I've read quite a bit of reaction this morning to George Dohrmann's extensive piece for Sports Illustrated on the current state of the UCLA basketball program, and the general reaction seems to be (as exemplified by Deadspin's Barry Petchesky), "Big deal. This stuff happens everywhere."
Beyond the fact that UCLA isn't "everywhere"* -- just as the New York Yankees aren't just another baseball team -- I think such reactions miss the larger, and more important, point.
*Petchesky does acknowledge that UCLA's historical standing does play a role in this, but dismissively. Ironic from a writer at the site responsible for this and this. Would anyone be interested in those stories if it was Tavaris Jackson or Jack Zduriencik? That's what's known as a rhetorical question, by the way.
Perhaps the details aren't as salacious as some have come to expect from such investigative pieces, but as an instructive study in how a program -- any program -- can get off the rails, it's excellent. And for those of us who aren't UCLA fans (who are predictably and rightfully embarrassed), it's not really about the parties or the alcohol or the drugs because, as we know better than most, this stuff goes on all over the place, even at successful programs.
What it's really about is the importance of strong organizational leadership as it relates to recruiting. And not just recruiting talent, but recruiting the right kind of talent for a particular coach and program.
One of Petchesky's main criticisms of the piece is this:
It's emphasized that the successful Bruin teams were built around unheralded prospects (only Jordan Farmar was in Rivals.com's top 25), but the 2008 recruiting class was one of the best ever assembled. The implication being that Howland somehow foreswore the "UCLA way," that clean-cut players who work hard are superior to highly-prized prep schoolers.
Dohrmann does indeed make the point that Howland's most successful teams were comprised of less heralded recruits. But I came to a bit different conclusion than Petchesky about the larger lesson to be learned from that.
Of course highly prized prep schoolers aren't inherently inferior to clean-cut players. That's absurd, and not Dohrmann's point. But highly prized prep schoolers who need a lot of coddling? They just might be inferior for Howland, who clearly should have known better than to take on a plethora of high-maintenance divas.
Several players told Dohrmann "that [Howland's] approach was how they imagined an NBA coach would run a team." Basically, as Dohrmann details in other part of the story, Howland has an expectation that players will discipline themselves and each other and generally just take care of their stuff.
There's nothing wrong with that, per se. But if you're going to run a program in that fashion, you better be darn sure that you're recruiting guys with a lot of self discipline, especially when you take into account the many, um, distractions in Westwood.
There are highly touted recruits who fit that mold. Many of them have ended up at Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, etc. For whatever reason, Howland hasn't gotten them to UCLA in the last few years. And whether that's because Howland didn't look deep enough into his recruits' character or because he left too much responsibility to his assistants or whatever, the buck ultimately stops with Howland -- just as it did with Bill Doba, who earned the same results as Howland when he compromised on character after a similar run of success.
That's why this is a cautionary tale for Ken Bone, who is only just now truly recruiting his own players with this most recent class. Fortunately, I think Bone got to learn his lesson with last season's run-ins, two of which came at the hands of guys recruited by Tony Bennett, who didn't seem to mind parenting his players. Because those weren't his guys, Bone got a bit of a pass. But as things played out, it appeared from the outside that Bone did have a bit of the same laissez faire attitude about his program as Howland. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that ... but you better be filling your program with guys that are good at taking care of their stuff so that you can take on the occasional talented knucklehead.
I believe Brock Motum and DaVonte Lacy fit into that mold. It appears Richard Longrus and Brett Boese fit into that mold. Here's to hoping Que Johnson and Richard Peters do, too, because as Howland shows, it's a heck of a lot better to prevent a problem by never recruiting a kid -- no matter how talented -- than to try and deal with it after the fact.
Strong organizational leaders understand that. Howland clearly didn't.