Listening to UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland on Wednesday’s conference call, I couldn’t help but think that his great admission of guilt came unwittingly, disguised as a platitude.
“Our expectations at UCLA are the very highest in the country,” he said. “For us, it’s disappointing. We want to win championships. Championships are what UCLA is all about.”
So, you wonder: Would this be a story if Howland’s team was headed to another Final Four?
It’s pretty clear. I think not.
I’m not casting any aspersions on the Sports Illustrated piece that warranted this response. George Dohrmann is a superlative reporter. It seems Howland, among other things, spoiled a bully in Reeves Nelson. Nelson, who didn’t exactly deny urinating on a teammate’s bed, wants a retraction. Great. But it won’t exonerate Howland, who, of course, wouldn’t be the first coach to have pampered a talent.
What, you think John Wooden didn’t have his favorites?
It’s worth noting that UCLA officials greeted this scandal — a term I use for lack of a better one — invoking Wooden’s legacy.
“John Wooden told us it’s not only important to take pride in our achievements, but how we live our lives,” began Chancellor Gene Block.
“One of the great blessings of my life was to get to know him,” said Howland, a veteran of three Final Fours as UCLA’s current basketball coach and an avid reader of Wooden’s book (one of many) of devotionals.
“Be observant and learn from your mistakes,” said Howland, as if the recitation itself could prove something.
“Always do your very best.”
If you’re a Trojan, these might sound like mere platitudes. If you’re a Bruin, they’re the words of a holy man. Either way, the virtues comprising Wooden’s much-vaunted “Pyramid of Success” represent a worthy goal. They’re something to strive for. But they’re also unattainable — especially if you’re in the cesspool business of Division I men’s basketball.
I mean, what do you expect from Howland when the greatest of all college basketball coaches couldn’t get it right? After all, it’s well known that Wooden himself turned a willfully blind eye to the illicit benefits his players received from a booster named Sam Gilbert.
And what of Wooden’s most celebrated players, those special students who rose to the level of disciples? Anyone remember Bill Walton, Deadhead and pot advocate? What about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who dropped acid and once snorted heroin while at UCLA? His teammate Lucius Allen was arrested on marijuana charges as an undergrad. Mike Lynn was convicted in a credit card forgery case in 1967, in the middle of the great Bruins dynasty.
It didn’t make them all bad guys, just typical college students, which is to say, young and quite capable of recklessness and stupidity.
What’s more, no one would suggest that their personal histories diminish Wooden’s legacy.
Yet that’s the standard now being applied to Howland. The Sports Illustrated story paints the coach as distant and cold. Worse still, he comes off as yet another guy who overindulged his most talented recruits.
I have no doubt that the characterization is, in large measure, absolutely accurate. UCLA takes little, if any, exception to Dohrmann’s work.
Just the same, by the prevailing standards of collegiate malfeasance, this is a most peculiar piece. This isn’t about recruiting violations, runners, agents or boosters. With the exception of a limo ride (what kid’s going to turn that down?), no one is alleging anything that would draw an NCAA sanction.
Rather, several classes of Howland recruits are accused of (and in some cases admit to) getting high, getting drunk, engaging in general misbehavior and fighting among themselves, sometimes even coming to blows in practice.
“High character is not an expectation, it’s a requirement for every Bruin,” said athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Again, laudable sentiments. But put it in context. Not only did some of Howland’s players fail to meet the expectations incumbent upon UCLA basketball players, they acted their age.
I’m not arguing this isn’t a story. Rather, it’s a story because it’s UCLA. And it’s a story because UCLA is not winning — or at least, not winning in a manner commensurate with the program’s Wooden-esque expectations.
No doubt that Howland has failed, as both a leader and a coach. Even he would admit that much.
“There’s no question I’ve made mistakes along the way,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
It’s just that a coach’s virtues and liabilities, or the perception of them, usually depend on whether he’s winning or losing. In 2008, when UCLA made its most recent Final Four appearance, Howland apparently knew how to instill discipline and teach defense. He knew how to harness and cultivate talent.
But now the Bruins are 16-13, still smarting from a 14-18 season two years ago. Now he’s lost control.
So I asked, had he changed?
“I’m pretty much the same person,” he said before adding the requisite platitude. “You’re always trying to improve. I hope that I would be a better coach.”
He’s not a better coach. But it seems he’s a better recruiter. As Dohrmann notes, the class he signed after the previous Final Four included five top-50 recruits. Only one of them remains on the roster.
Fans love when coaches sign these blue-chip recruits. But coaches, especially old-school specimens like Howland, usually find that more talent means less control.
These big recruits tend to have big heads. They’re just kids, but they have options, real and imagined. It’s different from how it was in John Wooden’s day.