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Special Report: Not the UCLA Way

This story appears in the March 5, 2012 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.

On the evening of Nov. 6, 2007, legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden spoke to about 600 Bruins student-athletes and coaches. The occasion was the debut of The Wooden Academy, a seminar series in which former UCLA athletes and coaches returned to campus to describe how the tenets from Wooden's Pyramid of Success had helped them in college or life.

Wooden was 97 years old at the time. He spoke while seated in a padded chair on a small stage just off the baseline of the basketball court at Pauley Pavilion. To his left was a microphone stand with a long arm attached, which positioned the microphone so that Wooden could sit back in his seat.

Wooden talked about some of the players he had coached, and recited the 15 blocks in his Pyramid, which include cooperation, self-control, team spirit and intentness. Wooden also used a metaphor that will ring familiar to readers of his books. Think of a team as a train, he said, and its star player as the locomotive. There is much more to a train than just that engine. If any part of a train fails, if just one nut or bolt gives away, the whole chain of cars can derail.

At the time of Wooden's talk, UCLA's basketball program was one of the smoothest-running trains in the country. The Bruins had made consecutive Final Fours and would reach a third in 2008 behind freshman Kevin Love, the team's new locomotive, who was in the audience that November evening. UCLA coach Ben Howland would join Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches to lead teams to three straight Final Fours. Howland's reputation for teaching defense and instilling discipline made him appear to be cut from Wooden's cloth.

But then the program started veering off the rails. Two years ago the Bruins went 14-18, only the third time since 1948 (the year Wooden was hired) that they had finished with a losing record. They entered this season ranked 17th in the nation but through Sunday were only 16-13 (9-7 in the weak Pac-12) and needed to win the conference tournament to avoid missing the NCAAs for the second time in three years.

UCLA's fall has been something of a mystery. It has most often been blamed on players jumping early to the NBA (six Bruins have done so in the last four years, including Love and fellow first-round picks Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday), players transferring (five have departed) and even a supposed dearth of quality big men coming out of high schools on the West Coast. Inside the team, however, more fundamental problems have been at work, eroding the sense of unity, leading some players to leave the program and sending the blocks of Wooden's Pyramid tumbling down.

Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams. 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.

Such problems are often symptomatic of underachieving teams, and UCLA provides a fascinating case study. The former players and staff members who spoke to SI offer a detailed inside account of how seemingly minor problems, if left unaddressed, can quickly sabotage even a storied program led by one of the nation's most respected coaches. The Bruins' struggles tell a cautionary tale of the risks of recruiting hyped players, the challenges of managing recalcitrant teenagers and the consequences of letting discipline and accountability break down. Most of all, the problems at UCLA underline the precariousness of college basketball success.

*****

To understand what happened at UCLA, it is important to examine what made the Bruins so successful during their Final Four streak. The program has always had talent. Steve Lavin, Howland's predecessor, twice landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Lavin's teams were said to lack discipline, however, and after a 10-19 finish in 2002-03, UCLA hired Howland.

Howland, now 54, had built his reputation at Pittsburgh as a coach whose teams not only won -- he was named national coach of the year in 2002 after guiding the Panthers to the Sweet 16 -- but also were highly disciplined. He'd been a vocal, tough-minded high school guard in Southern California and later at Weber State, and he liked players who shared his aggressive, hardworking approach. When Howland arrived at UCLA, he earned praise in the media for bringing much-needed order.

The core of the Bruins' Final Four teams came from Howland's first two recruiting classes: Arron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar, Lorenzo Mata-Real and Josh Shipp, all 2004 recruits; and Alfred Aboya, Darren Collison, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Michael Roll from 2005. Not one was considered a surefire NBA player. In Rivals.com's national rankings of high school prospects, only Farmar made the top 25. Most others failed to crack the top 50 (Collison was No. 100) or were barely ranked at all.

In an era in which coaches spend considerable time managing athletes with inflated egos, Howland assembled a mostly selfless group. The players were also mature beyond their years, a vital attribute given that Howland was neither a nurturer nor a player's coach. Other than during practices and games, he had little contact with his athletes, according to players. He showed up moments before a workout began and was gone before players paired off to shoot free throws at the end. Several team members say that his approach was how they imagined an NBA coach would run a team.

