In a sea of postings lambasting Ben Howland (“BH”), I think it’s time a “Howler” added to the conversation. I have never posted on Bruins Nation before, although I am avid reader. I am a fan of Bruins Nation insofar as there is excellent coverage of our athletics program and a community of devoted Bruins willing and able to talk about UCLA sports. I, however, have never drunk the “hate our head coaches / athletic director / chancellor / people who don’t agree” cool aid which has dominated the postings on this blog. I, like many of my fellow UCLA alumni, do not have an itchy trigger finger. I believe in our athletics program and will almost always give my head coaches and athletic director the benefit of the doubt. That said, I am not idiot. When a coach is not performing up to UCLA’s standards, they need to go. For example, I was on the fence about CRN’s termination until the Arizona game. At that point it was clear that CRN was a great Burin but a terrible coach—he had to go. I write this posting to chime-in on a few topics that, despite several comments to the contrary, have been drowned out in the frenzied mob calling for a full-scale revolution of UCLA athletics.
I. LETS CUT OUT THE PERSONAL ATTACKS AND INFLAMATORY LANGUAGE
My first comment focuses on the quality and type of postings that have recently proliferated on this blog. It is one thing to put forward a strongly worded criticism of Dan Guerro ("DG"), BH, and the state of UCLA athletics. It is quite another to level personal attacks against individuals who, I can say with confidence, are devoted to UCLA. For example, Bellerophon’s recent posting "Bruin Bites: Chianti Dan and Ben Howland Can Burn in Hell Edition" which starts off "F**k you Ben Howland. F**k you Dan Guerrero." The hypocrisy of posting Bellerophon’s posting is almost palpable. Bellerophon indicts BH and DG for not properly representing UCLA’s image and then proceeds to represent UCLA alumni as mud slingers. See, e.g., "These two incompetent, feckless, pieces of human filth should be run out of Westwood." Name calling is neither productive nor representative of the UCLA image. Moving forward I would ask that the ad hominem attacks cease. It is not what UCLA is about (this, naturally, does not apply to future interactions with the University of Spineless Children) and we as alumni should not resort to petty insults against fellow Bruins.
II. THE SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ARTICLE IS A HATCHET JOB
The Sports Illustrated ("SI") article is a titillating read. It is, however, not a satisfying one. It is chalk full of speculative accusations and anonymous sources. Listening to Dohrmann’s comments linked to the online article, he states that he spoke to "north of a dozen" individuals associated with the program, but that ALL of them refused to disclose their names out of fear of retaliation. This seems a little bizarre. Over a dozen people "associated" with the program confirmed seemingly salacious details about the UCLA basketball program and yet not a single one is willing to stand up and take responsibility for those accusations. The notion of fear of retaliation is quite amusing. UCLA would only be able to retaliate if they were still associated with the program, or were lying and, therefore, subject to suit.
Putting aside the article’s methodology for a second, a careful read of the article reveals that Mr. Dohrmann has an agenda. Lets break down this article. The article’s first attack on BH is that he was a basketball nut, who was distant with his players. To be clear, the criticism here is that BH was socially awkward and generally abusive and that he was more about coaching basketball then being a father figure. Assuming, arguendo, this is the job of a D-1 basketball coach, this accusation does not square with reality. Specifically, many former BH players have already stated that they had a close and personal relationship with BH. I could not find a specific player, who did not already have an ax to grind, that has ever roundly criticized BH’s personal gravitas. Moreover, BH’s success at recruiting players does not suggest some distant, idiosyncratic basketball nut, but someone young men relate to on a personal level.
The article stresses that BH liked things to be a particular way. It details numerous random idiosyncrasies:
The players were puzzled by some of their coach's idiosyncrasies. Howland seemed obsessed with the temperature in the film room. If it was not exactly 76º a student manager was certain to feel Howland's wrath. The water bottles handed to him had to be just cold enough and not too large.
He occasionally kicked players out of pregame walk-throughs held in hotel ballrooms if the players weren't executing properly. Two players recall being tossed, on different occasions, for failing to get low enough on defense even though they were wearing jeans that constricted their movements.
