- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The recent downturn in UCLA basketball can be blamed on coach Ben Howland losing control of his program when a group of prima donna players began to rebel without consequence, according to a Sports Illustrated story.
The article, first published on the SI.com iPad application late Tuesday night and appearing on the magazine's website Wednesday morning, paints Howland as a hands-off coach who prefers his players to police themselves, but could not maintain discipline when high-profile recruits expected and often received star treatment.
"Obviously this is not a great day for our program or for me," Howland said on a teleconference Wednesday. "I'm responsible for this program and everything that happens in it. If there's any need to make changes, I will make them."
The magazine said it spoke with more than 12 players and staff members from UCLA's past four teams for the report. It cited numerous anonymous former players and other sources associated with the program alleging widespread fighting amongst teammates and players intentionally injuring others during practice, drinking and smoking marijuana before practices and using Ecstasy at off-campus parties.
Many of those deeds went unpunished, according to the report, which alleges Howland "allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale."
"Guys drinking, guys doing drugs, guys not taking practice seriously, guys fighting ... You won't find that on the Pyramid of Success," one player said, according to the report, referencing the philosophy embraced by late UCLA coaching great John Wooden.
Howland admitted there had been "tough times," but cited Wooden's book "Thoughts and Observations by John Wooden" as one of his guiding principles during his time at UCLA.
"I hold Coach [Wooden] in such high esteem. I think anyone that knows me and has followed the program knows that," Howland said. "I also said that nine years ago when I arrived here, the very first thing out of my mouth was that there will never be another John Wooden. I would never be able to live up to him and what he accomplished -- who he was as a man and as a coach. Of course I try strive to follow his ideals and try to support that in our teaching with our players and in our program."
Whether Howland will continue to teach and lead UCLA players, athletic director Dan Guerrero declined to answer directly when asked about Howland's job status for next season.
"We'll go through the rest of the season, and then we'll sit down and talk about the situation like we always do," he said on a separate teleconference. "The article certainly raised some issues, but believe me we were aware of some of the issues."
In 2008, Howland agreed to a new seven-year contract, which runs through the 2014-15 season. He is due to receive $2.3 million in the final year of the deal. Now in his ninth year in Westwood, he has a record of 205-96 going into the final weekend of the regular season.
"I am very confident of my abilities to lead this program into the future," he said.
UCLA's problems began after the last of its three consecutive Final Four runs in 2008, according to the article.
The 2008-09 recruiting class of Drew Gordon, J'mison Morgan, Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee, and Jerime Anderson was among the highest-rated classes of all time, but many of those players did not grasp the commitment required to succeed in big-time college basketball, according to the story.
Gordon, Morgan and Anderson partied before practice, according to the story, and their sloppy play impacted the quality of practices. Three members of the team allegedly went to a New Year's Eve rave and took Ecstasy, the magazine reported.
All the while they "chafed at being treated as anything but the stars they were coming out of high school," according to the story.
"We're talking about a few isolated incidents with a few young men who have made bad decisions," Guerrero said, adding that UCLA has alcohol and drug testing programs in place.
The next season's incoming recruiting class included Reeves Nelson, who wasted little time in trying to establish himself as resident bully, according to the story. He regularly got into fights and intentionally fouled players with the intent to injure.
"We spend a lot of time dealing with issues of hazing," Guerrero said, adding that he never had any players come to him with their concerns and that he speaks to the players often. "The one thing we have probably fallen short of is bullying and that's very concerning."
Nelson and fellow freshman Anthony Stover "partnered with Gordon, Anderson and Morgan to form a crew that would further erode team discipline and unity," according to the report.
Howland said Wednesday he has handled inappropriate behavior by his players correctly, although he declined to speak specifically about individuals, citing federal privacy laws.
"There's no question that I've made mistakes along the way when you look at recruiting in terms of evaluations of players or character in an instance or two," he said. "For the most part, I've been very, very blessed and been lucky to have great kids. We want to recruit great kids, good people. For the most part we've done that."
Nelson, the only former player to speak on the record, acknowledged his part in several violent incidents during practices, including fights and fouls responsible for injuries that kept James Keefe, Alex Schrempf and Tyler Trapani out of action.
"On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes," Nelson said.
However, in a letter to SI released Wednesday night, Nelson's attorney called the article "nonsensical" and demanded a retraction.
