The Puppy Who Lost His Way

What I’m about to say is one of the most insanely idiotic things you will have ever heard. At no point in my rambling, incoherent response have I even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award myself no points, and may God have mercy on my soul.

Ben Howland is a lost puppy.

George Dohrmann’s wonderfully detailed piece in Sports Illustrated – this one, though I’m sure you’ve already read it – illustrated just how much Howland has lost his way.

Only he can find his way back.

He’s done it before, resurrecting a sagging UCLA program that was coming off its worst season in terms of winning percent since 1946. Two years after inheriting a program that had fallen off, Howland had the Bruins back on track, perhaps even ahead of schedule, in the Final Four for the first of three straight years.

His teams were pillars of defensive discipline, hard-nosed, tough. Angry. I didn’t get a first-hand view of the teams, but it’s impossible not to have caught them even sporadically on TV. Often, during late-March. I actually covered the Bruins’ win over Belmont in the first round of the ’06 NCAA Tournament for one of my first “big money” freelance assignments – for the Nashville City Paper. I saw the same things that everyone else saw: guys who were dedicated to the system, a coach who instilled a set of principles and trusted his players to abide by them and a program that was quite healthy.

It was healthy, of course, only because the two most vital organs were healthy.

The head: Howland, firm and steady, true to himself and his principles. Convicted.

The heart: UCLA’s team leaders, from Arron Afflalo to Darren Collison to Russell Westbrook, guys whose work ethics were beyond reproach.

Even when Howland seemed to go against his identity somewhat with the class of 2007 – Kevin Love, as a one-and-done, was a first for Howland at UCLA (Trevor Ariza was really a Steve Lavin recruit) and Chase Stanback wasn’t, and isn’t, particularly known for his gritty defense – you could easily attribute that being a product of a small class. After all, if Howland had a few more scholarships, he would’ve found the next Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or even the next Westbrook, right?

With Love and Westbrook gone – and also Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata – Howland was faced with a difficult dilemma: He could take advantage of the cred garnered by a rarely accomplished three-year stretch or he could continue to assemble classes with varied talent, from superstar to role player.

Howland took advantage. And then some.

While UCLA’s 2005-2007 classes ranked 13th, 21st and 12th, respectively, the Bruins reeled in the country’s top class in 2008. Five players, 22 stars between them, and they believed it should’ve been 25. They followed with the No. 9 class of 2009.

By Year 2, when all but Jrue Holiday remained – the top recruit, the smartest recruit and the most upstanding recruit of the ’08 class – from the first class and Tyler Honeycutt, Reeves Nelson, Mike Moser and Brendan Lane were added, the cancers had taken hold. Drew Gordon was run out after six games, J’Mison Morgan followed after the season. UCLA finished 14-18, and it was quite the dysfunctional year.

Nelson became a media darling for his tenacity, everyone overlooking the Glare, that scary look that he had all the time. It was a scary look. Fans thought it was just intensity. Clearly, as Dohrmann reported, it was more than that. The atmosphere created by Nelson and fostered by Howland was one of a playground at recess. The bully thrived and the teacher was either too busy – or to afraid himself – to punish.

We thought that Howland had gone back to righting the ship last season, when the Bruins rebounded to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. We thought Howland had reeled Nelson in a bit and with Joshua Smith taking a massive leap in 2012 – instead of just being massive – and the addition of the Wears and two senior guards, UCLA could be back in the Sweet 16 at the very least. The media voted the Bruins the preseason conference favorites, and who could blame them?

Only the culture permeated. And spread.

Over the summer, a UCLA assistant coach told me, I thought in jest, “Watch what happens when Reeves doesn’t start.” I kind of blew it off. Yeah, like Howland wasn’t going to start a returning all-conference player. We all know how that worked out. Nelson was booted less than two months into the season. The Bruins regressed, and now stand at 16-13 with two games left in a season, potentially the second time in three seasons that they’ll miss the NCAA Tournament.

And then, this.

Howland must look at himself long and hard in the mirror. Self-reflection doesn’t even begin to describe the level of ownership that Howland must take for the failures of the program. Because that ownership can lead to the success of the program.

Howland has found out that he is not John Calipari. UCLA fans don’t need him to be John Calipari. They need him to be Ben Howland. The Ben Howland that found Mbah a Moute and Afflalo and Collison. The one that turned good high school prospects into great college players into valuable NBA commodities. The one that can teach defensive principles like Stevie Ray Vaughn taught guitar lessons.

He’ll likely get another chance.

Reaction to the Sports Illustrated piece has been a mixture of outright shock, righteous indignation and a bit of sadness that a once-mighty program had fallen, but overall the vibe is, “It could’ve been worse.” The Morgan Center is up in arms – they’ve hired a crisis management team – but unless some major catalysts push for change, it’s still a longshot. Howland is not out of the woods by any stretch, his records in 2009-10 and 2011-12 cement his status on the hot seat.

Only he can cool it off.

By most accounts, the players he has either brought in for the 2012 class or hopes to bring in – the already-signed Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and the up-for-grabs Shabazz Muhammad and Tony Parker – are not just quality players but quality guys.

This is a tough game, this college basketball thing, and it’s only going to get tougher. It’s on the head coach to maintain a sense of direction, guided only by his compass. Howland did it for a long time. But now…

He’s a lost puppy.

He just needs to find his way.


Knibb High Football Rules!