The task of indoctrinating a new player -- such as Westbrook, another unranked recruit, who enrolled in 2006 -- fell to the veterans. It was a team of prefects, the protectors of the UCLA dynamic, who looked out for each other, making sure that no one got into trouble, that no one threatened what they were trying to accomplish or what UCLA has always been about. They were a tight group. If they went out, to the movies or a party, they were 15 strong.

That kind of camaraderie is not unusual on good teams, but Howland's former players say he had very little to do with instilling it. He focused on basketball strategy, not team building. Each of the players who spoke to SI said they found Howland socially awkward and disapproved of the verbal abuse they say he directed at his staff, the student managers and the weakest players. One player said if he saw Howland waiting for the elevator he would take the stairs.

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 76ยบ 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.

In a game during the 2007-08 season, several players on the bench noted Howland's frustration with the shot selection of Westbrook, whose freelancing had resulted in several baskets. But rather than substituting for him, Howland informed one of the officials that Westbrook was wearing socks bearing an NBA logo, which violated NCAA uniform guidelines. Howland told the official he had an obligation to remove Westbrook from the game because of his socks. The official claimed to be unaware of the rule and let play continue.

As focused on detail as Howland was, his players had the freedom to enjoy the perks of being a Bruin during UCLA's run to the three consecutive Final Fours. There were nights out with current and former NBA players, television stars and models. One evening the partying started at the Beverly Hills mansion of a wealthy UCLA fan. The Bruins were then chauffeured in a Rolls-Royce to a West Hollywood club, where several players were ushered past a long line of people and given VIP treatment at a table in the back. Says one player, "We'd go back to the campus bars and students would say, 'Where have you been?' We'd be like, 'If you only knew.' "

The players on those Final Four teams were a mature group, however, and they showed self-restraint. They knew that to achieve their goals on the court, they had to discipline themselves off it. That simple realization can separate winning teams from losing teams. And at UCLA, it did.

*****

After its 2008 trip to the Final Four, UCLA lost Love, Westbrook and Mbah a Moute to the NBA, and Mata-Real to graduation. Swingman Chace Stanback, who had spent his first college season tethered to the bench, transferred to UNLV.

Such an exodus would decimate most programs. But this was UCLA, and the Bruins reloaded with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. The 2008 Baby Bruins consisted of three combo guards -- Holiday, Malcolm Lee and Jerime Anderson -- power forward Drew Gordon and center J'mison Morgan. Holiday was the highest-ranked recruit (No. 2 overall), but all were among the nation's top 50 prospects, a distinction not even Michigan's famed Fab Five class of 1991 could claim.

Howland had never signed a group so talented and so widely expected to succeed. Holiday was called a more polished version of Westbrook; Gordon was touted as a better athlete than Love; Morgan was likened to former alltime great UCLA centers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton.

The recruits were famous before they played a game. They would walk into a party on campus and, as one player put it, "the place would just stop."

When practices began in October, however, it was quickly apparent that while the Baby Bruins' talent was undeniable, their levels of dedication varied. Some of the newcomers clearly didn't appreciate the commitment needed to succeed at the top level of the college game.

The seven team members from that year who spoke to SI divided the freshmen into two camps. Holiday and Lee were serious and professional; they had fun off the court but never went too far. Anderson, Gordon and Morgan, by contrast, took advantage of the freedom of being in college and did what many freshmen do. They partied. The trio regularly drank alcohol and smoked marijuana, sometimes before practice, according to multiple teammates. The three players' limited time on the court -- Gordon played the most, averaging just under 11 minutes a game -- seemed to give them license to do more partying as the season progressed. (Anderson, Gordon and Morgan declined to comment.)

Several former team members who spoke to SI cautioned against demonizing the misbehaving freshmen. "We all partied when we first went to college," one says. But while asking for some perspective on the freshmen's behavior, former players said their actions affected the team's unity and performance. Practices were often sloppy because of the three freshmen's immaturity and lack of effort, and some of the Baby Bruins chafed at being treated as anything but the stars they were coming out of high school.

Older players tried to counsel them but with little success. Gordon, for one, was very emotional and reacted harshly whenever criticized, several former teammates say. He often disrupted practices and during one session set an illegal screen on Collison that so angered Collison that the two had to be separated.

