UCLA Confidential

Why Ben Howland will be fine, even if he'll never quite be good.
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For any number of obvious and very good reasons, it seems as if it would be pretty terrible to be a college basketball coach. Logging marathon game-tape sessions; attempting to placate/develop teenagers who have been more placated than developed through stunting adolescences defined by the self-interested adoration of cynical youth hoops types; the grind of recruiting and the gritted-teeth engagements with the wealthy defectives that comprise the booster base; two thousand types of pressure at all times—there are, at the very least, jobs out there easier on a person's stomach, hairline and morals.

So it's little wonder that so many college coaches look fried and frazzled and anxious and so very, very unhappy. A bedraggled, mostly righteous competence seems about the most that can be hoped for from these guys—the cracked saints, like the half-mad John Chaney, are rare and mostly retired, and John Wooden is dead. Given the circumstances and the way the job self-selects for ultra-driven, ultra-competitive operators, it's amazing that even some college basketball coaches give the appearance of being comparatively well-developed, and possibly even kind, Type A Humans.

A great many don't. UCLA's Ben Howland, who was previously Pitt's Ben Howland, has never seemed either extravagantly flawed or especially nice—there's a certain implied discipline and starchy virtue, if you squint at it long enough, in his robustly dull, defense-and-rebounding style, but that's about that. The coach himself throws off little in the way of warmth or anything else, but he doesn't project the Man With Serious Problems vibe of Kansas State's shrieky Frank Martin or Texas Tech's prickly and actually-troubled Billy Gillispie. If I even have an opinion of Howland as a person, it is based on how little I enjoy watching his teams play, and to a lesser degree on Howland's relationship with the surpassingly sketchy California prep basketball skeeze-emperors the Pump Brothers, which was revealed in George Dohrmann's terrific Play Their Hearts Out. All of which is to say that I didn't really have an opinion on Ben Howland as a person.

Dohrmann has a blockbuster piece in Sports Illustrated about the decline (into nasty, ill-tempered lassitude) and fall (into Pac-12 irrelevance) of Howland's UCLA program over the last three years, and it is impossible to finish it without developing an opinion of Howland. The players Howland recruited in the post-Kevin Love years—foremost among them the appallingly tattooed forward Reeves Nelson, who comes off more like an especially vicious and overstated character from Oz than an actual human being—are the piece's most apparent bad guys, given the way they break rules and bust balls and bully ball-boys and generally take advantage of the spectacularly wide disciplinary berth their talent and circumstances afford them. But they're also and inextricably kids.

Kids alternately coddled and bullied, but mostly exploited in a depressingly offhand way, by Howland himself, who comes off as a weirdly distant and self-absorbed C-suite type, albeit one with a tyrant's special talent for belittling the people he can afford to belittle and truckling to those he can't afford to belittle. All of which is a generally if somewhat depressingly fine way for a coach to be, provided his team wins, which Howland's Bruins have in the past, and have not recently. That recent exile in just-lost-to-Oregon-State shitsville, more than anything, is where stories like this, and paragraphs like this, come from:

"Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams," Dohrmann writes. "They portrayed the program as having drifted from the UCLA way as Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale. Fistfights broke out among teammates. Several players routinely used alcohol and drugs, sometimes before practice. One player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment."

And it is also how members of the coaching fraternity, like former University of Houston coach Tom Penders, come to write things like this about Howland:

In a way that inside-the-collapse political memoirs aren't, there's something poignant about Dohrmann's portrait of a program in multiple and precipitous declines, on and off the court. The stakes are higher, here, in a weird way—if a political smash-all like Game Change is just processed malice directed at one group of ugly people by another, and relayed to a third group for consumption by members of all three, the people involved are at least adults, generally with money. In the same sense, a failed-state basketball team like the effectively feral Washington Wizards is an idle and mostly harmless sort of awful—every unsocialized one of those goofballs has made his money, and is due to make more of it; they're old enough and certainly paid well enough, that their failures are mostly theirs.

