UCLA is already defending its basketball program from a Sports Illustrated cover story that doesn't hit newsstands until Monday. The piece, which describes a culture of discipline problems and pervasive drug use, will be addressed by Chancellor Gene Block and Athletic Director Dan Guerrero in a news conference at 12:30 pm.
SI writer George Dohrmann spoke with former and current team members over the course of two months. He describes the precipitous decline of the program, immediately following three consecutive Final Four appearances:
Fistfights broke out among teammates. Several players routinely used alcohol and drugs, sometimes before practice. One player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment.
Coach Ben Howland is called out in the piece for being obsessed with minute details while neglecting to address systemic problems:
Howland seemed obsessed with the temperature in the film room. If it was not exactly 76º 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.
Howland is also described as being verbally abusive to some players, refusing to discipline others, and firing a student manager for fraternizing with players. The coach will hold his own conference call with reporters at 1:30 pm.
Former forward Reeves Nelson is pinpointed as both a source and symptom of the team's problems. Dohrmann describes Nelson as bullying other players, disrespecting assistant coaches and degrading student managers -- telling them to "Fetch" as he punts a basketball up into the bleachers of Pauley Pavilion. In another anecdote, the player, who was kicked off the team earlier this season, is described as retaliating against teammate and roommate Tyler Honeycutt, who he suspects has ratted-out plans for a New Years Eve party bus to the coach:
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.
Up until his dismissal in December, Nelson moderated a Facebook fan page for himself, mostly in the third person.
Go ahead and read the full Sports Illustrated piece yourself.
[Updated at 2:10pm February 29]:
"We all know the special place that UCLA basketball holds on this campus and beyond, so any injury to the program is an injury to all of us," Chancellor Block said in a prepared statement. "There is no question that the article paints a picture of one of our premiere programs that causes a great deal of concern."
"After conferring with Dan Guerrero, we've agreed to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that university's policies, procedures and values are aligned with a continued pursuit of excellence."
It was unclear what those steps would be, however, since both the chancellor and athletic director were reluctant to point to any specific changes that would be made.
Asked specifically whether Coach Howland's job was in jeopardy, Guererro said any decision will have to wait until the end of the basketball season. "Ben's got to coach his team this week, he's gotta coach his team, obviously, in the tournament, and the post-season if we get in that, and we'll address this entire matter at the end of the year."
When the Chancellor was asked whether Guerrero's own job was at risk, he said it was not, adding, "I have great confidence in what Dan is doing; he has all the right Bruin values." Cue the 8 clap.
Guerrero downplayed the significance of events chronicled in the article, saying, "We're talking about a few isolated incidents here, with a few young men who have made bad decisions; we're not talking about the entire program."
Of course, the entire argument of the Sports Illustrated piece was precisely that these are not isolated incidents but a indicative of a systemic problem.
For his part, Howland said, "I am really, really proud of what we've accomplished both in terms of wins and losses, and also just developing players and moving them forward from when they first get here as young kids just out of high school to young men and adults when they leave."
He called his portrayal as detached and disliked by players "hurtful," adding, "One of the great joys of coaching has been and continues to be the relationships I have with many of my former players."
Howland also denied presiding over a program where player-on-player violence was tolerated.
"A cheap shot is different than a close-fist punch in someone's face," he said. "Anything that I felt was something that was serious in nature, obviously I would always bring to Dan and my superiors and deal with whichever players were involved."