Gordon was not punished for that incident, one of many occasions when Howland didn't discipline the freshmen for conduct that was detrimental to the team. One player sensed that Howland was waiting for things to work themselves out; others say they felt that Howland was reluctant to discipline the freshmen out of trepidation that the best of them would transfer or leave early for the NBA. (Citing federal privacy laws, a university spokesperson said Howland would not discuss his handling of specific players with SI.)

At one point in late 2008, Howland lectured the team about drinking, saying that he didn't consume alcohol during the season and asking that the players show the same respect for the program. Reminders to curtail the partying came more frequently from assistant coaches.

On the final day of 2008, Howland met with the team and told players not to go out on New Year's Eve. The Bruins had an early-morning practice scheduled for New Year's Day and were departing for Oregon in the afternoon. Howland stressed that it was time to get serious.

Three members of the team, not all of them freshmen, ignored Howland's orders and attended a giant rave at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. "We did what you do at a rave: We took Ecstasy," says one of the players. The trio did not get back to Westwood until between 4 and 5 a.m. and barely slept before arriving at Pauley Pavilion for an 8 a.m. practice. The players bragged about their night to teammates and commented on how they were still feeling the effects of the Ecstasy.

A few days later an assistant coach phoned the players who attended the rave and asked if they had gone out on New Year's Eve. They denied it, but soon afterward each was ordered to submit to a drug test. "I took something that was supposed to get [the drugs] out of my system," says one player. "I never heard anything about the results [of the test], so it must have worked."

From the outside, UCLA did not appear to be a program in disarray. Veterans of the 2008 Final Four team, including Collison, Aboya, Shipp and Nikola Dragovic, combined with Holiday to help UCLA finish second in the Pac-10. But it was a team divided from start to finish. Just before the postseason, in a last ditch effort to create team unity, the upperclassmen organized a bowling night, but the freshmen blew it off.

UCLA lost to Villanova by 20 in the second round of the 2009 NCAA tournament, ending the Final Four streak. Many on that team would look back on the season as more than just a lost opportunity. Howland had failed to correct discipline problems that would compound themselves in the years ahead.

"Guys drinking, guys doing drugs, guys not taking practice seriously, guys fighting," said one player. "You won't find that on the Pyramid of Success."

On April 15, less than a month after the season ended, Howland summoned to his office one of the student managers, a sophomore who was known to party with the players. The manager had mentioned to an assistant coach that some players drank and smoked marijuana too often during the season and that they needed to get more serious for UCLA to improve.

Howland told the manager that he needed to know who those players were and exactly what they were doing. The manager refused to name names, so Howland told the manager that if he didn't tell him, he would be terminated.

"I tried to be vague at first, told him some of the freshmen had problems, but he kept on me," says the manager. "I was just a college student, and Coach Howland is telling me I have to tell him everything."

The manager eventually told Howland what he knew, but the coach still terminated him. According to the manager, Howland said, "You are just as guilty as the players."

Howland told SI he couldn't discuss any specifics of the situation but said, "In my 18 years as a head basketball coach and nine years as the head basketball coach at UCLA, if I found out that a student manager was partying with some of our players, I would have told him to leave the program. In our program the managers are more closely related to the coaching staff than they are to the student-athletes. In fact, many of my former managers are now successful coaches, and I'm very proud of what they have accomplished."

Several team members were upset by Howland's treatment of the manager, who was devoted to UCLA basketball and, in the words of one player, "would come in and rebound for guys at 3 a.m. if they asked him to." None of the team members from that season who spoke to SI knew of anyone else being punished as a result of the manager's revelations. A few heard that Howland met with a couple of players and told them to clean up their acts, but the players knew of no further action by the coach.

*****

In the fall of 2009, during a routine practice drill, UCLA freshman Mike Moser ran through a team of defenders and was suddenly hit in the chest by a forearm and shoulder that nearly knocked him to the ground. It was the second time Moser had been the victim of an illegal screen from fellow freshman Reeves Nelson, and he'd had enough. Moser told Nelson that if he did it again he would punch him in the face. The drill was reset, and in the words of one player who was present, "Mike comes across and Reeves just hits him again. Mike wasn't a guy who would back down. He squared up and they went at."

