Fans of the UCLA Bruins have had a rough 12 months. The football team had the most disastrous and depressing division title you can possibly imagine, winning the Pac-12 South in underwhelming fashion. The basketball team drastically underachieved from their preseason conference title aspirations and will be fighting these last few weeks to try and secure that coveted NIT spot.
Surprise, surprise: In both situations, the problems seemed to start right at the top.
Now ex-football coach Rick Neuheisel tended to make poor staffing hires, produced schemes that were inconsistent with the personnel the team had, and saw his top recruiting classes chronically fail to meet standards. The results built up year after year, to the point to where UCLA was only consistent at producing disappointment and disgust from its fans.
Ben Howland is now experiencing the same thing. After landing solid gold with his first classes and providing a foundation for his team to multiple national championship-caliber squads, he's been drawing blanks year after year. Now, a feature cataloging his failings the past few seasons which also provides damning quotes from players might end up costing him his job.
George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated released his feature on the program, and it does not reflect well on the head coach. The paramount issue almost everyone cites was the failure to manage and control his infamous number one recruiting class.
At some point, Howland moved away from his blue-collar roots of finding the hardest workers and instead taking on the biggest talents, regardless of character concerns. Hard workers are tougher to find in basketball these days, particularly when it comes to being coached up in college. It's much easier to land top recruits based on previous success.
Naturally, that strategy backfired on him, and the repercussions of the failure of that class are still being felt today.
When practices began in October (2008) however, it was quickly apparent that while the Baby Bruins' level of talent was undeniable, their levels of dedication varied. Some of the newcomers didn't appreciate the commitment needed to succeed at the top level of the college game. Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee were serious and professional; they had fun off the court but never went too far. Jerime Anderson, Drew Gordon, and J'mison Morgan, by contrast took advantage of the freedom...They partied. The trio regularly drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, sometimes before practice, according to multiple teammates.
Absent: One particularly telling quote is how much interaction Howland had with his basketball team, and the relationship between players and coach was not particularly good, even on his Final Four squads. Check it out along with the rest of the story after the jump.
Howland was neither a nurturer nor a player's coach. Other than during practice and games, he had little contact with his athletes, according to players. He showed up moments before a workout began and was gone before players paired off to shoot free throws at the end. Several team members say that his approach was how they imagined an NBA coach would run a team.
It seems very much like the UCLA teams that got to the Final Four did well with the schemes that Howland implemented, but didn't really need much help from his in-game coaching. They were a talented bunch that came together, played together for each other, and wanted to win together. Howland deserves credit for recruiting these players of character, but it doesn't seem like he did much outside the actual scheming. If anything, his antagonistic tone helped bring the players together even further.
Absence didn't seem to hurt the Bruins when they were winning big and contending for national championships and had a solid core of high character players to rely on. But when Howland started bringing in recruits who were less-prepared to adjust and acclimate to Howland's tough-minded coaching, you have to imagine this sort of managerial style exacerbated current problems.
Domineering: This is probably the least surprising of all the negative characteristics in the feature. Most good college coaches have to possess some form of control freak characteristics to try and get his team working forward toward a common goal.
However, Howland wasn't even the good type of domineering. He picked some weird stuff to get all pushy over, and he certainly wasn't motivating the team in any discernible way. It sounds a lot like UCLA's success came IN SPITE of Howland's eccentric behavior.
Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers, and the weakest players. One player said if he saw Howland waiting for the elevator he would take the stairs."
The players were puzzled by some of their coach's idiosyncrasies. Howland seemed obsessed with the temperature in the film room. If it was not exactly 76 degrees a student manager was certain to feel Howland's wrath. The water bottles handed to him had to be just cold enough and not too large.
He occasionally kicked players out of pre-game walk-throughs held in hotel ballrooms if the players
There's also a bizarre anecdote involving Howland trying to pull his trigger-happy star Russell Westbrook out of a basketball game that has to be read to be believed.
From my amateur doctor status, I have to say this feels like the case of someone struggling with extreme obsessive compulsive disorder. Howland goes beyond perfectionism and seems to want to correct every mistake that he feels doesn't fit the way he thinks his world should function. It'd sure explain why he keeps on wasting all those timeouts and ends up with none in his back pocket when the game reaches its most crucial moments.
You'd have to guess that after awhile, players would start acting out against this sort of trivial nonsense. More importantly, Howland would begin treating players differently, which is a dangerous way to run a basketball team. Treat people the wrong way and you risk burning all doors into your own locker room.
And that brings us to the biggest problem.
