First off, let’s all agree on one thing: That “scathing” report Sports Illustrated released on Wednesday about UCLA basketball really wasn’t that scathing at all.
For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, well, on Tuesday word broke that SI’s George Dohrmann- who’d previously won a Pulitzer Prize for his expose on Minnesota basketball nearly 15 years ago- was said to be working on a monster story that was set to take down UCLA basketball.
Like your favorite episode of The Sopranos, this report was supposed to have it all: Drug-abuse, in-fighting, players out of control, and if you read the tea leaves correctly, hints of enough violations to cause an NCAA investigation. While details were sketchy at best, it sounded really bad, especially for UCLA fans. After all, it’s one thing to know you’ve got knuckleheads on your team, like UCLA’s had through the years. Heck, it’s another even to know that your guys might be breaking the law; as fans we’ve learned to live with that. But when the NCAA gets involved? That’s a different story altogether. When fans hear the NCAA is coming to town, well, we tighten up faster than the Vanderbilt basketball team in the final minute of a one-possession ball-game. It never ends well. Ever.
For UCLA fans though, you all can breathe a sigh of relief. Dohrmann’s article hit digital newsstands on Wednesday, and not only will there be no NCAA investigation, but there is barely a single accusation that would catch anyone off-guard who’s been following the program closely through the years. Simply put, this story sent the same level of shockwaves around college sports that one of Rosie O’Donnell’s oversized Pumas would, while hitting the ground on a midday walk: Essentially Dorhmann’s story was loud and noticeable, but not exactly Earth-shattering. Instead of major corruption or NCAA violations, what Dorhmann’s article really uncovered was just a laundry list of accusations which could not only be found in most college basketball programs, but on most college campuses period.
From the article we found out that during the Ben Howland era at UCLA, a good number of players were- gasp- drinking and smoking weed. Some were even doing it during the season, a crime about as serious as jaywalking in New York City. I’m not going to say whether it’s right or wrong (frankly, I’ll leave it up to each player to determine what their limitations are), but what I will tell you is that I’ve been around college athletes for most of the last decade, and if I had a dollar for every one (male or female, black or white) that drank or smoked pot during their season, well, I’d be retired on a beach somewhere. Not writing this article for you today.
More accusations by Dohrmann included one player using Ecstasy (one time as far as we know), and a bunch of guys staying out until 5 a.m. on New Year’s Eve. Again, I’m not saying that’s right… but if it’s wrong, well crap, I hope Dohrmann never launches an investigation into me. It would take him 30 seconds to find something more serious than that in my past.
Of the more troubling accusations in Dohrmann’s piece, most centered on Howland’s treatment of superstar Reeves Nelson. The classic antagonist in this tale, Dohrmann’s reporting basically proves Nelson to be everything that most people who follow UCLA basketball already knew he was; mainly a world-class A-Hole. The many accusations against Nelson include verbally abusing guys in his locker room, physically trying to injure them on the practice court, and in one particularly alarming case, electing to urinate on a pile of teammate Tyler Honeycutt’s clothes. According to Dohrmann’s report, Howland did little to reign in his out of control star, mainly because, according to one unnamed source, Nelson was “producing.” (This is where I should also note that on late Wednesday night, Nelson's attorney released a statement categorically denying the allegations in the Sports Illustrated article)
Again, this stuff is all bad (and in some cases, borderline cruel). It also paints a disturbing portrait of Nelson, Howland and the program that the two co-existed in.
Then again, if you’re asking me if I’m surprised, what I’d tell you is that the proof is in the pudding.
Read any reports on UCLA basketball over the last two years, or listen to well-informed writers like CBS’ Jeff Goodman talk about the program and this is stuff was about as common as common knowledge gets. With the exception of the whole “peeing on his teammates clothes” thing, we knew that Nelson was not just a bad apple, but a literal sociopath who picked on the weak both physically and verbally. And we’ve also known for at least a few months that Howland was at the very least lenient with him… since Nelson MISSED A FLIGHT to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and still went largely unpunished. You don’t have to be a UCLA insider to put the pieces together, and realize there was some preferential treatment going on with Nelson.
Still, the aspects of this article which seem to have surprised people involved Howland himself, and the passive-aggressive nature with which he ran this program. Howland was too often the last person to show up at practice and the first one to leave, a guy described by at least one player as “socially awkward” and someone who preached discipline but rarely practiced it. Simply put, it’s just not the way most of us outsiders envisioned a major college basketball program being run.