Fights in practice happen; competitiveness gets the better of players. But according to team members, UCLA had an alarming number of those to begin the season. A year after bringing in the Baby Bruins, Howland had added five more freshmen, all frontcourt players: Moser, Nelson, Tyler Honeycutt, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover. Only Holiday, who left for the NBA, was gone from the previous year's group, which meant nine of the team's 13 scholarship athletes were underclassmen. With so many gifted young athletes on the team, a dustup or two could be expected in the competition for playing time. But when does a fight signal larger issues?

Is it when the scuffle occurs away from practice, like the one between Nelson and Gordon at a teammate's apartment? Gordon ended up with a black eye. Is it when players are involved in multiple fights? Gordon and Moser had fought previously during a workout. Is it when a player says Howland made light of one of his players receiving a punch to the face? After what happened between Moser and Nelson, one player says that Howland jokingly remarked to him that Howland had been wanting to hit Nelson for weeks. (When asked about the incident, Howland said, "I have never so much as contemplated striking a player in my 30 years as a coach. To think otherwise is ridiculous.")

Even with all the fisticuffs, team members didn't consider those among the lowest moments of the Bruins' 2009-10 season. "Of course you don't want guys fighting," says one, "but we had so much that went wrong that year that it is hard to make a big deal about it now."

As in the previous season, the problems started almost immediately. There were only four upperclassmen on scholarship, and they all lived away from campus. The incoming freshmen started hanging out with the teammates who were closer to their age and living near campus, but once again, not all the freshmen were the same. The mild-mannered Lane got a girlfriend early in the school year and didn't party often with his classmates. Moser and Honeycutt went out, but like Holiday and Lee, they did so cautiously. At the other end of the spectrum, however, were Nelson and Stover, who partnered with Gordon, Anderson and Morgan to form a crew that would further erode team discipline and unity.

All the distractions from the previous school year continued and the partying increased. As a result, practices were even sloppier, the difference between the few dedicated players still in the program and the underclassmen now plainly visible. If you walked into practice, you would see at one basket Mike Roll shooting free throws, using the same routine every time, taking every shot seriously; on another basket Nelson and Stover would be shooting their free throws with one hand or fading away. (Stover declined to comment.)

One underclassman upset about his lack of playing time says he stopped wearing his jersey under his warmups during games. When Howland ordered him to the scorer's table during garbage time in one game, the player responded, "Sorry, Coach, I don't have my jersey on."

"It's something I can't believe I did," says the player. "But there was so much crazy [stuff] going on it didn't seem that crazy then."

Nelson was the ringleader among the freshmen. Because of his toughness, the 6'8" forward from Modesto, Calif., was called "the prototypical Ben Howland player" by ESPN.com when he signed with the Bruins, but teammates came away with a different impression of him after only a few practices. Nelson could be a nice guy, but he had what one player calls "this crazy side."

Nelson often reacted to hard fouls or calls against him in practice by committing violent acts against teammates. He did not deny to SI that he would stalk his targets, even running across the court, away from a play, to hit someone.

Once, Nelson got tangled up with forward James Keefe while going for a rebound. Keefe was playing with a surgically repaired left shoulder, and Nelson pulled down suddenly on Keefe's left arm. That reinjured Keefe's shoulder, and he missed several weeks. Later in the season Nelson hacked walk-on Alex Schrempf, the son of former NBA player Detlef Schrempf, from behind on a breakaway, knocking Schrempf to the ground. The back injury Schrempf suffered sidelined him for months. In another workout Nelson threw an elbow at Lane after the whistle, injuring Lane's ribs.

Walk-on Tyler Trapani was another Nelson victim. After Trapani took a charge that negated a Nelson dunk, Nelson went out of his way to step on Trapani's chest as he lay on the ground. Trapani is John Wooden's great-grandson. (Nelson confirmed all these incidents to SI and expressed his regret, saying, "On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm really just trying to learn from the mistakes I made on all levels.")

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."

But at what cost? Nelson was hardly the player around whom to build a team. He was a classic bully, targeting teammates who weren't as athletically gifted as he and tormenting the support staff. At the end of practice, he would punt balls high up into the stands at Pauley Pavilion, turn to the student managers and say, "Fetch." Nelson frequently talked back to the assistant coaches. When they told him to stop, he would remark, "That's how Coach Howland talks to you."

