UCLA’s Ben Howland appears to have lost his way

LOS ANGELES – On a gorgeous Wednesday afternoon outside the Morgan Center, a pair of UCLA athletic department interns were engaged in the ironic task of bolstering the Bruins’ famous basketball program at the precise time it was melting down inside the building.

Ben Howland's future at UCLA was tenuous before an article put his leadership under a microscope.
(Getty Images)

While school administrators were conducting a teleconference in reaction to a Sports Illustrated story that made coach Ben Howland look terrible, the interns were handing out blue-and-gold T-shirts to students in advance of UCLA’s Thursday game against Washington State. They also were distributing team photos, which were taken before the season.

The seventh player from the left in the photo, wearing a smirk and a long-sleeved T-shirt that covered his voluminous tattoos, was Reeves Nelson. The forward was portrayed as an incorrigible bully, malcontent and chemistry killer in the SI story that was published Wednesday morning. He is no longer with the team, but the fact that his alleged actions were tolerated for as long as they were highlighted SI’s indictment of Howland.

The story’s revelations included drug and alcohol use by the players (which makes them fairly typical collegians more than it makes them outlaws). Anonymous former players also described a caste system from the coach, who was said to tolerate more from his best players while berating bench-warmers and support staff. In sum, the story called the coach’s leadership into serious question – and it became clear during the teleconference that Howland’s bosses are not exactly rushing to his defense.

Athletic director Dan Guerrero notably refused to offer any assurances that his basketball coach will be back next year, saying that he would review the program after the season ended. Guerrero defended Howland’s track record but said a query about Howland’s job status was “a fair question” and acknowledged that the SI article was “a stain” on Howland’s record at UCLA.

[The Dagger: SI.com story exposes how discipline problems led to UCLA’s decline]

Howland’s plummet from hero to the hot seat is now about more than a very disappointing 53-42 record the past three seasons. It’s also about a coach who seems to have lost his way.

The Bruins’ three straight Final Fours, from 2006 to 2008, rekindled an aura of the John Wooden glory days and made Howland the most popular coach in Westwood since the Wizard himself. The quick transfer of his success at Pittsburgh to a restoration of UCLA seemed to indicate that the school with a record 11 national championships soon would be adding more banners to the rafters at Pauley Pavilion.

That hasn’t happened. In fact, the program has backslid to an alarming degree.

The the spin cycle of early entries to the NBA – some of them before they were ready – killed continuity. Howland’s increasing recruitment of blue-chip players has had mixed success, sometimes resulting in teams that SI says didn’t work hard and didn’t get along. Combine those facts with the coach’s tendency for stultifying offense and you have one of the nation’s leading underachievers the last three seasons.

Reeves Nelson's suspensions and ultimate dismissal were a big part of the Bruins' early-season struggles.
(Getty Images)

The Nelson fiasco helped sink this season shortly after it began. The junior played UCLA’s first game – a jarring upset loss to Loyola Marymount – and then was suspended for the second – a jarring upset loss to Middle Tennessee. In a desperate gesture, Howland reinstated Nelson, only to see him miss the team flight to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. Nelson caught up with the team there, played the next five games – three of them losses – and finally was dismissed from the team.

Since then UCLA has muddled through the worst Pac-12 in memory as a mid-pack team. The Bruins have no chance of making the NCAA tournament unless they win the Pac-12 tourney, and that would seem unlikely.

[The Dagger: Former players come to Ben Howland’s defense]

Still, Guerrero said Wednesday that he isn’t giving up on this season yet and certainly hasn’t made any decision about next year. And Howland, in his own separate teleconference, stated his confidence that he’ll be the coach of the Bruins in 2012-13.

Part of that confidence comes from the beginnings of a stellar recruiting class, with signees Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams among the highest-rated seniors in the country. UCLA also is prominently in the mix for star point guard Shabazz Muhammad, who will be a spring signee.

But UCLA must wonder whether Howland’s credibility has been damaged to a critical degree by the SI story. It must wonder whether signing another class of superstars will work this time or backfire like it did in the recent past, when Howland couldn’t get his blue chippers to play hard or play together. Mostly, it must wonder what happened to the guy who coached the Bruins to three straight Final Fours but now seems to have lost his way – and whether he can find his way back.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 1, 2012