The UCLA men’s basketball program made three consecutive final four appearances from 2006-‘08. Since then the Bruins haven’t made it out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament and are in danger of missing the tournament for the second time in three seasons.
Over the last two months, Sports Illustrated’s George Dohrmann (@GeorgeDohrmann) took a deeper look at the past four Bruins teams and discovered a program in chaos: Players fighting in practice, partying excessively and doing drugs, sometimes before practice. One player even intentionally tried to injure some of his teammates in practice. Coach Ben Howland, known for his hard-line discipline and tactical skills, clearly lost control and respect of his players. Star forward Reeves Nelson divided the team frequently with his bullying and showed disrespect to Howland and his coaching staff on numerous occasions.
George Dohrmann, awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, sat down to talk with us about the exclusive story.
ISI: What piqued your interest in regard to UCLA Men’s basketball, and how did the idea for this story originate?
GD: I live on the West Coast (in San Francisco) and so I follow the Pac-12 more than any other conference. It has been historically bad the last few years, and yet during that time UCLA has underachieved. They should be dominating but have struggled. In December, when it was apparent UCLA was again going to have a poor season, I started asking people I know in the LA basketball community a simple question: Why isn’t UCLA winning? Their answers varied (and were mostly speculation), but there was enough smoke that it felt like a worthwhile story to go after.
ISI: How many interviews did you conduct in preparation for the story?
GD: I talked to former UCLA players and staff members, some parents and AAU coaches, and several current college coaches just to get their read on UCLA. Then in the end I went to different people for comment about what we were writing. In total, probably close to 30 different people, with multiple interviews with many of them.
ISI: Over the course of your research and interviews, what surprised you the most in regard to the information you discovered?
GD: Just that Ben Howland wasn’t the disciplinarian that he had been made out to be. Athletes drinking or smoking weed or getting into fights is something you expect to some degree, but when player after player told me how distant Howland was, how detached he was from his players, that shocked me. It was a case where the image of Howland that had been created didn’t match the reality.
ISI: UCLA men’s basketball is a storied program, how do you believe the proud alum will react to the facts uncovered in your story?
GD: Unlike Ohio State fans, UCLA alums have been pretty civilized with me so far and I think they will take a rationale look at what is going on. It also helps that most are unhappy with Howland, with the losing, and don’t think of him as some deity the way Ohio State fans did with Jim Tressel. They have some perspective that other college football fans often lack. So, while they might be embarrassed and will put Howland on notice, they won’t protest too much and he will get a year to start winning again and to clean up the program. If he can win, they will calm down. If he doesn’t, he is gone.
Stocked with NBA-caliber talent at every position, it’s national championship or bust for North Carolina, which tops the Top 20 of Sports Illustrated’s 2011 College Basketball Preview, dated Nov. 14, 2011, and on newsstands now.
|1. UNC||5. Duke||9. Vanderbilt||13. Wisconsin||17. Cincinnati|
|2. Kentucky||6. Florida||10. Louisville||14. Baylor||18. Arizona|
|3. Ohio State||7. Pittsburgh||11. Memphis||15. UCLA||19. Florida State|
|4. UConn||8. Syracuse||12. Kansas||16. Xavier||20. Alabama|