The UCLA Bruins, one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, are a complete and utter mess on the basketball court this season. But after reading yesterday's outstanding investigative piece by Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann, it appears the lack of on-court success might be directly related to the dysfunctional atmosphere that has infiltrated this program over the last few years.
The article focuses on the decline of UCLA basketball as a whole, and fully paints head coach Ben Howland as a driving factor for how things got to this point. Dohrmann spent two months gathering information from a litany of sources, and it's clear that he uprooted the bulk of the issues that have affected this program recently.
Five takeaways about the piece itself and ensuing scandal after the jump...
- From a ramification standpoint, Dohrmann's findings were hardly Earth-shattering. We already knew Nelson was a punk. The not-so-painstaking attempt to articulate him as such, though, ended up being a key portion of the article. We also already knew this program had become a complete embarrassment, and that Howland was at least partly responsible for letting it happen. But in all of the evidence presented - the quotes, the anecdotes, the off-hand remarks - there is not a single violation that was brought to light from two months of digging by arguably the best investigative journalist in the sport. In many eyes, that alone might be more significant than what he did find. Howland is painted as an immense dick, without question. But this isn't a man who has been paying players, handing out free cars, or chartering family members of potential recruits around to tropical locales every weekend on a private jet. He's simply done a terrible job of managing the nuances that go along with running a top program. Is being a pathetic administrator really worse than somebody who undermines the recruiting process by paying amateurs? Doubtful.
- UCLA wisely went into damage control with potential recruits in advance. Administrators were alerted that something big was coming, and made sure to let a handful of recruiting targets know that a bombshell or two would be on the way. And with UCLA still in the mix (chuckle) for elite 2012 recruit Shabazz Muhammed (who it seems has a little issue of his own to iron out), this was obviously a calculated move to both save face and try to score a few extra points with concerned families. Ron Holmes, Muhammed's father, was gracious about being tipped off to the news. "They were proactive," Holmes said. "They let me know that something was coming out and it might be damaging. Reading it, it wasn’t as negative as I thought it was going to be but it was concerning."
- The drinking and drug issues, despite adding vital context, are no different than any other program. Maybe because our society is so watered down to drug use at this point, but a couple of known instances where a few players used marijuana or ecstasy should hardly move the needle in anybody's mind. A long look at any team in the country will uncover drugs being both used and abused by at least a couple of players. What's odd though, is how some people are still ignorant to this line of thinking, and are largely unwilling to come to grips with this concept unless it is completely spelled out from sources. We initially imagined reading about rampant, cancerous drug abuse by UCLA's entire team, or maybe some legendary cocaine party at Charlie Sheen's house on the day before a Pac-10 tourney game. But these are college kids after all, and many have a false sense of self-entitlement from years of being told how great they are. If you are stunned by a couple of role players (at the time) smoking a joint in a parking lot two hours before practice, then you probably haven't lived in America for very long.
- Howland's clock is tick-tick-ticking away. For many years, Howland had this unshakable reputation as an old school disciplinarian. He was unanimously seen as a guy who not only demanded that his players put in serious work on the practice court day after day, but as a coach who commanded the utmost respect at every turn. Of course, now it appears that was all one big fabrication. To some, like the team manager he fired for simply telling the truth, Howland probably exuded the aforementioned 'qualities' on a daily basis, and was that hard-nosed dictator he had a reputation as being. But to his players, Howland was almost like some cranky, out-of-touch grandfather who allowed himself to be manipulated without even knowing it. By pandering to his freshmen and setting a general tone that his kids were allowed to do whatever they pleased as long as it didn't include arguing X's and O's with him, Howland did a masterful job of letting the qualities this program once stood for evaporate into thin air. How do you come back from that?
- UCLA center Josh Smith clearly made the right decision when picking out a college. The pudgy, underachieving sophomore is now the epitome of Bruins basketball - an entitled five-star big man with all of the talent in the world, but none of the work ethic to develop any of it. Smith's refusal to get in shape last summer was borderline strange considering how he could barely stand after a four-minute stretch during his freshman campaign, but oh boy does it ever make sense now. As expected, Smith isn't being pushed by anyone other than himself to improve on the court. And, as we all know, the only thing this kid ever willingly pushes upon himself are containers of french fries. Howland didn't create Smith's attitude and desire to be an athlete, but he sure as heck didn't force him to get his act together. And when a coach fails to discipline top recruits in fear of losing players to other schools or the NBA, the Josh Smith that we see right now is exactly the type of player that you'll end up getting.