Friday, March 2, 2012

Fire UCLA's Coach Howland? For What?

Should UCLA coach Ben Howland be in hot water, in danger of losing his job? Certainly, but not for the reasons you think.

That notorious Sports Illustrated story, charging that the UCLA basketball program is chaotic and out of control, is a tempest in a teapot. The fear was that writer George Dohrmann had uncovered some NCAA violations that would torpedo the program. But he didn't come up with anything scandalous, nothing that people close to the program haven't known about for years. Yes, Howland can be a cold, abusive jerk. Yes, his best player, Reeves Nelson, is a bully and a bonehead who was running amuck, unchecked by the coaching staff. Yes, the players like to party.

But so what? Do you fire a coach for those accusations?

What Howland did wrong was tolerate Nelson's transgressions for way too long, allowing him to morph into a disruptive monster, menacing coaches and players. Finally, after two years of Nelson's ugly antics, Howland kicked him off the team last December. Also, the players weren't acting like choir boys and Howland didn't do anything about  it. But they were simply doing what other college boys do, what other college players do--drink, smoke weed and chase coeds. It's possible to do all that and still win basketball games. Players all over the country do it all the time.

Dohrmann dredged up no program-crushing violations--like player payoffs, like boosters paying for hookers, like players abusing steroids, like drug parties, like players hanging out with shady characters. Aside from the Nelson mess and Howland's surly personality, nothing surfaced in that story but frat-boy foolery. People close to the program way before the Howland years insist that UCLA players have been partying hard for years. But those teams were constantly winning so nobody cared.

No question Howland should have reigned Nelson in. What would Coach K or Rick Patino or Roy Williams have done in that situation? How long do you think they would have tolerated an outlaw like Nelson? But Nelson was given so much slack by Howland because he was the best player on the team, one the coach felt he couldn't afford to lose. At Duke or Kentucky or any other big-time hoops college that's routinely stocked with five-star studs, Nelson wouldn't have been The Man. He would have been surrounded by players that are equal or better. At those schools, a coach intervention probably wouldn't have been necessary. An arrogant ass like Nelson would have been squashed by the players themselves

Howland deserves blame all right, but mismanaging the team was a minor blunder. Where he blew it was in  recruiting. Since the 2006-2008 Final Four teams, he's signed talented players who haven't developed into stars. That famed No. 1 recruiting class of 2008 never amounted to much. His bad judgement and coaching skills have put him on the hot seat. It's a simple as that.

Look at Duke and Syracuse and Kansas and the other crown jewels of college hoops. There's a constant flow of pro-calibre players running through those schools. The best ones play one year and graduate to the pros. At those schools, reloading--finding more Grade A players--is a cinch. They're in the Top Ten every year. After those three consecutive Final Fours, Howland created high expectations.  Everybody thought many of the nation's best high school players would flock to Westwood, like they did in the Wooden era. But that didn't happen.

Howland's skill isn't handling super-talented players who're forced to endure that mandatory year in college before jumping to the pros. Few of those players want to come to UCLA. He's best at finding promising, B+ players and forging them into winners. He hasn't done that. For that reason, he should be hanging by a thread.

At 17-13, UCLA isn't good enough to shine this post-season. AD Dan Guerrero may dump Howland after this season but it's not likely. The coach will probably get one last chance to field a first-rate team next season in remodeled Pauley Pavilion. Howland may have signed two saviors for next season, Kyle Anderson from Jersey and Virginia's Jordan Adams.

But another season like this one, and Howland is history.