On the eve of a key early season game against Stephen Curry-led Davidson in December 2007, former UCLA big man Lorenzo Mata-Real recalls climbing into the passenger seat of his coach's car after an intense practice.
Ben Howland drove Mata-Real through Friday rush-hour traffic to Southgate High School, watched with pride when the 6-foot-11 center had his No. 42 jersey retired and then gave a moving speech praising the UCLA senior's character and work ethic afterward.
"That really meant a lot to me that he took the time to do that the night before a big game," Mata-Real said Wednesday. "He spoke to the crowd, said nothing but great things and then we went back to the hotel and got ready for the game. He was there for me then and he's still there for me now."
Stories like that one show why Mata-Real believes Howland doesn't deserve the criticism he has received in the wake of Wednesday's Sports Illustrated exposé about the discipline and leadership issues that have led to UCLA's recent decline.
Mata-Real and other members of the teams that reached three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 describe Howland as a demanding coach who genuinely cared for his players but wasn't afraid to punish them when appropriate. They admit their relationship with Howland was seldom buddy-buddy, but they say he prepared them for life after basketball and he was always approachable whenever they had a school or family issue they wanted to discuss.
Howland's ability to foster camaraderie and discipline among his players has been called into question because unnamed former players and staff members who spoke to Sports Illustrated painted a picture of a program in disarray. They said a major reason UCLA is about to miss the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years is because talented but immature players have come to blows, used alcohol and drugs, and even intentionally injured teammates in practice — all without punishment.
"Man for this story to try and say it was on [Ben Howland] is beyond crazy," tweeted Mike Roll, a UCLA guard from 2005 to 2010. "Coaches cant control how people act while they're in their dorm ...or at parties after games. He supplied us with the work ethic and leadership needed to get the job done. [Because] some players didn't want to do what was necessary to win, cant blame him. He will find the players that are willing to do so."
When athletic director Dan Guerrero hired Howland to replace Steve Lavin in spring 2003, one of the Pittsburgh coach's main selling points was his track record as a disciplinarian. Lavin's freewheeling teams were talented, but they also had a reputation for not working hard, for underachieving and for making poor decisions that landed them in trouble off the court.
Among the first players to test Howland was Lavin holdover Josiah Johnson, a reserve big man on the new coach's first two UCLA teams. Johnson drew Howland's ire for a series of off-the-court incidents, including a fight at a bar near campus that left the senior-to-be bloodied after being hit in the face with a beer mug by an Arizona football player.
"He didn't let anything slide," Johnson recalled. "He definitely approached you, talked to you about it and let you know he demanded more from you as a UCLA basketball player. He talked a lot about respecting the tradition of the program. So I definitely didn't see any of the stuff that was in the article about him letting guys do whatever they wanted to do. My senior year I was in the doghouse for making some poor decisions off the court."
Johnson admits he left UCLA in 2005 still furious Howland slashed his minutes as a senior, but the 6-foot-8 forward gained perspective as the years went by. He has accepted responsibility for his mistakes and reconciled with Howland, even working alongside the coach on a charity project last year.
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"After my senior year, I definitely had some built-up bitterness, but as you get older and go through life, you realize you can't point the finger at coach Howland," Johnson said. "He was not unlike a lot of bosses I've had. He wants everyone to be accountable for who they are as men. Whether it's working for a company or playing UCLA basketball, you definitely have to respect the integrity of the program and approach it like that."
Off-the-court problems were rare at the height of Howland's tenure when he led UCLA to three straight Final Fours. Those tight-knit teams took on the personality of their always focused upperclassmen, from hyper-competitive Jordan Farmar, to tireless Arron Afflalo, to the hard-working Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
"When we would go out, we'd go out to eat or we'd be responsible," Mata-Real said. "We knew what we were there for. We were there to play basketball and get our education, and that's what we did."
According to the Sports Illustrated story, the problems started with the arrival of UCLA's top-ranked 2008 recruiting class and worsened when Reeves Nelson joined the fold the following year. Their immaturity and lack of discipline no doubt played a role in the decline of the program, as did the fact that Howland and his staff missed on some high-profile prospects and made some recruiting blunders along the way too.
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero did not guarantee Howland would be back next year on a conference call with reporters, but Mata-Real believes his alma mater needs to show patience with his former coach.
"We went to three straight Final Fours with coach Howland," Mata-Real said. "He's the same coach still. They have a great recruiting class coming in and that's really going to help them a lot. I'm pretty sure Dan Guerrero's going to be smart. Coach is the right man and Dan knows it."
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