Many players say Howland degraded his assistants, but only Nelson used that as license to treat the assistants with disrespect. Donny Daniels, a member of Howland's staff since Howland arrived in Westwood, would leave after the season to take the same job at Gonzaga. One player says that when he asked Daniels why he was departing, Daniels kiddingly responded that if he had to coach Nelson for one more season, he would kill himself. (Daniels, through his lawyer, denied making that statement.)

Nelson showed Howland only slightly more respect. By his own admission, he often ignored the head coach's phone calls, and Howland resorted to calling one of Nelson's roommates, asking him to coax Nelson onto the line.

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."

But Nelson's behavior -- and Howland's tolerance of it -- undercut team morale. Combined with the partying of the other freshmen and the three sophomores, it torpedoed the season. UCLA won four of five against weak competition to open the year but then lost six of its next seven, falling to Portland (by 27), Long Beach State (by 11) and Mississippi State (by 18).

Team members say that if Howland had taken a harder line with his young players, most of them would have come around. "But with Reeves," one player says, "the only thing to do was to kick him off the team."

Instead, another player was sent packing. In early December after Gordon departed, Howland told the Los Angeles 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." Gordon had certainly done enough to warrant getting kicked off the team, but team members felt it was not his hard-partying ways that sealed his exit. Gordon was the rare player who second-guessed Howland's coaching, both in practice and to the media. Just before Gordon left the team, he and Howland had a heated exchange in practice over the way Howland wanted Gordon to defend a certain play.

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 that it affected your performance, but the one thing you could not do was question Howland's knowledge of the game.

Gordon's exit failed to change the culture of the program, and New Year's Eve was once again a flash point. Several underclassmen had arranged for a party bus to shuttle them around town, but at the last minute Howland instituted a bed check. An assistant coach would visit the players' apartments and dorm rooms and make certain no one had gone out.

When informing the players of the bed check, Howland remarked, "So there will be no party bus," which led some underclassmen to conclude that they had an informant in their midst. Nelson thought that Honeycutt, one of his roommates, was the rat, and he got his revenge. A short time later, Nelson returned home from a night of partying, piled Honeycutt's clothes on Honeycutt's bed, and then urinated on the clothes and flipped the bed over. When asked by SI about the incident, Nelson said, "I would dispute that that is exactly what happened, but I understand people would say that is what happened. But I think, most of all, you should know that Tyler and I are still friends."

It didn't appear that Nelson was punished for the incident, but players say that Honeycutt was given his own single dorm room. (Through his agent, Honeycutt declined to comment.)

A few months later, when UCLA lost to Cal by 13 in the second round of the Pac-10 tournament, the careers of the program's three seniors, Keefe, Roll and Dragovic, came to a close. For the following season, the only returning scholarship players would be from the two recruiting classes that had caused so much discord.

The program now belonged to them.

*****

By all accounts the 2010-11 season was an improvement. According to five people associated with the team, the atmosphere was better. In March 2010, Howland announced that Morgan was being dismissed from the team for undisclosed reasons, leaving only Anderson and the dependable Lee from the Baby Bruins class. UCLA lost Moser, who transferred to UNLV, but forwards David and Travis Wear transferred in from North Carolina and would be eligible to play the following season. Joining them was a four-man class of recruits. Center Joshua Smith's indolence was a worry, but guards Tyler Lamb and Matt Carlino were hardworking and respectful, and the final recruit, guard Lazeric Jones, was the school's first significant junior college transfer since 1986.

UCLA opened the season 5-4, including an embarrassing loss to Montana at Pauley Pavilion. But the Bruins loaded up on victories against nonconference lightweights and took advantage of another down year in the Pac-10 to finish third in the conference at 13-5 (23-11 overall). UCLA returned to the NCAA tournament, a sign of recovery even though the Bruins lost to Florida in the round of 32.

"It was better," says one team member, "but remember: Reeves was still there."

From the first practice, Nelson's treatment of Carlino was a divisive issue. Carlino suffered a concussion during the preseason that caused him to miss the first three games. Nelson ridiculed Carlino for letting the injury sideline him. He told Carlino he didn't belong at UCLA and wasn't any good. He would yell at Carlino to leave the locker room, calling him "concussion boy." When Carlino returned to workouts, Nelson would go out of his way to set a screen on Carlino so he could hit him. Eventually, players say, Carlino dreaded practice. It was of little surprise when he left UCLA midway through the season and transferred to BYU.