Wow, this is truly the mark of a bad head coach (insert sarcasm). I have worked for a United States Senator, a Federal Judge, and the CEO of a fortune 50 company during the course of my career. Every single one of those individuals was very particular about what they wanted. It is the hallmark of a successful individual. They demand perfection. These facts tell me that whoever was speaking with Mr. Dohrmann was clearly bitter about not living up to BH’s demand for perfection.
The article then goes on to describe a game wherein BH tried to get Westbrook ejected from a game because of the socks he was wearing. Huh? This doesn’t make any sense. It sounds like a bizarre memory that was lost in translation. I seriously doubt this is what happened. Interestingly, this fact is one that does not require a confidential source. A simple detail, i.e., which game this was, would allow follow-up journalists to queue the footage and see if BH was pointing to Westbrook’s socks while talking to an official.
The second, and most damming accusation, is that BH failed to properly discipline his players. Let’s start with the partying. The article states that the 2008-2009 class broke down into two camps. The first was the disciplined team led by Collision and other seniors. The second was the party team led by Gordon. The article indicates that BH spoke on several occasions about the use of drugs and alcohol. New years eve, BH even forbid the team from partying. Evidently three players ignored his order and went out and partied anyways. When BH found out about this misconduct, he required them to take a drug test. He confronted the players and after they admittedly lied, he waited until the off-season to investigate further. He ended up forcing a student manager to reveal what he knew about the conduct. Upon learning of the student manager’s involvement in the conduct, BH fired him. The fact that the article portrays this as an injustice is actually very telling about the "spin" Mr. Dohrmann has put on the article. Student managers are not supposed to support insubordination. Zero tolerance in this area is expected. Going out and fostering continued non-compliance with team rules is immediate grounds for termination, particularly when the head coach has to pry it out of the student manager. BH was his boss and the student manager should not have been confused in his loyalty. It is not a coincidence that Howland’s quote here is: "You are just as guilty as the players." The article claims that there was no discipline applied to those offending players. Somehow, the dots are never connected that six games into the next season Gordon was kicked. This means that there were a substantial number of conversations and discussions with Gordon prior to his departure. Top players do not suddenly leave without some back story. Mr. Dohrmann, somehow, didn’t really get into this aspect. Getting asked to leave a program is what one could call punishment. Mr. Dohrmann attempts to deal with this gaping hole by saying that the real reason Gordon was dismissed was because he questioned BH’s basketball knowledge. Again Mr. Dohrmann makes another "damming" accusation based on more speculation, more rumor. Plus that is simply not what was reported nor suggested by any of the players or BH himself. BH said to the LA times "We have expectations of how our players represent the university on and off the court. When those standards aren't met, there are consequences."
Evidently, Gordon’s removal only cleared the way for the next huge mistake, Reeves Nelson. Before we move on to the physical violence aspect of Nelson’s tenure, let stick to the partying. According to the article Nelson was the partying ring leader. Interestingly, according to the article, BH also tried to stop the partying. The "flash point" of New Year’s eve in 2009 is an example. BH forbid players from going out on a party bus and even tried to enforce this order with inspections by student managers. This led Nelson to allegedly pee on Honeycutt’s clothes because he thought he was a snitch (an allegation that even Nelson says is not really accurate, and Honeycutt did not confirm). The point here is not that the players were clearly out of control. The point here is that BH was not idly standing by not trying to enforce discipline. You must put things in context. These are college kids, stars on campus, and living in LA. They are going to smoke pot, drink, and have fun to some extent. Such is to be expected. What, then, is expected of the head coach? Try to rein it in and ensure it doesn’t affect what you are there to do, win basketball games. Interestingly, the article abandons the partying issue after the 2009-2010 season and beings to focus on how Nelson was abusive. But before we shift to that issue, I think it should be noted that there was no resolution about the partying aspect of the basketball team. Specifically, did BH ever finally curtail the partying? What was the status during the 2010-2011 season? The lack of detail is suspect. My guess, BH finally got the players to shape up with regards to the partying and Mr. Dohrmann, who was putting together a hatchet job, did not want to include it.
