Story paints UCLA’s Ben Howland as cruel coach who coddled stars, ignored issues to detriment of program

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When word started leaking out on Tuesday that Sports Illustrated had George Dohrmann working on a story about UCLA men’s basketball, the immediate reaction from most was that the Bruins had committed some kind of violation that SI’s resident bloodhound had sniffed out.

Not the case. What was hyped on twitter as a potential bombshell ended up being a terrific look into just how and why the UCLA program — one that was bringing in its best recruiting classes while coming off of three straight Final Fours — has sunk to its current level.

There may not be a single NCAA violation that comes out of the story, but Dohrmann’s findings may be just as damaging for Ben Howland. The picture he paints of the Bruins coach is less-than-flattering. Howland comes off as a coach concerned less with the development of his players as people and more worried about a) their production on the court and b) keeping the star recruits he brought in appeased. According to the story, Howland’s biggest issue was his inability to manage egos and mold a group of individuals into a team:

Howland was neither a nurturer nor a player’s coach. Other than during practices 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.

That became an issue once Howland’s roster was stocked with freshmen and sophomores that had spent their entire high school careers as highly-sought after recruits. The more he let his team get away with, the further they would push the limit. In one anecdote Dohrmann provides, three members of the 2008-2009 team went out on New Year’s Eve to a rave at the LA Sports Arena and did ecstasy, bragging to teammates at practice the next morning how they were still able to feel the effects of the drug.

That was certainly not the only story Dohrmann told about the Bruins’ partying, but to be frank, the drugs and the alcohol were not the biggest issue UCLA had. College kids are going to drink and they are going to smoke some weed and they may try harder drugs. It’s not ideal, but it happens. And it’s also a symptom of the true problem: that Howland had lost control of his team. As a coach, the minute your team is no longer concerned with the repercussions of their actions, you’ve lost them.

And given what Reeves Nelson was allowed to get away with in his time as a Bruin, none of what has happened since he enrolled should be surprising. Dorhmann listed four — four! — incidents where Nelson successfully injured teammates in practice. I’m sure that doesn’t account for a number of times he tried and failed. He started fights with teammates in workouts. He treated Matt Carlino so ruthlessly when Carlino was out with a concussion that the freshman didn’t last half a year in Westwood. After practice, he would punt balls into the stands and tell the student managers to “fetch”.

This is the most telling paragraph in the entire story:

After each of the incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn’t punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, “He’s producing.”

What else do you need to know?

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.