Sports Illustrated’s provocative piece on the decline of UCLA basketball has sent the Bruins administration into a frenzy, with conference calls this afternoon with chancellor Gene Block, athletic director Dan Guerrero and coach Ben Howland.
Guerrero refused to give an unqualified statement that Howland would return next year.
“At this point in time, we’re assessing all the issues that have come into play,” Guerrero said. “Ben’s got to coach his team this week, and obviously in the post-season, and we’ll address this entire matter at the end of the year.”
Guerrero voiced support for Howland and said it was quite possible the Bruins could return to the glory they knew when Howland led them to three straight Final Fours, and that he likes the path they are on internally. But he stopped short of saying the veteran coach would return in 2012-13.
“We just read the article today,” Guerrero said. “”There are some issues evident in there that have to be discussed. We’re talking less than 12 hours from the release of that article. We still have to do some due diligence in that regard. I don’t want to go out in front of anything in that regard.”
In a separate conference call lasting about 15 minutes, Howland noted that he makes a post-season evaluation with Guerrero every year and expects that to be the case again.
Said Howland, “I am very confident of my abilities to lead this program in the future and feel very, very good about our recruiting class and also the kids we’re involved with (in recruiting) right now.”
One of those is Shabazz Muhammad, a 6-6 shooting guard from Las Vegas who is touted by some scouts as the best high school player in the country.
Admitting that “No question, I’ve made mistakes along the way,” Howland said the Bruins have taken great pains to recruit high-character athletes in the past two classes. He stopped short of saying that there was a diversion from that after the three straight Final Four appearances.
The story, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer George Dohrmann, details how the Bruins declined from those Final Four teams, citing prima donna recruits and Howland’s alleged lack of discipline. Particularly troublesome was Reeves Nelson, portrayed as a player who was allowed to take a destructive path – even injuring teammates – without being disciplined until this year, when Howland suspended and eventually booted him from the team.
As for the physical intimidation Nelson allegedly practiced, Guerrero said, “There’s no way to discount the importance of that, how critical that is. We provide a lot of student-development training to our student-athletes, we spend a lot of time with issues of hazing and alcohol and the like. The one thing we have probably fallen short of is in the area of bullying. That’s very concerning. Frankly, as a result of this particular situation, we’ll probably be adding this to the student-development program.”
Addressing the allegations of physical abuse, Howland said he differentiates between a hard foul in practice or something beyond.
“Never was there any time during my watching, where I felt . . . some kind of assault was going on,” Howland said.
Howland also took issue with the notion that he is distant from his players, another sub-theme of the story. One ex-player said if Howland was waiting for an elevator, the player would take the stairs.
“That’s hurtful,” Howland said, maintaining he has solid ties with former players at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA. “I feel I’ve got a great relationship (with ex-players). One of the great joys in coaching continues to be the relationship I had with former players.”
Kentwood product Josh Smith is not portrayed flatteringly, as Smith’s weight problems are seen as not being addressed severely enough by Howland.
The controversy is one more blow for Guerrero, who has already struck out with two football hires – Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel. Guerrero hired ex-Seahawks coach Jim Mora Jr. in December to replace Neuheisel.
Block, asked if changes need to made in the department, and specifically with Guerrero, said, “I have an athletic director I have faith in. He’s aware of the issues, and as you’ve heard, he’s dealing with them. With Dan’s leadership and my advice, I think we’re going to be able to get back on track. He has all the right Bruin values.”