Then again, should we really be surprised? Not so much with the individual accusations themselves, but with the idea that these programs aren’t the pristine pictures of harmony that we paint them as from the outside? That not every team is going to get along, not every player is going to buy in, and not every coach is going to be able to pull everyone together? Now, that's not to absolve Howland or Nelson, or to say that their case isn't extreme. It is. At the same time, we should also realize that what happened at UCLA is the rule, not the exception to the rule.
Now please understand one thing: I’m not going to sit here and say “all college sports are evil” or “all programs are corrupt.”
I’m just not that guy, and if anything, I’m the opposite. Go through my archives, and you’ll see that when bad happens, I’m always trying to find some good, I’m always trying to defend the undefendable. Chip Kelly? I think he was in over his head in the recruiting game. Jim Tressel? He was a good guy who got caught up trying to defend his own players. If anything, I’m the ultimate college sports optimist. I’m always trying to believe that the glass is half full, that it’s always the darkest right before dawn.
And I know I’m not alone. As fans, we try so hard to put the teams and coaches and players that we love into the tight little pigeonholes we create in our minds. For the players, we try to pretend that every team we root for is a tight-knit little family of 15 or 85, and not a blend of little cliques and different groups. Which by the way, they are.
Look, I never played college sports, and I bet most of you didn’t either, but a lot of us did play in high school. And you know what I remember from those days? I remember that after practice was over and the game had gone final, guys went their different ways. That’s just how it was. Every group was different. Heck, every guy was a little different. We had good guys, bad guys, partiers, drug abusers, skirt chasers, Bible toters, good students, bad students, early risers, late sleepers. And you know what? We were no different than a million other high school and college locker rooms like us.
It’s the same with coaches. I know we all want to think of our coaching staff as a tight-knit group that pores over film together in the office, eats pizza and busts each other’s balls with bad jokes. Again, that’s a fun little narrative. I also like to imagine college sorority girls have pillow fights before bed every night. But as far as I can tell, that's just not the way it is.
As a matter of fact, just to prove my point on coaches, here’s an interesting quote I saw a few weeks ago. It came from a Q&A with a very prominent head football coach:
The key is when you lose someone, how you replace him. Like when you lose a player and then have to go with a lesser player, you’re not as good. It’s the same with a coach. But more important than that, if you bring in someone you have to constantly preach to keep them aligned, that’s not my job anymore. I’m beyond that. You’re either going to be aligned or you’re not, and if not, you’re not going to coach here. In my year off and visiting programs, I found the No. 1 common denominator of great programs is alignment of the staff.
Now if you did the mental math in your head, you probably realized that the head football coach who said that quote was Urban Meyer. You know, the guy that had two National Championships before 50.
Well guess what? Even Urban Meyer is learning that not every coaching staff is the same. Like the players on the field or the court, coaches are ego-driven and at times self-serving. They don’t always have the best interests of the team and program in mind. They’ve got their own agendas, and everyone is trying to figure out their own path to the top. The idea that everyone is on the same page isn’t just naïve, it’s laughable.
Again, I’m not blaming fans for feeling this way; I do it all the time. But the truth is, there are no sacred cows, no perfect programs. The guys on the field and on the sidelines are human. They make mistakes, mistreat people, sometimes break the law. Yet we continue to set ourselves up for failure by thinking that they're any different than the rest of us.
Remember, there was a time that we thought that Penn State football was the last great bastion of purity in college athletics. We later found out it was a program, school, and community rotting from the inside out. We thought Gary Patterson was running the tightest ship in college football at TCU. We later found out that a handful of his players were prominently involved in a campus-wide drug ring. We thought Miami had finally cleaned up their act, and gotten rid of the shadiness around their football program. We later found out that a Ponzi-schemer was bankrolling their program from both ends. And understand, that's not a knock on any of those programs. Dig deep enough anywhere, and you'll find stuff you don't like.
Luckily for UCLA, nothing that bad happened in their basketball program. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, not only were no major laws broken, there wasn’t enough in the article to warrant a serious NCAA investigation. Yes, morally a lot of bad stuff happened. But in the big picture, it really could’ve been a lot worse.
In the end believe me, I do understand what the frustration around this program is. If I were a UCLA fan right now, I’d be pissed. If I was one of the players who’d been physically or verbally abused I’d want retribution in some way. If I was an assistant, I'd be sending out resumes just to get out of dodge.
But if you’re asking me if I’m somehow surprised about what happened at UCLA, I’m not. Disappointed, yes. But not surprised.
This stuff happens everywhere, and happens a lot more than you’d think.
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