The next major allegation in the article is that Nelson was a bully and that BH never put Nelson in his place. From what I can tell, the article is correct about many of Nelson’s serious transgressions. What was never fully hashed out in the article is whether BH knew about them. The article ominously states:
After each of the incidents, Howland looked the other way. One team member says he asked Howland after a practice why he wasn't punishing Nelson, to which he said Howland responded, "He's producing."
This is a hatchet job if I have ever seen one. This "reporting" is based on one bitter players perspective and really is unfair to BH. Who knows what the context of this quote was, and to say that BH looked the other way ignores substantial reports of BH having meetings and conferences with Nelson through the year. More importantly, this suggests, but does not outright state, that BH knew about all of Nelson’s misconduct. If that was the case, Mr. Dohrmann should flat out say it and say how he knows. Instead, he makes some speculative imputation of knowledge argument. The most telling bias is how Mr. Dohrmann used BH’s quote:
When asked by SI why he didn't discipline Nelson, Howland said in a statement: "I firmly believe in the philosophy of giving all of my players the chance to do things the right way. There have been challenges with some student-athletes during my tenure here at UCLA, and we have utilized plenty of resources to help them, the specifics of which very few people would know anything about."
Clearly there are things that were done that Mr. Dohrmann "knows nothing about." BH, in complying with privacy law and making sure to not set a terrible precedent of speaking to the media about former or current players, makes a generalized comment and Mr. Dohrmann attributes this as the response to why BH never disciplined Nelson. Incredibly unfair and incredibly misleading. Furthermore, Nelson, who was the best player on our team, was finally kicked off this year. We have no idea what sort of work BH was doing to set Nelson straight. This information, which is dispositive in my opinion, was not discovered, revealed, or wanted in Mr. Dohrmann’s article.
The article is clearly an attack on BH. Mr. Dohrmann had an agenda and did what he could to undermine BH’s credibility. Considering that Mr. Dohrmann has made a career of taking down coaches, this is not a surprise. Don’t get me wrong. I think that this article did accomplish one thing. It explained why our team has suffered the last four years. But reading between the lines, it also tells me that things might be looking brighter now that the cancer is gone. Reading between the lines, I don’t buy Mr. Dohrmann’s argument that BH has been some absentminded, hell bent on wining at all costs, condoning of violence, coach he is made out to be. There is a reason why a majority of fans on the Insidesocal blog support BH even still. It is because despite what Mr. Dohrmann and many bloggers on this site believe, BH is someone who truly cares about maintaining Coach’s legacy and has, for the most part, been a great for UCLA. Clearly, BH has made some mistakes. The question is simply, has he learned from these mistakes? From what I can tell, he has. If you look at our team today, what do you see? (And yes, I have seen almost every game this season) A bunch of mediocre players who are really playing with substantial effort. They are not faring as well because the talent is simply not there. The fact that Zeke is our best scorer is evidence of that. But these kids are sure playing with heart, and that comes from the leadership of the head coach.
III. HOWLAND SHOULD BE ON THE HOT SEAT, BUT NOT FIRED
As a certified "Howler" (I know some of you would want to replace certified "Howler" with certified nut) I still believe BH should be our head coach, for now. The last four seasons have been mediocre. That is abundantly clear. The three years before that, BH was outstanding. We are seeing a clear contrast between 2005-2008 Howland and 2008-2012 Howland. For what it is worth, the SI article revealed what may have been the problem—cancer in the form of several players who devastated our team. I don’t believe that BH is perfect. I think that he deserves one more year to win the Pac-12 title. If next year we do not win conference play, he goes. Maybe I am being too generous. But I believe that BH is a great coach, and if given some support by the UCLA community, can really be a fantastic coach the next decade. The new Pauley should be opening. The conference will still be weak. I think this is a time for us to rise to dominance. I know that, if anything, this SI article is going to shine a light on BH’s coaching for the next few seasons. I think under that light of accountability, we will see what BH is really made of and see if we can get ourselves another championship. Changing coaches because of one salacious article written by a reporter with an agenda would be a mistake, and send the wrong message about UCLA athletics. Whether Guerrero should go, however, is really another conversation and there, I am much more skeptical (although the simple fact that we are consistently in the running for the Capital One Cup is a huge point in favor of DG).