Originally written on Rumors and Rants  |  Last updated 2/29/12

Sports Illustrated’s bombshell of (slightly overblown) revelations about UCLA’s men’s basketball program and it’s coach, Ben Howland, is a bigger public relations nightmare than it is anything that will get the program into specific trouble. It tells sordid tales of players partying, disrespecting the coaches, and (in the case of in-house psychopath Reeves Nelson) injuring teammates on purpose. This is definitely not the kind of press UCLA wants for its struggling team.

But what did we really learn from the article? That Reeves Nelson is a borderline personality? We already knew that. Sure, he was a very productive player for a year or so, but it was obvious even then that he was an a$$hole and was destined to get kicked out of the program at some point. Which he was during this season, by the way. So that problem is solved.

It’s the same for pretty much all of the other problem players listed in the article. While Howland might have some trouble fighting off the partying ethos that surrounds the program, most or all of those guys are gone now. I can’t say UCLA has been playing better since Nelson’s departure, but at least these things are a start.

We did not learn that Ben Howland has taken a laissez faire approach to disciplining his players. We learned it was just for his talented players. This is no different than what Jimmy Johnson or a thousand other successful coaches have done since forever with their stars. Assuming they would discipline themselves once all the veterans were out of the program was pathetically naive, but forgivable all the same.

 

The difference for Ben Howland is Jimmy Johnson was a winner (wait, he coached the Dolphins too??). The Bruins have been bad by their standards and mediocre by most other standards for the past three years.

We also learned that Howland essentially abandoned his principles for high-talent recruits. Essentially all the guys who took him to the Final Four three straight times were not highly-recruited guys, but they bought into the system and played their asses off. The new generation of guys who did a great job destroying that success never bought in because their egos were too big. If Howland is allowed to return as coach, hopefully he’s learned his lesson about the thoroughbreds and will go back to getting guys who will be “all in,” since that’s the catch phrase in sports now.

What matters now is if the UCLA Athletic Department reacts badly or not to the article. Athletic Director Dan Guerrero (the guy who hired Howland…but also Rick Neuheisel) has issued a tepid response to whether Howland will be retained or not. It’s probably Guerrero is going to let the season end while waiting to see if the rabbit hole goes any deeper.

So Ben Howland and UCLA need to win if they want to keep the party going (pun absolutely intended). I’d be shocked if they got rid of Howland after this year. But one more bad one, and he’s definitely gone whilst Guerrero overreacts and hires a crazy disciplinarian to replace him.

This story could have been a hell of a lot worse. While there has been damage done, nothing unfixable has happened.

Naturally, it rests with Ben Howland as to whether he will handle problem players more effectively and recruit better character guys back in to the program.

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