"By publishing this false and defamatory attack on Nelson, Sports Illustrated has done irreparable damage to this young man's personal, professional, and public reputation, his good name, and his budding professional basketball career," the statement said. "On his behalf, I demand that you publish a retraction of this article immediately, particularly as to every reprehensible claim made about Nelson therein, and that you identify Dohrmann's sources, if any, who fed him these falsehoods."
Howland denied the allegations of physical abuse.
"The instances you're talking about in the article had to do with hard fouls and cheap shots. Never was there any during my watching and being there for every minute of every practice an assault," Howland said. "A cheap shot is different than a closed-fist punch in someone's face.
"Anything I felt was something serious in nature I would always bring to Dan and my superiors and I would discuss firsthand with whichever players were involved."
Guerrero said some of the allegations mentioned in the story were known by Howland and his staff and they consulted with the athletic director or his staff. Other issues were handled by Howland and his staff, while some allegations came as a surprise to Guerrero, who said they would be investigated.
"Could decisions have been made differently in some regard?" he said. "I would venture to say ... yeah, we probably should have done things differently."
UCLA chancellor Gene Block said about Howland, "He's not perfect. He's admitted both publicly and privately some of his shortcomings and mistakes."
A number of former UCLA players weighed in earlier Wednesday, with several coming to Howland's defense.
"I knew that there were a few bad eggs in the program, but that happens at every program," Minnesota Timberwolves forward and former UCLA standout Kevin Love told ESPNLosAngeles.com. Love played one season at UCLA, in 2007-08.
Lorenzo Mata, who was UCLA's center from 2004 to '08, was vocal in his support of Howland.
"Whoever the Snitch is talking bad about UCLA Bball and Ben Howland really must have no life," Mata said on his Twitter account.
He said that Howland "is a great coach and even better person."
"If it wasn't for him I would not b the person I am today," Mata tweeted. "He's a Winner and he knows how to WIN."
Lee, now a Timberwolves teammate of Love's, said he hadn't seen the report and wasn't aware of the allegations.
"I really don't know what the consequences are. I guess that'd be up to the school or the NCAA. Hopefully everything will be resolved," Lee told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "I'm sure every school has problems. It's how you deal with it."
Star players were rarely punished for disruptions and other players began to rebel, according to the story. One upperclassman, upset over his lack of playing time, told Sports Illustrated that he stopped wearing his game jersey under his warm-ups so Howland couldn't put him in during garbage time.
"There is no question that the story paints a picture of one of our premier programs that causes a great deal of concern. I have questions just like I know you do," Block said in a teleconference Wednesday.
"We've agreed to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the university's policies, procedures and values are aligned with our continued pursuit of excellence," Block said. "We expect all of our student-athletes to abide by our university's code of conduct at all times and to represent us proudly. At the same time, our players must be respected and provided with an environment that makes their experience a rich and rewarding one."
Howland dismissed Gordon from the team in December 2009. It was Gordon's second-guessing of Howland's coaching, not his partying, that got him singled out, a source said, according to the story.
"The message some players took from Gordon's departure was this: At UCLA you could fight, you could drink alcohol and do drugs to the point it affected your performance, but the one thing you could not do was question Howland's knowledge of the game," the story reads.
Prior to the 2010-11 season, Howland announced that he had dismissed Morgan from the team for undisclosed reasons.
Nelson, who allegedly urinated on Tyler Honeycutt's clothes when he suspected Honeycutt had ratted out a plan to rent a party bus on New Year's Eve, continued to be a problem. He regularly verbally abused assistant coaches and staff members and on one occasion, kicked balls into the stands after practice and told the team's managers to "fetch," according to the report.
"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,' " the Sports Illustrated story reads.
Nelson was finally dismissed from the team seven games into this season. Anderson, after a brush with the law when he was arrested for stealing a laptop computer last summer, has seemingly grown up and become a team leader.
But that doesn't mean the problems are gone.
Current center Joshua Smith, another highly rated recruit, has been allowed to underachieve without consequence this season, according to the Sports Illustrated story. Smith showed up for the season out of shape and has been allowed to miss meetings and arrive unprepared for workouts, the report says.
"Same thing as before," an unidentified player told the magazine. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable."
Peter Yoon writes about UCLA athletics for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com contributor Pedro Moura and The Associated Press was used in this report.