And that failure-ownership applies, to a certain extent, with regard to the players Howland recruited, and then half-watched through their collapse into a taller and more athletic version of Lord of the Flies; as Dohrmann points out, Howland was similarly distant from the high-character teams he took to three straight Final Fours. Swap Darren Collison and Aaron Afflalo and Luc-Richard Mbah a Moute out for a bunch of blue chip crypto-sociopaths, though, and that respectful distance suddenly looks like accountability-dodging neglect. In an interview with Yahoo Sports Radio, Dohrmann explained that Howland began recruiting a different type of player—the sort of deep-blue chip national recruits made available through his relationship with the Pump Brothers, instead of the humbler UCLA-blue chips on which he made his name, and which he showed an impressive ability to coach up (hard as it is to believe now, even Russell Westbrook was not a terribly highly sought-after recruit). In his Twitter defense of Howland, and condemnation of Dohrmann's snitches, former UCLA big man Lorenzo Mata-Real seems implicitly to acknowledge this. That it took a sudden negative turn in the team's results to reveal Howland as an isolated, arbitrary executive cynic doesn't make it less true, or make the revelations any less damning. It just means that running a program the way Ken Lay ran Enron, albeit with less Chamber of Commerce-scented pop evangelism and more of an attachment to defensive fundamentals, can work, at least for a while. Anyway, anyone who bothered to already knew as much.

If it's tough to muster any tears for Reeves Nelson, and it really is, it's also true that he and the other players who turned the Bruins program into a bully-ruled suckhole of casual cruelty and ill-tempered entitlement got far too much rope and far too little attention from the coaches serving in loco parentis, and that they got both at what's absolutely the wrong time in their lives. And it's true, too, that the rest of these players' lives will be colored by this.

From the story—which includes a unanimous (if anonymous) chorus of teammates who were fucking terrified of the guy—Nelson does indeed seem like a pretty bad guy. But he was, at the risk of belaboring what's mostly a chronological point, a teenager—and still nearly is, as the kinda-sorta remorseful Nelson is just 20 today—and one whose worst teenager habits were passively (and sometimes less passively) abetted and reinforced by a group of grown-ups too distant or self-interested or otherwise occupied to tell Nelson to shut up and stop intentionally injuring his teammates during practice. Reeves Nelson's decision to, for example, piss on roommate (and now-Sacramento Kings forward) Tyler Honeycutt's entire wardrobe because he thought Honeycutt was a snitch is not the sort of thing that can really be blamed on anyone but the guy directing the urine, finally. That no real, non-cosmetic discipline ever found Nelson before Howland finally and non-negotiably kicked him off the team earlier this year, though, is not White Adebisi's fault.

Howland could've done as much—"It's not possible [that Howland didn't know about this]," Dohrmann said in his radio interview. "A lot of it went on right in front of him... There's no way you could say they missed this." But because the offender was the team's best player, Howland and those working under him missed it, thoroughly and repeatedly.

The awful, awful teenager at the center of all this teenage-y awfulness is, to a certain extent, what Nelson will always be, at least in the eyes of whatever basketball team considers and quickly un-considers him for employment. The former University of Michigan center Josh Moore, who played professionally in three of the most difficult nations on earth—the United States, China and Iran; I got to know him while writing about the last stop—is now a basketball coach in Los Angeles and a father and a smart, settled, grown-ass dude; he also came off as a brash, cocky dick in some stories written about him while he was still in high school, and was kicked out of Michigan by then-coach Tommy Amaker. In the eyes of prospective future basketball employers, Moore told me some years ago, "I'm going to be 18 years old for the rest of my fucking life." Kids, even tall and talented ones, who burn down bridges while in their stupid, brutal youth may not ever span that divide. This is something to think about before pissing on one's roommate's stuff, at the very least. But Nelson's abject villainy doesn't make the persistence of teenage transgressions any more fair, especially in contrast to the way in which even the most compromised coaches can and do reinvent and re-reinvent themselves, and justify making the same cynical mistakes with different and no less cynical excuses.

Nelson is almost certainly cooked, professionally—he was a fringe-y NBA prospect before the full anti-splendor of his bully-boy sociopathy came to light, and is far further out on that fringe now. Howland, on the other hand, is almost certainly not. If UCLA fires him, and they may well not, Howland will find a job someplace else; if Billy Clyde Gillispie can manage it, the much more accomplished and less outwardly effed-up Howland certainly can. That big-time college basketball coaching seems to feature a disproportionate amount of blinkered, petty mini-autocrats clearly owes a lot to the rigors of a job that selects for that personality type. But it's also one of very few jobs this side of high finance and national politics that so reliably allows men so stunted and mis-prioritized to flourish so much and so lucratively, and with so little chance of a real calling to account. In that way, and maybe only in that way, it's actually a pretty good gig.


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