The line of questioning UCLA coach Ben Howland faced during his weekly news conference Tuesday afternoon was undoubtedly unlike any he'd faced previously in his career.
Word had leaked that Sports Illustrated would be publishing an exposé the next day about what had gone wrong at UCLA since its three straight Final Four appearances, so reporters quizzed Howland about a story that neither he nor they had read.
It's a testament to the ensuing panic among UCLA fans that when Pullitzer Prize-winning author George Dohrmann's story did finally appear late Tuesday night, many expressed relief it didn't contain bomb shells likely to attract NCAA investigators. Instead Dohrmann simply painted the most detailed picture yet of the lack of discipline, accountability and leadership at UCLA that has left the Bruins on the verge of missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.
The picture of Howland the reader is left with is unflattering but not all that surprising. We knew he sometimes struggles to forge a strong bond with his players because he's more of a tactician than a people person. We knew he made some questionable recruiting decisions the past few years. And we knew he was far too lax in disciplining former forward Reeves Nelson to the detriment of the program.
Where Dohrmann really breaks new ground is via the level of detail in his reporting of how Howland lost control of the program. Only now do we have a clearer picture why UCLA's ballyhooed No. 1 ranked 2008 recruiting class was such a flop or why Nelson should have been dismissed from the program long before Howland finally jettisoned him in November.
Among the memorable anecdotes Dohrmann provides:
• Three members of the 2008-2009 team ignored Howland's orders not to go out on New Year's Eve, instead going to a rave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, doing ecstasy and not getting home until well past 4 a.m. The next morning at practice they bragged to their teammates that they still felt the effects of the drug.
• Howland apparently looked the other way when Nelson talked back to assistant coaches, started fights, intentionally injured teammates and even punted balls high into the stands after practice and told the student managers to "Fetch." Nelson's immaturity was directly responsible for the transfers of Mike Moser and Matt Carlino, now starring at UNLV and BYU respectively.
• Nelson essentially confirmed he urinated on a pile of roommate Tyler Honeycutt's clothes and turned over his bed out of revenge. Earlier in Nelson's sophomore season, the forward believed Honeycutt ratted him out to the coaches for renting a party bus on a night when Howland had instructed the team not to go out.
Immaturity and recreational alcohol and drug use like this is hardly unique to UCLA, yet Howland doesn't need these stories surfacing at a time when his popularity is already low. Sandwiched around a second-round NCAA tournament appearance last season, the Bruins lost 18 games in the 2009-10 season and hold a middling 16-13 record this year.
Whether Howland survives may depend on how strong alumni outrage is regarding the combination of the SI.com story and the program's lack of recent success. UCLA fans have been vocal in their disappointment this season, yet hope remains for the future because the Bruins have signed five-star point forward Kyle Anderson and are still in the running for elite guard Shabazz Muhammad and top power forward Tony Parker.
There's no way athletic director Dan Guerrero will be looking to fire Howland next month unless he feels he has no choice. Guerrero has already hired three football coaches during his tenure and there's a school of thought that he might not survive having to also replace the basketball coach he hand-picked to replace Steve Lavin in 2003.
One fortuitous break for Guerrero and Howland is that the existence of a story was leaked the day before it published. Expectations for the story quickly became so out of whack that what was actually written is damning yet seems almost tame by comparison.
Note: The full Sports Illustrated article is only available on the web via its iPad app Tuedsday night. Once it shows up on SI.com Wednesday morning, I will add the link to this post.
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