Gutless: Enforcement by far seems to be the biggest issue. There was too much inconsistency.
Howland really took the NBA coaching style seriously, treating his stars with kid gloves while going after the rest of his staff, his mangers, his weaker players. After all, the stars were going to be the ones who would win him games and keep him gainfully employed as UCLA head coach for as long as possible. They deserve preferential treatment because they were the ones who would ensure his long-term survival.
On the final day of 2008, Howland met with the team and told players not to go out on New Year's Eve. The Bruins had an early-morning practice scheduled for New Year's Day and were departing for Oregon in the afternoon. Howland stressed that it was time to get serious.
Three members of the team, not all of them freshmen, ignored Howland's orders and attended a giant rave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "We did what you do at a rave: We took Ecstasy," says one of the players. The trio did not get back to Westwood until between 4 and 5 a.m. and barely slept before arriving at Pauley Pavilion for an 8 a.m. practice. The players bragged about their night to teammates and commented on how they were still feeling the effects of the Ecstasy.
A few days later an assistant coach phoned the players who attended the rave and asked if they had gone out on New Year's Eve. They denied it, but soon afterward each was ordered to submit to a drug test. "I took something that was supposed to get [the drugs] out of my system," says one player. "I never heard anything about the results [of the test], so it must have worked."
You expect serious punishment and dismissal right? This is UCLA! Coach Howland won't stand for this!
After several UCLA players sullied the program with their above actions and multiple more, Howland fired a fairly diligent team manager who partied with them and revealed their names, but took little disciplinary action against the players who were named. Hey, you can't fire the players, and losing your stars means risking your job security. Run with dysfunction, it gets you more wins!
Sounds logical in the short-run--the players won't be here long so discontent will never be permanent. However, these sort of policies in the past tend to lead to a king getting overthrown by his subjects. A similar rebellion is probably stirring now.
The Full Nelson: Combine all these three characteristics above, and you get a toxic headcase like Reeves Nelson.
These incidents below are a small sample of the wrath Nelson invoked on his teammates and the coaching staff.
Plenty in the SI piece a/b Reeves Nelson, who didn't deny committing violent acts against teammates, even running across court to hit them.— Baxter Holmes (@baxterholmes) February 29, 2012
One of the memorable anecdotes from the SI piece involves Reeves Nelson urinating on a pile of Tyler Honeycutt's clothes out of revenge.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 29, 2012
Per the SI piece, Nelson thought Honeycutt had ratted on him for getting a party bus on a night Howland told the team not to go out.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 29, 2012
The most damning details, to me, is what Howland let Reeves Nelson get away with. I'd underestimated exactly how much of a problem he was.— Jeff Eisenberg (@JeffEisenberg) February 29, 2012
SI piece says team members unanimously believed leadership from Howland could've prevented or at least curtailed damage. Hence, that quote.— Baxter Holmes (@baxterholmes) February 29, 2012
Tyler Trapani, it notes in a purposely symbolic reference w/ SI piece's theme, is John Wooden's great-grandson.— Baxter Holmes (@baxterholmes) February 29, 2012
Now, based on all I hear about Nelson, he sounds like a kid in pain. No one does the things he does unless they have serious psychological issues. He did some pretty messed-up things, and he deserves to be ridiculed for his behavior. But Nelson sounds like he has a few screws loose, and he sounds like he deserves more pity and help than simple disgust can manage. He seems like he's trying to fix himself after his dismissal from the program, which should be a good thing for him if he's being truthful.
But you have a feeling if Howland was a better role model, a better person, a better coach, he could've at least controlled or helped Nelson mature at Westwood (and if that didn't work, dismiss him before things got worse). Instead, the worst of Howland seemed to bring out the worst of Nelson, as he let Pauley Pavilion degrade into some strange sort of dystopian Animal House.
You have to imagine an absent Howland caused a troubled Nelson to constantly act out against his teammates without repercussion. A domineering Howland was easy for a troubled Nelson to replicate in practice, and Nelson seemed to relish inflicting pain and taking the pain to an extreme maximum. And of course without any sort of enforcement being made (until this season), Nelson stayed on and improved off the court, but it came at too great a cost. There are just too many off-the-wall issues that have to be addressed, but Nelson is one of those cases (and definitely the most extreme) that Howland really fouled up.
Reeves Nelson is only a symptom of the malaise that's infected UCLA basketball the past few years. Ben Howland was and continues to remain the cause. He needs to find cures soon, or he will soon become the main target of eradication from a suffering Bruins fanbase.