was ranked sixth in the nation in rebounds (11.0 per game). Chace Stanback was the Runnin’ Rebels’ second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game). Gordon was averaging a double double (12.5 points, 10.9 rebounds) for New Mexico (22–6). Morgan has had the least impact of the former Bruins, but he did appear in all 31 of Baylor’s games last year, starting 14. (He is redshirting this season.)

It can’t be easy to explain to the UCLA brass that two former UCLA players are now the top two scorers on the #17 team in the nation—or that other former players are also playing prominent roles in respected programs. The fact that the players that have left are thriving can be seen as an indication that Howland has lost control of his program.

Another way to look at it is that next time a freshman comes in and wants to play by his own rules, Howland will have no choice but to look at him and say, “Whatever you want, son. Just don’t transfer…”

Programs like Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina seem to have done a fine job with balancing discipline with young talent, but when your basketball teams are led by guys named KrzyzewskiCalipari, and Williams, you garner a little more respect out of the box. Plus those teams are assured top-five recruiting classes every year, so even if a player transfers, he is immediately replaced by another blue-chipper (like when Larry Drew II transferred after losing playing time to Kendall Marshall).

Howland doesn’t have that luxury. He’s not even in the same conversation as those three coaches and UCLA, although historically great, is currently a step below those three programs when it comes to national spotlight.

When you consider how quickly college basketball coaches at major programs can lose their jobs, is it any surprise that Howland would let these incidents go unpunished in an effort to keep his young, talented players?

I’m sure he’s not happy that he allowed these things to go on, but at the end of the day he still has his job. For now.

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  • I understand that some coaches give their star player star treatment, but the problem with Howland is the cost of allowing Reeves Nelson star treatment. Reeves’ behavior got worse and he eventually was kicked off the team. Two players (Moser because of playing time) and Carlino (because he was bullied) left the program because Howland favored Nelson. That to me is a misjudgment of talent more than a discipline issue.

    I’d much rather have Moser and Carlino than Reeves. Howland went the other way, and now he’s left with none of them.

    • Colin Ward-Henninger

      Agreed. Perhaps Howland thought the lesser players (in his opinion) would be able to handle it more than the volatile Nelson.
      But you’re absolutely right. Instead of booting Nelson and keeping Moser and Carlino, he tried to keep all three…and now he has none.