After Carlino left, there was a team meeting at which Howland said he couldn't respect a quitter. "But everyone knew why Matt left," says one player. "He didn't want to keep sitting on the bench, but most of all he didn't want to be around Reeves anymore. That wasn't quitting. That was just smart."

Carlino became eligible for BYU midway through this season and immediately became a standout. Through Sunday, he was averaging 13.0 points and 4.7 assists. He joined the list of recent players who have thrived after leaving Westwood, most for schools in the Mountain West. At week's end Moser was the leading scorer (14.2 points per game) for No. 17 UNLV, and was ranked sixth in the nation in rebounds (11.0 per game). Chace Stanback was the Runnin' Rebels' second-leading scorer (13.6 points per game). Gordon was averaging a double double (12.5 points, 10.9 rebounds) for New Mexico (22-6). Morgan has had the least impact of the former Bruins, but he did appear in all 31 of Baylor's games last year, starting 14. (He is redshirting this season.)

Early in 2011, after the conference season began, players noticed a subtle shift in how Howland handled the mercurial Nelson. "[Howland] always gave Reeves the benefit of the doubt on foul calls in practice so Reeves wouldn't lose it and be even more disruptive," says one team member. "But when Reeves started going up against the Wear twins, Coach would call it straight. That got to Reeves. He started yelling more at Coach, showing him up."

Nelson finished his sophomore season as the team's leading scorer (13.9) and rebounder (9.1) and was selected first-team All-Pac-10. He was a preseason first-team pick last fall, but he lasted only seven games.

On Nov. 14, Howland suspended Nelson for being late to a team meeting and exhibiting other behavior that was deemed insubordinate. Howland reinstated Nelson two days later, but on Nov. 19 Nelson missed a team flight to Hawaii. Howland suspended him again on Dec. 6, a move that was roundly criticized by the media for being inadequate. Three days later, Howland dismissed Nelson from the program.

Nelson's mother, Sheila, told the Los Angeles Times that she wished Howland had been stricter with her son earlier in his career. "I think what my mom was saying was that when I went to college I was just 17," Nelson, who is back in Modesto training for the NBA draft, told SI. "I'm not trying to make excuses for what I did, but I got into some weird behavior patterns, and I think my mom was saying that if instead of one big punishment at the end, what if there had been smaller punishments along the way." In a December interview with the Los Angeles Times, Howland acknowledged that he had made mistakes with Nelson.

UCLA won five in a row against soft competition following Nelson's exit, but when conference play started, the Bruins proved to be only a middle-of-the pack team. Smith, UCLA's most gifted player, was a disappointment. He has admitted to a lack of motivation, but players say that Howland also has babied him, allowing him to miss meetings and arrive late or unprepared for workouts. "Same thing as before," says a player. "Josh is a star and so [Howland] isn't holding him accountable." (Howland declined to discuss his handling of Smith.)

Whether Howland is capable of getting the program back on track is the question of the moment in Westwood. The capital he built up during the Final Four years would seem to have been spent. His winning percentage over the past three seasons (.558) is worse than that of the much-maligned Lavin during his final three years (.574).

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, who through a spokesperson declined SI's interview request, told ESPN.com in January, "I need Ben Howland. Why would I even think about looking at someone else?" He added, "By his own admission, [Howland] made some mistakes. But I'm going to work with him. I'm not going to crucify him for those mistakes. Because Ben Howland is a hell of a coach, and anyone who understands basketball, anyone that's been around him, that knows the game, has the utmost respect for what he does as a coach. ... We need to turn it around, and we all get that. But we will."

UCLA basketball has always had its own special shine, and any tarnish has never been tolerated for long. As tempting as it is to blame immature players -- and they deserve a heavy dose -- the team members who spoke to SI were unanimous in their belief that leadership from Howland would have prevented or at least curtailed the damage. Says one, "Can you imagine the same thing happening at Duke? Can you imagine players getting away with that stuff under Coach K?"

That is hard to imagine, just as it would have been hard to envision four years ago that UCLA would be in its current state. Back then the team was united, the players mature and humble. Who could have predicted a train running so smoothly would go off the rails? Who could have foreseen such a departure from the UCLA way?

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