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!