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  • KarlMorgan82

    Whoa whoa whoa, Mr. Gold. The part of the story I don’t like is that the little boy gave up looking for Happy after an hour. He didn’t put posters up or anything, he just sat on the porch like a goon and waited. That little boy’s gotta think ‘You got a pet. You got a responsibility.’ If your dog gets lost you don’t look for an hour then call it quits. You get your ass out there and you find that fucking dog!

  • Anonymous

    I’ll go ahead and read the rest of this blog entry momentarily. But I just want to say that your opening italicized Billy Madison line is the greatest quote in any Adam Sandler movie, ever! Kudos.

  • So you’re saying Guerrero is the little boy?

  • uscfd

    If 10 years ago someone told you that someday ucla football would be on the same level as ucla basketball, you would have been ecstatic.

    Everyone knew the football team had a drug problem, even though it takes 3 positive tests to get suspended for a game. Do as much as you want until you get caught twice, then be careful or maybe the coaches will just stop sending you for tests.

    Everyone knew the football team had discipline and motivational issues. Mora promises to change the culture. It should have happened years ago.

    Now this with basketball. Not just the players but Howland’s lack of control and the way he treats his assistants that the players pick up.

    Where is Guerrero? Find him and show him the door.

  • ucla-of-the-rockies

    Jon, thanks for shooting straight from the heart.
    Sometimes, that’s what you gotta do.
    You’ve called it very fair now through the toughest football/basketball stretches I can ever remember. And I still laugh at CBH living up to his “I would kiss you if …”
    I don’t like it that Reeves is at the center of this, becuase he knew the writer years back through AAU and, perhaps worse, the writer has ties to crosstown.
    But where there is smoke, there is usually fire.
    Personally, I feel this may truly have to start with Dan Guerrero. I’ll just leave it there.
    And if so, may the heads roll, and roll quickly. I don’t want to make any excuses like they sit and do cross-town, sanction after bloody sanction.
    We’ve watched the product delude to such a point that if this is what’s been at the core, may we please clean house … and by that I mean thoroughly.

    And please, please, may a gutty band like the young, under-sized 1980 NCAA runner-ups that first captured my basketball heart as a kid rise up in Westwood again.

  • bruincheerleader

    Jon, Great job…and you hit it on the head with the word ‘sadness’…as a former cheerleader who watched from the hardwood floor both KAJ, then known as Lew Alcindor, and the great Sidney Wicks both win NCAA championships, i am saddened by all of this and want it cleared up fast…if that means Howland and Guerrero gone, so be it…UCLA has been tarnished and in the eyes of the sporting public we are now no better than u$c, ohio state, penn state, oregon, and uni of miami…all tranished school reputations…

  • JC


    Last time I checked puppy’s don’t ,ake 2 million a year..

    CBH goes into these kids homes looks in their parents eyes and tells them as long as their at UCLA he’ll watch over them and guide and lead these young men. He hasn’t done that at all and in the process let a lot people who trusted him with their kids down. I love UCLA with all my heart but I wouldn’t let Howland say hello to my kid at this point.

    BH and Dan “strap it on Guerrero” need to be fired ASAP…

    Kick Rocks Howland!!!!!!

  • gilligan

    I am a USC fan with no axe to grind but out of curiousity, did Coach Howland really look the other way at every major infraction from Nelson and the rest of the ‘top’ rated recruits? I always thought he was was a tough coach but this article makes him very soft and alienated from the team. I don’t think he deserves to be fire and I doubt the fan base will tolerate another NCAA-less tournament team next year. Why would anybody want to play with someone like Nelson and at the same time why would Howland tolerate Nelson’s behavior toward his assistant coaches. This article makes Howland look very weak. At the same time one needs to really applaud the members from the 3 Final Four squads b/c they worked extremely hard and exhibited the true meaning of ‘TEAM’.

  • bibs

    Great story Jon.Howland needs to learn from this immediately and get results or be fired.

  • Cliff


    I love your blog. You should have broke this story.

  • Anon

    here’s the problem I have with ALL of the beat writers… you are supposed to be journalists. not just typical Internet blog writers who can’t write above the 10th grade level…

    if this behavior is going on and you are witness to it, you are supposed to write it.

    Nelson did a lot of crazy stuff but the media kept writing around it. When he was finally dismissed, the media just reported that his actions warranted the dismissal but gave no details. If he was acting out at all these practices and events, then someone should’ve noticed it and reported it rather than just sweep it under the rug.

    Howland was wrong by covering his ears and hoping it would right itself. But the media was wrong for not doing its job and reporting facts. Sure, the media is not supposed to report rumors because respected journalism requires reporting facts and direct observation. But I can’t believe that no media members witnessed anything.

  • Anonymous

    Jon, are you chagrined that somebody else wrote this story, when it should have been you????

  • The Blur

    Why are you guys harassing Jon about not writing this “story?” Did you not know that college athletes drink and smoke weed? Did you not know Reeves Nelson was a head case?

    Jon’s work on Ucla is far better than this SI drivel. I’ve never seen any of his posts quote ” a former player.” Jon didn’t write this story because it isn’t one.

  • 15-Year Season Ticket Holder

    Howland and UCLA ignored the Broken Windows Theory. But everyone can now see that even the “little infractions” matter.

    Three positive drug tests before you’re suspended? How could UCLA possibly allow such low standards?

    I’m no fan of Coach K or Duke, but at least they know how to run things like adults. One positive test = possible suspension. Two positive tests = suspension for 50% of the season. Three positive tests = termination.